READER’S QUESTION: "My sister-in-law berates my older brother in front of family, friends, and strangers. She openly insults and criticizes him for things he does or doesn’t do or habits he has. I don’t believe anyone deserves to be treated that way. How can I get her to stop without feeling like I am trying to influence their marital relationship in a way that is not appropriate? I have told her she has issues and needs to learn how to regulate her emotions. I have had a similar problem with friends who openly berate or criticize their boyfriends in front of me while at a dinner, for example.
When did it become acceptable to openly humiliate your partner in front of others? I always feel so bad for the guy, but I feel that it is not my place to step in as I see relationships and marriage as sacred between two people and don’t want to infringe on their marital or relationship privacy or be seen as trying to influence their relationship in a negative way."
EVIE’S ADVICE: It is never acceptable to humiliate or berate your spouse in front of others, no matter how common it is these days. You’re right in believing that no one deserves to be treated that way, and we’re sorry that you have to witness your brother going through that. Unfortunately, a lot of people lack self-awareness and don’t understand that acting like a bully toward their spouse in a group setting (or even just in public) is more embarrassing for them than it is for the person they are trying to humiliate.
Not only is it extremely awkward and depressing to be in a group setting with a couple arguing in front of you, but if one person is taking all of the heat while the other is slinging insults, it becomes a situation where sometimes someone has to step in to stop it. If she has gotten to the point of berating him in front of his own family, we can only imagine how badly he’s treated behind closed doors. The next time this happens in front of you, you can simply walk away to show her that you won’t participate in the conversation or listen to her berate your brother. If she’s making jokes at his expense, you can choose to keep a straight face rather than laughing politely to demonstrate that you don’t think it’s funny.
Some people truly don't realize how badly they are being treated until they can see it from an outsider’s perspective.
However, rather than waiting around for this situation to pop up again, we recommend approaching your brother privately about your feelings. It probably won’t be very effective to address your sister-in-law about her behavior directly, and you certainly don’t want to jump in with everyone present to defend him and create a bigger scene and potentially upset your brother in the process. Express to your brother that you've noticed your SIL's behavior and that it hurts you to see him treated that way and that he deserves better treatment. You can encourage him to address this with his wife privately and to seek marriage counseling so they can both work on this behavior issue together. She will need to recognize that she is being disrespectful and passive-aggressive, and he will need to learn how to handle those moments more appropriately.
It's possible that she talks about him this way because she thinks it's the only way to "get results" or she thinks he is too passive and she wants him to be more assertive – which means there are bigger issues at play in their relationship than just her public criticisms. It's also possible that your brother doesn't know he deserves to be treated better and with respect. Some people truly don't realize how badly they are being treated until they can see it from an outsider’s perspective, especially if they were not taught or if they were treated that way by their parents.
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