Why sister-in-law relationships, like Meghan and Kate’s, can so easily turn sour
Much has been made of the tension and rivalry between Meghan Markle and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge.
In yesterday’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan claimed that Kate “made her cry” after a row during her wedding planning (and not the other way round, as had been previously reported).
The argument was sparked, according to Meghan, by a discussion over whether or not the young bridesmaids should wear tights for the Sussexes’ wedding in 2018. The Duchess of Cambridge felt that they should, saying it was protocol, while the Duchess of Sussex reportedly did not want them to.
“I am not sharing this to be in any way disparaging about her [Kate],” Meghan said. “I would hope that she would want that to be corrected.” The Duchess, 39, said she did not want to get into details because Kate had “apologised and I [had] forgiven her”. Meghan also claimed that the monarchy had prevented her from clearing the air. “I think it’s really important for people to understand the truth,” she said.
But are the tensions which allegedly arose between the two women really anything out of the ordinary? They’re only human, after all. According to Pam Custers, a family relationship expert, the drama unfolding before our eyes is a common experience among sisters-in-law.
“There can often be an idealised vision of what a big extended family structure will be like, and of what the ideal sister-in-law relationship might be. This is particularly true when a relationship moves quickly, and when someone feels they have met their Prince Charming. But no family is the perfect Boden family.
“I’d defy any wedding not to have had a few tears along the way. One family member or another stepping on the bride’s toes is inevitable. But building healthy sister-in-law relationships is tricky, particularly when one party comes from a small family, or doesn’t have a close family. Marrying into a big family might be something you desire – but it can initially make you feel like an outsider, and very alone.”
When it comes to any sister-in-law relationship (with the sisters of our wives or husbands, or the wives of our brothers or brother-in-laws) there are common pitfalls to be aware of. While we often focus on fractious mother-in-law relationships, we don’t often talk about the potency of sister-in-law relationships, which can quickly turn irreparably sour if issues aren’t addressed.
“That’s a natural maturation process: it’s all about maturing into a relationship, and maturing into a family dynamic,” says Custers. “It needs time and space. On both sides, expectations need to be tempered in order to form a realistic relationship. It’s not realistic to expect your sister-in-law to suddenly be your best friend. Humans are messy and awkward, and we all have uncles who behave badly at weddings.”
Natasha Tiwari, an award-winning psychologist and founder of The Veda Group, agrees. “The euphoria of marriage comes with intense emotions, including high hopes of a “happily ever after” for all involved in the union. It is not uncommon for women to be excited about the prospect of a sisterly relationship with a new sister-in-law, only to experience a sense of grief if they find themselves disappointed.”
The incumbent sister-in-law, Kate, in this instance, may well be protective of their brother-in-law, adds Custers. That’s normal. “When we love someone, we don’t want to see them hurt. These dynamics are common. It takes a while for family members to trust a new person.
“There are often issues around boundaries. You might be used to making plans with your brother or brother-in-law and being their priority, but his primary focus has to shift to his new wife. He will begin to privilege her needs, as they build a life together and have children of their own. That transition can be difficult, and involves a husband and wife setting healthy new perimeters which still include the family of origin, but in a way that supports their new relationship.”
Sisters-in-law might criticise each other’s careers, how they spend their money, how they raise their children, how they choose to live their lives and how they conduct their relationships, Custers points out. There is often an element of competition. Unlike mother-in-laws, because a sister-in-law is your “peer”, she says, they can have an even stronger influence on us.
“With Kate and Meghan, it is unlikely we will all ever know the full version of events, but the intensity of wedding planning will naturally stir emotions,” says Tiwari. “It’s not surprising that one or both may have been reduced to tears over the seemingly trivial issue of bridesmaid dresses – perhaps a manifestation of deeper issues and dynamics.”
Fortunately, there are ways to set yourself up for success and forge a healthy sister-in-law relationship. “For example, if there’s a family holiday, don’t feel you have to go for the entire time,” recommends Custers. “At a dinner party or family function, it’s important to cultivate a mutual regard for each other and respect the fact that you are both different, so you can enjoy those happy family moments and eventually form intimate relationships which are less fraught.”
This can take years, and doesn’t magically happen over night, Custers warns. “It’s really important to know that tension is part of the process of integration. It’s like joining a new school, or your first day in an office. You’re not going to just step in and fit in right away. It’s no use sulking or kicking off, which can damage fledgling relationships. And if you force your partner to choose between you and their family, there are inevitably going to be resentments.”
That’s not to say that good sister-in-law relationships aren’t wonderful, supporting and enriching. “The children of sisters-in-law are blood relations, kith and kin, after all,” Custers emphasises. “A sister-in-law can be scaffolding when you come up against the challenges of life, whether that involves difficulties in your marriage, illness in the family, financial issues or your children’s futures.”
Sisters-in-law, Tiwari corroborates, can have fantastic relationships: but as with all relationships, these do not exist in a vacuum. “Others in the family can have an impact. Sisters-in-law to be would be wise to be intentional in cultivating the relationship they have with each other as they wish it to be, and to make a purposeful effort to not be dragged into other people’s projections and expectations of their friendship.”
If issues aren’t addressed, they can become very difficult to resolve. “I’m probably putting my head on the line here, but the partner – the husband figure, brother or brother-in-law – has a crucial role to play in smoothing the path,” Custers explains. “Their role in minimising jealousy as it arises and privileging their relationship with their wife is important. Their sister has in-jokes, memories, a history and a close relationship with them which a wife might feel they aren’t part of.
“It’s understandable that a new bride can often feel jealous, and not want to share their partner. It’s no use her taking umbrage at every little thing she feels is a slight, but it’s important in such a scenario for her partner to make sure she feels secure, loved, and not alone. Of course, you can’t cut yourself off from your family because your wife wants all your attention. It’s about finding balance.”