Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. My sister-in-law is a spy: My sister-in-law is friends with my husband’s ex-wife. According to my husband, while they were married, his ex-wife complained about her constantly. But for whatever reason, they seem close now (which they have a right to be, I realize). We’ve found that whenever we show up to family get-togethers or vacations, my sister-in-law is in constant contact with my husband’s ex-wife, even texting and calling her while we’re all out together, sending her pictures of the kids and what they’re up to, etc. I could understand this, maybe, if the kids were unhappy or my husband was trying to keep the kids away from her. But they co-parent quite well, and my husband encourages the kids to talk to their mom whenever they want while they’re with him. I don’t want to vacation with my husband’s ex-wife, and I don’t want a spy on my vacation—we are entitled to family time and privacy. And I find it strange that my sister-in-law and my husband’s ex don’t see how this behavior crosses the line and makes us uncomfortable—or, if they do, continue it anyway. It feels like we are being spied on by our own family.
Other things are more hurtful. For example, when my sister-in-law and my husband’s brother come into town, she won’t tell us, but she will coordinate with the ex-wife to see the kids (even though we have shared custody and are just as likely to have them). She has in the past skipped plans with all four of us in order to visit with the ex-wife. And during one visit, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law spent the day at the pool club (that we pay for) with the kids and my husband’s ex without even telling us they were in town. (We usually find out from my mother-in-law, but in this instance we found out from Facebook.)
I could use some advice on how to approach this. My husband has tried speaking to his brother about his wife’s behavior (and his own hurtful failure to himself reach out and/or object—my brother-in-law is a terrible communicator, which is also an issue). Yet, within an hour of our current vacation starting yesterday, my sister-in-law was talking about conversations with my husband’s ex-wife prior to the trip in which she was seemingly instructed on the kids’ emotional needs (with the implication that we aren’t meeting them by giving enough hugs). I strongly disagree with my sister-in-law’s parenting style, including the fact that she often makes her daughter hug people. I could use some advice on how to address this (the spying, not the hugging). Part of me wants to approach her about it, but I also believe that she knows exactly what she is doing, that she’s being passive-aggressive on purpose, and that this is an issue my husband and his brother need to work out. Ultimately he is complicit in this, and the important relationship here is between the brothers. (I don’t need to be besties with my sister-in-law, though I don’t want tension either.) Please help.
A: Your sister-in-law certainly may be passive-aggressive, her relationship with her former sister-in-law may very well be instrumentalizing and less-than-fully sincere, and her kids-have-to-hug-adults policy sounds annoying and demoralizing at best—but I just can’t encourage the idea that these vacations are uniquely “yours” and one of your in-laws sending snapshots of the kids playing to their mother is “spying.” You have a real opportunity to do less here, and I think you should take it. Your sister-in-law likes your husband’s ex more than you. So what? It may feel a bit eye-rolly, but you yourself don’t like her very much. Why not think of those moments where she and your husband’s ex take the kids to the pool (which their father pays for so the kids can enjoy the pool, and for which they require adult supervision) as a victory for you? You get a free afternoon to spend with your husband or by yourself or with your own friends and you don’t have to hang out with two women you dislike. And I simply can’t agree that it would “only” be understandable for your sister-in-law to text the kids’ mother with a fun playground snapshot and a quick update on your vacation if the kids were miserable or being kept away from her. Why wouldn’t she want to know her kids were having a great day at the park, especially if she and her ex have a good co-parenting relationship? What’s the harm? She’s not sending unflattering candid shots of you or texting snide comments about what a lousy stepparent you are. You’re entitled not to want to go on vacation with your husband’s ex, but you can’t ask other people to pretend she doesn’t exist when they go on vacation with you. It’s your sister-in-law’s vacation too, and what she’s doing doesn’t actually take any skin off your nose. I wonder if she and her husband sometimes come to town without saying anything to the two of you because you seem to expect that, for every time they visit the kid’s mother, they have to visit you for just as long first. If your husband and his brother have some issue of their own, let them work it out (or fail to work it out) as they see fit—but I think you should try letting the rest of it go.