My wife and I are baffled by our sister-in-law's behavior and truly need some advice.
My brother, his wife Deb and their family live in the same small town as my parents. This town is an eight-hour drive from us. Hence, we visit for special occasions or just to spend time with my aging parents a couple of times each year. We also like to get together with my brother's family while we are in the area.
Five years ago, my mother confided in me that Deb was avoiding her and giving her the ice treatment. My mother had no idea why Deb was treating her this way. We had noticed this behavior but figured it was a temporary thing and that my mother and Deb would work it out. After two years of this treatment, my mother apologized to Deb for whatever she had done, and it rectified their differences. Mother never did figure out what had caused the riff.
My wife and I are now the victims of the same treatment. It started three years ago and continues to escalate. It is to the point where Deb will not even come over to visit us when we are in town.
After my father's funeral two years ago, I caught her alone and made a genuine, heartfelt apology to her and asked her to forgive me for whatever I had done, and told her that she was truly loved by my family. Her reply was "It's okay, I got over it a long time ago." Yet, the ice continues. What can we do to rectify this situation in a sensible, mature manner?
Frostbitten: Well, that takes the cake. I've often apologized for things I never quite got around to doing. Sometimes, that's just the best way to put it all behind you, whatever "it" might be. And apologies, I've learned, are quite easy to deliver, especially when you aren't really sorry because you didn't really do it. But I have to tell you, Frostbitten, in my whole sorry excuse for a life, I've never apologized for something that not only did I not do it but I didn't have the foggiest idea what "it" was. Even Joseph Stalin, during the purges of the '30s, came up with stuff that people had allegedly done. That way, they could confess before being taken out and shot. But you've confessed without even knowing the crimes you're accused of. How Kafkaesque!
And how silly of you. Not that I don't think you owe your sister-in-law an apology - another one, I mean. Yes, it will need to be genuine and heartfelt, but that should be easier to pull off this time since you will feel genuinely and heartfeltingly sorry for what you've done. What have you done? I'll tell you what you've done. You've gone along for years assuming that your sister-in-law was mad at you without bringing the subject up with her. And then, when you finally did bring it up, you still didn't ask her what the hell she was so mad about, you just issued a blanket apology for "whatever" you did. Do you realize how annoying that would sound to someone who's already annoyed with you? What if she's mad because nobody ever asks her how she feels?
I'm not sensing a whole lot of intimacy in your extended family, Frostbitten. Why, for instance, haven't you been able to take your brother aside and ask him what's going on? And is Deb so closed off that nobody could even hope to reach her? If you want my advice - and you said you did, although you may have changed your mind by now - you need to sit Deb down and have a nice long conversation with her.
Don't apologize. Just ask, listen and learn.
To talk to the hand 'cause the rest ain't listening, write to: MR. RIGHT, ISTHMUS, 101 KING ST., MADISON, WI 53703. OR CALL 251-1206, EXT. 152. OR E-MAIL MRRIGHT@ISTHMUS.COM.