“Ask a Priest: What If I Intensely Dislike My Brother-in-Law?”

Q: I have one sister that I am very close with. However, I severely dislike her husband, and I am finding it increasingly difficult to be around him and to have my children around his inappropriate behavior even if only for few hours at family functions. I love my sister very much. She does not seem bothered by her husband’s behavior at all, so talking to her doesn’t help. I know we are called by God to love. My question is, how do I love my brother-in-law while at the same time disliking him so much? What does that look like practically for everyday life? – K.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Your question touches on a key distinction. Jesus commands us to love one another. But he doesn’t command us to like one another.

Love — Christian love — deals with a theological virtue. Love in this sense means wanting the best for the other person and being willing to help and pray for the person.

We do this because the person is made in the image and likeness of God. We do it because the person is someone for whom Jesus died on a cross. Each soul is precious to God. Ideally, we should look at each person through the eyes of Christ.

If you dislike your brother-in-law, then for the moment just accept that. But realize that it need not block you from loving him in the deep sense of the word. That sounds a bit paradoxical, but that’s life.

On the other hand, you mention “inappropriate behavior.” I’m not sure what this behavior is, but as a mom you have a right to shield your children from offensive things under a family roof. And as a Christian you have a general responsibility and right to apply fraternal correction to someone in the family.

“If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (Matthew 18:15-16).

So how might you apply this in practice?

First, you might try approaching your brother-in-law discreetly. You might start off by pointing something you appreciate in him: his devotion to your sister, his hard work to support his family, etc. Then try to ease into just one issue that you have with him. Be specific and give an example of the behavior you find offensive, without being accusatory.

For instance, instead of saying, “Your language is crude,” try something like, “Joe, you know my kids look up to you and hang on your words. They apparently were scandalized last Sunday when you made that comment about X. They asked me about afterward. It makes an impact on them when they hear something bad like that.”

Or, if you feel wary of bringing up the matter, you might nudge your husband to approach Joe.

If Joe doesn’t get the message, you might approach him a month or so later, this time with another family member (your husband, or you with your husband if he does the talking the first time). If Joe hears the same thing from two people, it might make an impact.

If it doesn’t, then you might do your best to limit the time your kids spend around him. You might want to counter Joe’s behavior as best you can, explaining to your kids the rationale why you favor different behavior.

Before doing any of this, it would help to pray for Joe. Ask the Holy Spirit for help. Ask your guardian angel to communicate with Joe’s guardian angel, so that his heart is open to what you want to say.

And keep the long term in sight. It takes time for people to change. But change they can. Keep being a loving sister and a loving sister-in-law as best you can be. Prayer and charity are the fertile ground for God’s grace to work wonders.

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