Marry a spouse ... you get in-laws

Five years after marrying into the Kizilos band of brothers (Peter, Paul and Mark), Rina Kizilos received the gift she'd long been waiting for: sister-in-law Nancy, who married Peter in 1995.

"I liked her right away," said Rina, 38, who has been married to Paul for 16 years. "Here was a woman I could be close to."


The two sisters-in-law were equally delighted when Melissa married Mark seven years ago. With seven children ages 10 and younger among them, the three women share parenting advice and recipes, take walks and throw birthday parties, and find time for girls' nights out.

"I have said many times, they are like the sisters I never had," said Melissa, 38. "I trust and rely on them. They're my peeps."


Sometimes you really luck out with the people your brothers and sisters marry. Other times ... not so much.

While volumes have been written about in-law parents, mostly overbearing mothers-in-law, the in-law sibling is a strange animal. What is our duty to them, anyway? Do we have to like them? Many who shared their stories drew the same conclusion: You can't make me!

A good, albeit painful, example from a few months ago is CNN anchor Kyra Phillips who, unaware that her microphone was still on, let the world know live from the ladies' room that her sister-in-law "is just a control freak."

Others have similar complaints that they keep to themselves. The brother-in-law who's a bigot or who keeps hitting on you. The sister-in-law who points out your dirty windows and falling hem. The rich one who lets you know it. The beautiful one who doesn't have to. The spouses who keep your siblings away from you, because they like their extended families better.

One concerned Minneapolis woman said her sister-in-law is spending her husband into the poorhouse, as his family watches helplessly. Another woman discovered that she had been left out of 11 annual family reunions at a wonderful resort because her family didn't like her husband. After she divorced him, she was both clued in and back on the invitation list.

Sometimes trouble brews even before marriage. Wedding planners have plenty of nightmarish tales to tell. Diane Sillerud, president of Minnesota Weddings in White Bear Lake, remembers one "extreme" scenario where, because of religious differences, the brother of the groom announced that he was not going to allow his future sister-in-law or the couple's future children, into his house. Ever. "The bride was just in tears," Sillerud said.

Jennifer Johnson, owner of Heartstrings Wedding and Event Planning in Eden Prairie, Minn., remembers one woman, while helping her future sister-in-law shop for bridal gowns, commanding: "You're not getting this dress." (The bride-to-be ultimately bought it anyway.) Johnson's favorite story, though, is of the sister-in-law to-be who arrived at the wedding with her uninvited date: The bride's former boyfriend. "As you can imagine," Johnson said, "it was utter chaos."

As with all human relationships odd and odder, there is generally someone in the academic world paying attention. In this case, it's the good-natured Christina Yoshimura, professor of communication studies at the University of Montana, Missoula.


"This relationship is so peculiar," said Yoshimura, who has written about in-law siblings in academic journals and observed her own many in-law siblings, for better or worse. "Oftentimes, it starts out involuntarily. You don't usually go out shopping for an in-law."

In-law sibs, she said, are sometimes seen less as a happy addition to the family and more as "outsiders who have infiltrated your family through marriage."

This new relationship can be especially hard on siblings who are still single. "Siblings who aren't partnered can tend to feel left out," said Twin Cities psychotherapist Dan Reidenberg. They may also suddenly feel insecure (why him and not me?) or just sad because past relationship failures between them now may never get resolved. And sometimes, it's not nearly that deep. Annoyance at one sibling getting all the attention can simply be a case of "good old sibling rivalry, just as when they were kids."

Assuming you would like to evolve from that place, here are few ideas to consider.

1 / 3 Be respectful. You don't have to love the person your brother or sister is married to, but you owe it to them to be respectful. That means include them and their children in family events whenever feasible. In other words, Johnson said, "suck it up for the sake of family."

1 / 3 Find something you like. Yoshimura talks to some of her in-law siblings every week. Others, she's happy to see at annual holiday gatherings. But she tries to appreciate something special or unique in each of them. "Ask yourself, 'What does my sibling see in this person? And what can I draw from this person?' Maybe they have charisma, or they're successful in the workplace. There's always something."


1 / 3 Communicate openly. Melissa Kizilos says her relationship with her sisters-in-law is so good in large part because the other women are good communicators who share their frustrations in a respectful way and don't let problems fester.

And here's a tough one: Figure out what you could be doing that's causing problems. Ask yourself, "What could I do to make her feel more welcome? Does the person feel like an outsider? Are there holiday rituals that have been in her family that can be brought into our family?"

Remember that building good relationships with siblings-in-law takes work, just as it does with the adults with whom you shared bunk beds and bathrooms growing up. Sillerud said that sometimes relationships don't hit a level of comfort until mid- or late life when people begin dying and families get smaller and perhaps more dear to us person by person.

"People finally mature and understand it's not all about them," said Sillerud, who, aside from wedding planning is trained as a Prepare / Enrich premarital counselor. While many experience regret for love lost, she said, they also give themselves "peace of mind."