Mother-in-law jokes are standard, but the relationship between sisters-in-law is often no laughing matter. Anna Moore investigates this complex – and often fraught – bond.
Rachel, 49, never thought she’d find herself identifying with the Duchess of Cambridge. As a schoolteacher from the Midlands with two teenage sons, she’s never had much in common with our future queen.
Except now she does: sister-in-law trouble. Rumours persist that Kate and Meghan don’t see eye to eye, but in Rachel’s case the tension has escalated – she can hardly bear to be in the same room as the woman who married her husband’s brother. ‘When it goes badly, the sister-in-law relationship is impossible to manage,’ she says.
‘My own feeling is that I married into a warm, open-hearted family. Now, years later, my sister-in-law has upset the balance by playing games – fluttering her eyelashes at one person, freezing out another. How does it feel? As if she’s trodden mud into the house. I think I might hate her.’
Strong words indeed – but feuds between sisters-in-law raise strong feelings. Although it has not received the scrutiny or research given to the mother-in-law relationship, a scan of the internet shows the potential for grief. On Mumsnet, for example, the conversation threads are endless. ‘Sister-in-law from hell’ is one header. Someone else wants advice on ‘cutting my sister-in-law off completely’.
Royalty aside, the sister-in-law relationship can be strange and strained in any family. Two women, often with no shared history, are brought together by the men they love (either as brothers or partners), despite possibly having little else in common. Who would pair Ivanka Trump with Hillary-Clinton-supporting supermodel Karlie Kloss (they are married to brothers Jared and Joshua Kushner)? Even if you were already friends first – such as stars Cameron Diaz and Nicole Richie (wives of Benji and Joel Madden) – suddenly becoming family can shine a whole new spotlight on your relationship. After all, it’s the sisters-in-law who are expected to get along, to keep the family events in the diary, to fuss over any cousins, to nurture the bonds.
‘“Sisters” is a very loaded term – it carries an expectation,’ says Cambridge psychologist Dr Terri Apter, author of What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along with In-Laws. ‘Being a good brother-in-law doesn’t carry the same weight. There’s a moral heft for sisters-in-law to be caring, the kinship keepers. If you’re not a good sister, there’s an implication that maybe you’re a bad woman.’ (This perhaps explains why Meghan and Kate’s relationship gets the column inches, rather than any alleged frostiness between William and Harry.)
Consultant psychologist Dr Andrew Cornes agrees. ‘Research suggests that women experience more unhappiness and stress in connection with female in-laws than men do,’ he says. ‘Despite all the jokes about men and their mothers-in-law, it’s women who experience most tension. They feel more obliged to make in-law relationships successful – they invest more emotionally and when it doesn’t work, the fallout can be harder.’
This is certainly true for Rachel, who seems to be suffering far more than her husband. Like
William and Harry, Rachel’s husband James and his twin Tom had always been close. But while James had always been the more ‘conventional’ – with a wife and career in place before he reached 30 – his brother took longer to find his way.
‘When Tom met Emily, the woman who is now his wife, he wanted us to meet her so the four of us went for dinner,’ recalls Rachel. ‘It was a physical shock. I was almost 40 with two kids. She was 11 years younger, really flirty with the men. I was making a real effort, complimenting her, asking her questions. She didn’t ask me one thing back or show any interest at all – other than once intimating that I was nearly as old as her mother.
‘Ten years on, she’s barely spoken a word to me,’ she continues. ‘I think from day one, she saw me as the “competition”, the “woman to beat”. Instead of wanting to bond, she wanted to freeze me out. Every family gathering is stressful – watching her flirt with some elderly uncle while shooting a poison dart at me, like, “My mum has that skirt, too.” Once we arrived at their house with chocolates and a bottle of wine and she said, “Are you trying to make me fat, too?” It’s like sharing the space with a poisonous snake that no one else sees.’
Liz, 33, also believes her sister-in-law to be toxic. ‘My brother has married the most uptight and controlling woman I’ve ever met,’ she says. ‘It’s so odd because he grew up in a laid back family – we still eat and drink a bit too much when we get together, we can get a bit rowdy, we tease each other. But he found a wife who gets up at six to go to the gym, never drinks, doesn’t eat sugar – or allow their kids to have anything sweet. There’s no TV in their house, no devices for the children.
‘None of that would matter if the rest of us didn’t feel so judged. She sucks the fun out of
any occasion. You can’t have a second glass of wine without feeling her glare. At my daughter’s sixth birthday, she hovered over the party food lecturing about E numbers. It feels like she hates everything about us. They live in another city and never invite anyone round. She has complete control of her family’s diary. I feel angry on behalf of my mum – she hardly ever gets to see her son – and sad for myself. I just don’t get how my lovely brother could have married someone so awful. I’ve lost him.’
Psychotherapist Wendy Bristow believes the potential for competition and jealousy is the biggest challenge for sisters-in-law, and there are many ways it can play out. ‘You could be the only girl in a family of boys, the princess of the family, then along comes a more princessy princess than you,’ she says. ‘Or you could be someone who is very close to your brother and you feel a big sense of loss when he falls deeply in love with another woman.
‘A sister-in-law relationship can open old wounds,’ she continues. ‘Maybe you’ve always felt ignored or undervalued in the family and then a new woman joins and everyone’s paying attention to what she has to say. If you find yourself reacting very strongly to what might seem like minor things to others, it’s a sign that old wounds are in the mix. You need to ask yourself, “Why am I so upset about this?”’
