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updated 9/4/2008 4:55:27 PM ET 2008-09-04T20:55:27

Q. My sister-in-law was heavily involved in my family’s life. She baby-sat for my daughter, paid for my daughter to take gymnastics, piano and horseback lessons, and provided all the gear. She was always happy to help, taking a break from school when her mother needed full-time care after surgery. When my husband and I were having trouble doing all of the housework, working full time and spending quality time with our little girl, she happily agreed to come over a few times a week and run some laundry and clean up.

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But then, a year ago at a family gathering, everyone was feeling a little tension because my sister-in-law (my husband’s sister) asked to be repaid for the groceries she had been sent to get. We have always been honest with each other, so I was surprised by how offended and upset she became when we told her she should be happy to contribute to the family. She left in a huff.

Later, she told me she had an opportunity to study in Italy, but to be able to afford to go, she needed to take a part-time job and would be able to watch my daughter only two days a week. She told me “how very sorry” she was and that I had three weeks before she started her new job.

Obviously, I was outraged. How was I going to find a free baby sitter three days a week!? In my anger, I told her that I had no need for her services anymore and we would make other arrangements immediately. She took this statement literally, because she didn’t show up to fetch my daughter from school the next day, and I had to leave work to pick her up.

We hardly heard anything from my sister-in-law for a few weeks. Whenever anyone called and asked her to do something, she would just say, “I am sorry I won’t be able to; I have another commitment.” This went on for two months. My daughter was heartbroken. Her auntie who had been in her life every day had just abandoned her!

I wrote her a long letter telling her how much she had hurt her niece and how upset I was. She wrote me a short note in reply saying that my daughter “was always welcome in her home” and that she had been seeing a therapist who encouraged her to break ties with the family because of “dysfunctional patterns” and all this stuff. She sounded like a robot!

It has been a year now. She sends gifts for my daughter on every holiday but never comes near the family. I recently discovered that my daughter, who is 10, has been e-mailing her every day for months. And my sister-in-law responds! She told my daughter that she needed to get my permission to write to her, but since she responds to most of the e-mails and I was never told, I guess this wasn't that important! The e-mails are all stupid stuff — my daughter tells her about school and grades and what her little friends are doing. My sister-in-law responds by asking questions about all the nonsense and sometimes recommends books to read.

I want to confront my sister-in-law about her behavior. I think it is awful for her to sneak around with my daughter. How should I go about talking to her in a way that isn't going to make her defensive?

A. You should start with an enormous apology for taking your sister-in-law for granted.

The therapist is correct to use the term “dysfunctional.” It sounds as though your family would gladly take and take and take, as long as your sister-in-law would give. She paid for your daughter’s lessons, did your laundry several times a week, provided free baby-sitting, bought groceries — and you have the audacity to be offended and upset when she recoils from these excessive demands!

It sounds as though your sister-in-law finally had a wakeup call, and it occurred to her that you and the rest of the family would take advantage of her forever, until she finally refused. Her motivation to study in Italy might even be sparked by a need to put distance between herself and the family that was sucking her dry. She has every right to live her life as she sees fit, to take a job, to study overseas and to stop being your indentured servant.

Three weeks is plenty of time for you to find a new baby sitter. As for how you are going to find a free one? Good question! Did this not make you think you should show some appreciation for your sister-in-law? After expressing your outrage that she dare take a part-time job to fund her time in Italy and start her own life — and this is after she already interrupted her schooling to care for her ill mother and spent money of her own to pay for your daughter’s lessons — you expect her to continue picking your daughter up from school every day? This is quite amazing.

It sounds as though you need to work on your own communication skills and figure out why you and your family feel so entitled to treat this young woman like Cinderella sweeping the ashes, refusing to let her go to the ball.

It sounds like your sister-in-law is a very giving and kind person, and your family took advantage of her generous nature. This has no doubt created a much bigger rift than there would have been had you expressed gratitude for all her help rather than annoyance whenever she was not at your beck and call.

Sometimes, when people realize they have been acting like a doormat, they go too far in the other direction to set boundaries. It sounds like you are on the receiving end of this.

When you wrote your letter to your sister-in-law, did you say how sorry you were for taking her for granted? No, you accused her of abandoning your daughter. Now you are accusing her of “sneaking around” with your daughter! Never in this whole time were you thinking of her. It was all “me, me, me” and “more, more more.”

She responded appropriately by saying your daughter was always welcome. She also suggested your daughter confide in you. If your daughter didn’t, it is likely that the little girl has picked up the message that you are angry with the sister-in-law, and she doesn’t feel comfortable telling you she wants to maintain an e-mail relationship with her aunt. You have demonstrated to your daughter that the only way you will have a relationship is on your own terms.

Your sister-in-law has not abandoned your daughter. In fact, you should be appreciative that she is sensitive to this little girl’s needs and is e-mailing her back and patiently indulging her with all of this “stupid” little-girl “nonsense.” Instead, again, you have an accusation. This time she is sneaking around. No matter what your sister-in-law does, in your eyes she is doing the wrong thing.

So you are wondering how to talk to your sister-in-law without making her defensive? I suggest you say you are so terribly sorry for all your attacks and demands, and you now realize that she went above and beyond in contributing to your household and being a friend to her young niece. I suggest you acknowledge to her that she has her own life and is perfectly entitled to study in Italy or do whatever she wants that does not include being your maidservant, baby sitter, nurse, financial provider and laundry service.

Though you and your husband might have your hands full with work and child obligations, it is your task to figure out how to manage. It’s wrong to expect any relative to subjugate her life to yours. If your sister-in-law does something helpful for you, you thank her profusely for doing so. Maybe you even do something helpful for her. You do not express outrage that, no matter what she does, it is never enough.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Taking others for granted ultimately drives them away. To repair the damage, you must acknowledge what you’ve done, apologize and show your appreciation.


Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.

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