17 Ways to Deal with a Difficult/Toxic Sister-In-Law (Advice…)

Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Lifevif Team and JC Franco

woman with bad attitude

If you don’t quite get along with your sister-in-law and her toxic approach to life; this one’s for you. You probably had great dreams and aspirations of finding a new best friend before you actually met your sister-in-law, but now those dreams are dashed! Now what? What can you do? You can’t escape her – in fact, she is going to be a part of the rest of your life. Unless you plan to end things with your spouse, you will have to find a way to deal with your sister-in-law and ensure that your encounters are amicable. 

Dealing with a toxic or difficult sister-in-law is quite different from dealing with a toxic friend or colleague. While the same theories still apply, you need to be more tactful, sensitive, and compassionate as your sister-in-law is someone your spouse cares about dearly. While you might feel the toxic behavior is obvious, your spouse may be completely oblivious or so used to it that it doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore. 

By following these below-mentioned tips, you can turn a bad relationship with your toxic/difficult sister-in-law into something more manageable.

How to deal with a difficult or toxic sister-in-law – 17 effective tips:

1. Conversations: Keep it light and limited.

Toxic people have a way of drawing personal information out of you and then using it against you. If you notice that your sister-in-law has toxic tendencies, make sure that you don’t share too much of your intimate thoughts and feelings with her. Instead, keep the conversations you have light and limit them to general conversation topics. Don’t get involved in gossiping or discussing anyone within the family either. 

2. Observe how others handle her behavior and follow suit.

Knowledge is power, so spend some time at the next family event simply observing your sister-in-law, how she behaves, and how others respond to it. If you notice that others tiptoe around her comments and behavior, it’s probably best to simply follow suit. Don’t take on a battle that no one else seems to have won. 

3. Plan carefully to always have a buffer between you.

If you absolutely have to spend time with your sister-in-law, make sure that there is always a buffer available to ease any tension or awkwardness that might otherwise arise. Ensure your partner is there, the kids are there, or a close friend spends time with you concurrently. A buffer will probably make sure that your sister-in-law is better behaved and that you can be distracted from any unhealthy conversation or focus. 

4. Always keep your cool, no matter what.

This might sound like a tough one, but it really will be what is best for your relationship. Remember that getting upset and reacting is a choice. 

Practice a cool, calm, and collected approach instead of reacting and losing your cool over something your sister-in-law says or does. Choose to ignore it and pretend as if it has no bearing on your life and happiness. This approach will have the best impact. Soon she will get bored of never getting a reaction, and your spouse will appreciate your dedication to no drama.

5. Learn to bite your tongue.

There will come a time when you want to tell your sister-in-law off because her behavior is problematic or toxic. The only thing you need to remember is: don’t! Biting your tongue will save you from saying something in the moment that will show you up and create an untrue impression of who you really are. Remain calm, bite your tongue, and overlook what is being said or done.

6. Don’t try to be her friend.

You might feel that it is important for you and your sister-in-law to be friends. The reality is that it is not important or necessary. You don’t have to invite her out, be best friends on social media, or even call/text her. Being polite, courteous, and being able to hold a basic conversation is all that is required. At family gatherings, avoid trying to win her over and focus on spending time with other people in the family who aren’t toxic or difficult. 

7. Be upfront with your spouse, but be tactful about it.

To ensure that you don’t allow your feelings of frustration or being upset to build up, make sure that you have a conversation with your spouse about their sister. Avoid being sarcastic or derogatory in any way. Instead, state how the behavior makes you feel and ask them for some guidance on how to handle it. Reiterate that it is important to you that a big deal isn’t made out of the situation. The idea is to solve matters or work on things amicably. 

8. Limit your time spent with her within reason.

Hourglass and city at sunset

If there seem to be many family gatherings and events lined up, realize that you don’t have to be available for each and every one of them. Pick and choose which events you can handle and simply be unavailable for the rest. If there’s an event where you feel you will have to spend too much intimate time with her, just don’t go. Of course, have a decent reason lined up for when you are asked why. A pre-arranged event with a family member or a friend is a good one. 

9. Don’t react – take a breath and distance yourself instead.

Toxic people have a way of pushing people’s buttons and enjoying it. If you feel like your sister-in-law is being difficult or mean on purpose, take the high road. Simply don’t react. The desired outcome is that when you never react, she will get bored and move on to picking on someone else.

10. Keep records of toxic or abusive messages and interactions, just in case.

If your sister-in-law is sending toxic messages to you via text or social media, don’t reply but keep a record of the communications. You never know when the situation may worsen, and you need some form of record to show just how toxic her behavior really is. 

11. Know when to leave drawn-out family events and gatherings.

Attending family events with a sister-in-law that’s unpleasant or difficult can be tough. As the event wears on, it may become more difficult. That’s where knowing when to leave is quite helpful. Spend an appropriate amount of time at the event, but make your excuses and head home. Showing up and being pleasant is the important part. 

12. Reserve your advice and opinions but offer sympathetic responses when required.

Your sister-in-law might spend a considerable amount of time complaining or being negative in your presence. You might feel tempted to provide workable solutions and advice, but rather don’t. If this person is difficult or even toxic, it may just end up blowing up in your face. Rather sympathize by saying you are sorry she is going through a difficult time, and you hope things look up soon, but leave it at that. 

13. Don’t be too soft.

If you find that you are always taking the back seat in order to appease your sister-in-law, try not to be too soft. You can be firm without being offensive or antagonistic. Speak up for yourself but make sure that you always do so respectfully.

14. Be clear about your boundaries.

A toxic person will often overstep the market or push someone a little harder than is comfortable. Make sure that you set clear boundaries and that the entire family is aware of them just as you are aware of theirs. For instance, someone calling you and yelling at you for no clear reason is not acceptable – ignore the calls. 

15. Don’t feel like you have to explain yourself.

If you want to say no to something, don’t feel as if you need to over-explain it. Instead, a simple “no thanks” or “not this time” will suffice. If you start over-explaining, it may just cause upset or drama. 

16. Learn the fine art of changing the subject and distracting the attention.

If your sister-in-law is specifically difficult in conversation and has a habit of speaking about topics that make you uncomfortable or cause upset, learn to avoid the situation by simply changing the subject or asking another person in the conversation a completely unrelated question. Just breaking away from the negativity and refocusing can really help to put things on a more pleasant track.

family sitting at table with meal

17. Focus on forming solid relationships with the other family members.

If you find that building a relationship with your sister-in-law is difficult or that she is a source of negativity in your life, focus your attention on building relationships with the other family members. Don’t allow a poor relationship or toxic behavior to steal from you or show you up in a poor light.

Last Word

Difficult or toxic relationships are not worth sacrificing your happiness for. While the saying goes “when you marry your partner, you also marry the family” is considered age-old, it’s certainly not a reality. The most important person to build a relationship with is your partner. Give your sister-in-law your courtesy and respect, but don’t allow yourself to be damaged by toxicity or negativity.

This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who share their experiences and knowledge about the "Seven F's of Life".

JC Franco

JC Franco is a New York-based editor for Lifevif. He mainly focuses on content about faith, spirituality, personal growth, finance, and sports. He graduated from Mercyhurst University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business, majoring in Marketing. He is a certified tennis instructor who teaches in the New York City Metropolitan area. In terms of finance, he has passed the Level I exam of the CFA program.