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Carolyn Hax: Another holiday with ‘nosy, rude and catty’ sister-in-law

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Carolyn Hax is away. The following first appeared Nov. 4, 2009.

Dear Carolyn: I do not get along with my sister-in-law. She is nosy, rude and catty, and it is very difficult to be around her for more than a few minutes. However, it is important to my husband and me that we spend time with his brother and our nieces and nephews, so we continue to be friendly and take whatever she dishes out (asking how much things cost, opening drawers in our home, eating our food without asking, asking personal questions about our relationship, gossiping about other family members, talking nonstop about herself, etc.).

For the holidays, can you give me any advice for dealing with her without letting her get to me? I consider myself a friendly and patient person, but sometimes I just want to scream or leave the room when she’s around.

Name Withheld: Who will read about this “nosy, rude and catty,” food-scarfing, drawer-rummaging, boundary-trampling wildebeest you describe, and recognize herself? “Hey, your sister ‘Jane’ wrote to an advice column about me!”?

For her to be open to seeing herself in such an unflattering light, she’d probably need both humility and self-awareness — and people with humility and self-awareness don’t rummage through a person’s fridge/drawers/business uninvited. Right?

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Now flip that around: To be as intrusive as you describe, your sister-in-law would have to be oblivious to her own rudeness. Either that, or she is arrogant or consciously bad — which is possible, but cluelessness and self-absorption make more sense.

That’s why, in your last line, you’ll find your first step: Do not regard your sister-in-law as someone who thinks like you. The reasons she doesn’t recognize the boundaries you think are obvious — different culture, values, brain chemistry, whatever — don’t matter so much as the result. She is, for your purposes, a visitor from another planet, a planet where creatures move in and out of one another’s lives without recognizing this thing you know as privacy — or friendliness, or patience.

Now take this argument a step further, and note that for her to be unaware of how intrusive she is, there has to be something she finds sympathetic about herself or her ways.

What could that be? How does she justify her actions to herself? Or, what forgivable frailty drives these actions? Reach for ideas. Then supplement those ideas with this: Why did your brother-in-law date her, fall for her, marry her, raise children with her? (Her strengths, please, not just his weaknesses.)

Even if you throw out your expectations and spin her strawlike assets into gold, I still wouldn’t expect you to like this sister-in-law.

But good thoughts about her are essential, because an intense dislike of someone so easily becomes a self-justifying one: No one wants to be the bad guy, so time with enemies is often spent in search of new reasons to blame them for our own hostile feelings. It’s a natural process — and it’s exactly the process you need to thwart if you want to get through roast-bird season without screaming.

Force yourself to challenge, even debunk your hostility, and foment acceptance instead. Who knows — looking at her from a new angle might reveal heretofore expertly concealed charms.

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