The fact that sisters-in-law are often going through similar life stages can also intensify the competitive element. Who has the first child and whose children are achieving the most? (Imagine how that plays out when your sister-in-law’s first born is set to be King of England!) Who has the best house and who is the best host? Who do the parents favour? Which aunt do the children flock to at family gatherings?
Hilary, 46, bemoans the fact that her family used to have relaxed, low-key get-togethers – ‘a £10 Secret Santa at Christmas and pot-luck suppers’ – until her husband John’s brother remarried, and his new wife ‘upped the ante with lavish dinners and luxurious, beautifully wrapped gifts. I feel churlish for hating all her fabulously glamorous gatherings – especially as John is clearly captivated – and resentful that it practically bankrupts me to throw a party that’s even half as good as hers. Worse, my sister-in-law even offered to host Christmas and Easter every single year because she “could see the stress was starting to show” on my face.’
‘Sisters-in-law can be handy scapegoats, too,’ says Bristow. ‘If a family disapproves of a man’s life choices, it’s easier to blame his wife.’ This could well be the reason for the spectacular (and public) falling-out between Faryal Makhdoom, wife of Olympic boxing hero Amir Khan, and her husband’s parents and sisters, Tabinda and Mariyah. The Khan family come from a village in Pakistan – and had married from within it until Amir broke tradition by falling for Faryal, a wealthy New Yorker and independent woman.
As an ‘outsider’, married life with her in-laws in Bolton did not run smoothly. According to Faryal, Khan’s family questioned her clothes, cooking and shopping habits. She has claimed that Tabinda was ‘very controlling’ and suspected her of ‘filling the parents’ heads’ with disapproval. Faryal even accused Tabinda of hitting her and Mariyah of cropping her out of family photos. In her eyes, her sisters-in-law were unhappy with Amir’s life choices – and would rather blame his wife than their beloved brother.
Amy, 33, whose husband is Italian, feels a similar dynamic in her family. ‘Luca had been working and living in London for five years when we met,’ says Amy, ‘but his sister has never forgiven me for “taking him away”. In her eyes, I stopped him from returning to Italy. He can do no wrong and I’m the English b**** who stole him. It has stopped me from wanting us to visit so Luca is definitely less close to his family because of her. I’m sure she’s praying that our marriage will end.’
When it comes to managing a toxic sister-in-law, communication is key. ‘Avoid the common trap of “triangling” – trying to get another family member on your side and relaying messages through them,’ says Bristow. ‘You don’t need to approach your sister-in-law in a dramatic way – but you could say, or even email, “Things seem hard between us. I’d love us to get on. What can we do?”’ Perhaps Meghan and Kate had a similar clearing of the air before their united front on Christmas Day – the two were seen walking side by side, laughing, in Sandringham on the way to church. On Boxing Day, it looked like Kate, a keen markswoman, tactfully waited until animal lover Meghan had left the estate before joining the royal shoot.
Psychotherapist Bristow also recommends meeting one another outside the context of the family every now and then to slowly build a separate bond. ‘It shows you’re interested in who she is, and allows you to get to know one another as individuals free from all the family dynamics.’
At the same time, don’t expect instant sisterhood. ‘It can take years for a true connection to develop,’ says psychologist Cornes. ‘Don’t rush things or expect anyone to instantly fit into a family. Give the relationship time.’
Perhaps most importantly, at every gathering, every family ceremony or tradition, think about what you’re setting up for the future. ‘The wedding is key here,’ warns Bristow, ‘as so often, that’s where the problems set in. Weddings are so charged that little things can cause years of resentment: the seating plan. Who is bridesmaid? Does the sister-in-law come to the hen night and, if so, is she made welcome? Quite often these days, it’s a hen weekend, and if it’s a tight group of friends and one sister-in-law no one talks to, a weekend is a very long time to feel left out.’
On the plus side, even after a bumpy start, a sister-in-law relationship can transform into
something wonderful – and has so much to offer. After all, Kate and Meghan have plenty to bond over, not least the utter strangeness of life with ‘the firm’. The two duchesses have also just been named the ‘least hardworking’ royals, bottom of the list for attending royal engagements. The Queen attended 283 events last year; Meghan managed 96 and Kate 87 (although Meghan only officially joined the family in May, while Kate gave birth to Prince Louis in April).
Sophie, 48, is one woman who has come to see her sister-in-law Jackie as a beloved friend – even though, for years, she hated the sight of her. ‘We married brothers who had a very demanding, full-on, larger-than-life mother,’ says Sophie. ‘When she was with me, I’d hear how fabulous Jackie was, that her children were future Olympians, that her cakes were so good she should enter Bake Off. What I didn’t know was that when my mother-in-law was with Jackie, she’d be telling her about my amazing career – I’m a lawyer – and that my children were geniuses.
‘I don’t know if she was playing us against one another deliberately – or if she was just like that with everyone – but for years, Jackie and I disliked and avoided one another as much as we could.’ It was only after their mother-in-law’s death, at an emotional family gathering, that the two started talking. ‘I told her that I’d always envied the way our mother-in-law adored her. She couldn’t believe it – and said that I was the favourite. By then we’d known each other almost ten years but that day changed everything.’
Now the women are true ‘sisters’. ‘We message each other several times a week and get the brothers and the kids together every few months,’ says Sophie. ‘It’s a different relationship to the one I have with my friends as Jackie understands the nuances of the family dynamics; she’s there at the big events, she sees the whole picture. She’s an ally, she has my back. And that’s a lovely thing.’