Rivalry Between Brothers-in-Law

Q: As Yom Tov approaches, I do appreciate the brachah of having our children and their families with us, and I’m not making light of this gift. However, the type of conversation that goes on can be very difficult — not among our children, but rather among their spouses.

Two sisters who got along quite well growing up have husbands who often compare their Roshei Yeshivah, the schools that their children attend, the neighborhoods they live in… They are quite self-conscious about their children’s behavior, if they leave messes where they go, if they share toys — the list goes on.

My husband and I are conscientious about complimenting children, and grandchildren, equally. However, one son-in-law is almost arrogant towards the other, and I can see that his wife is embarrassed by his behavior. The offended brother-in-law then makes jokes about the other’s comments, which just ups the ante. This leads to the two sisters feeling the need to defend their husbands’ behavior. Unfortunately, due to this friction, these two daughters are no longer close in the way they once were.

Any thoughts on how to address this situation?

A: There is a reason why parents are careful about which sets of children spend Yom Tov with each other. Each family has a different chemistry and different ways of interacting with their extended family members.

There is a particular difficulty that occurs when extended family members only come together infrequently. Their relationships do not have the chance to be built up enough, and they lack recently-shared life experiences to fall back on. There is a natural conflict-resolution process that occurs with one’s nuclear family when family members encounter each other on a day-to-day basis. This process involves sharing time and daily life experiences, where compassion for each other is created, and giving the benefit of the doubt occurs. Though as parents (and grandparents), the memories of the past and earlier relationships seem very clear in our minds, in the minds of our children they can appear as ancient history.

There is a natural tendency to follow the ways of the person most close to us — our spouses. And our children’s spouses, our sons- and daughters-in-law, have to deal with their own issues and life disappointments.

The fact that Rambam says in Hilchos Melachim (12:5) that in the times of Moshiach there will be no more sachrus (competition) shows that competition and comparing ourselves to others is part of the human condition in our present-day galus. (Though there is a positive side to competition, that of inspiring others to do greater things, that is clearly not what is occurring here.) Your sons-in-laws have their own challenges, and the issue of comparing family situations is a sensitive one.

On the most simplistic level, avoiding the situation where mis-matched families are together for a long period of time is the best way to go, l’chat’chilah. However, when this cannot occur, sometimes speaking to your daughter (with the difficult husband) in a way of compassion, not of being judgmental, can be helpful. Using the “cushion method” — saying something kind and positive first before discussing the difficult subject, is the way to begin. Then, after the uncomfortable subject is broached, a closing comforting remark is added. In this way you could attempt to problem-solve this uncomfortable situation with her.

However, if you think that your daughter will only become defensive and angry, then you need to go back to the old adage: “Close your mouth and open your wallet.” This is not to say that you need to give only in a material way to your daughter, but rather that your advice is not desired and may cause shalom bayis issues. You can show your caring about her, and her family, in other concrete ways, be it through giving of your time, or through monetary giving.

Parents of adult children need to deal with their own disappointments and accept their children’s present realities. “K’chitzim b’yad gibor — as arrows are in the hands of the warrior (Tehillim 127:4), a parent’s job is to help our child soar into their future. Where the arrows land is no longer our responsibility.

Hatzlachah in finding this most difficult balance.