Q: My wife’s brother and his family borrowed a considerable sum of money from her parents. They were struggling financially but now are stable and earning a good income, yet they aren’t addressing the money they owe my in-laws and seem to be living and spending without regard to this unpaid debt. Should we say something to her brother at the risk of hurting the relationship or just drop it and if that is best how do we let go of our frustrations?
A: This is a tricky situation to be sure and some very volatile and problematic elements are involved in this scenario. Namely, family and money. Otherwise known as oil and water in my book as I’m pretty convinced the two should never be mixed.
While I don’t have all the information I would love to have at my disposal, there are certainly some consistent truths that I believe apply. First, there is a profound difference between getting involved in an investment which as we all know involves the risk of loss, and loaning a friend or a family member money to help them out of a bind or during a particularly difficult time. I would first want to be very clear on knowing how your wife’s parents perceived the loan. Were they investing or loaning? Personally I believe that these situations are so predisposed to intense conflict that I would never loan family money…I would just give it to them. No strings, ties or expectations attached.
So while it sounds as though you and your wife are worried about the situation, I would first want to know EXACTLY where your in-laws stand. Without question, I would have a conversation with them prior to opening up any discourse with your wife’s brother. Make sure you have a very clear picture of their expectations around repayment of the debt as well as their true and honest feelings about the unresolved nature of it. Her parents are adults and don’t necessarily need you fighting their battles for them. Having said that, if her parents are being taken advantage of, or deceived in any way, I deeply believe that not speaking up in the face of something which is wrong, unpleasant or involves potential conflict, as a course of action is an unforgivable alternative to courage.
As well, your question involved concern over whether or not you should say something to your wife’s brother at the “risk of hurting the relationship.” But the reality is the relationship has already been badly damaged. Actually saying something may be the only chance you all stand at FIXING the unpleasant nature of that which remains unspoken. I personally believe it is nearly impossible to have a relationship where there is no respect. If you and your wife have lost respect for her brother because he is ignoring and/or avoiding his debt to her parents, what exactly are you trying to salvage by not speaking up and saying something?
What I can assure you of is that there is no such thing as ignoring these sort of tensions. And when conflict involves families the emotions are so deep and the stakes are so high that it is literally impossible as well as unacceptable to just say, “Whatever. It’s none of my business.” This isn’t a matter of he likes to watch football on Sundays and you’d rather not. These are core and concerning issues of integrity, respect and character. Your feelings of frustration with and disappointment in your wife’s brother aren’t exactly building blocks for cherished family memories and laughs around the Thanksgiving table. They are seeds that will sow nothing but bitterness and distain in the coming years. But here is what you need to be prepared for: by saying something in a situation like this you run a very good risk of seemingly making things worse. Yet I would contend that in the long run, remaining silent is far more damaging and debilitating than any immediate upheaval that may follow you calling attention to the elephant in the room. Yes, that preposterously large animal, with dollar signs all over it, taking up far too much space in this relationship.
Now…lest I make it sound like you should confront her brother with guns a blazing and ready to rumble I would advocate something much different. If you determine, after speaking with her parents, that something ought to be said, the very best way to start that conversation is with copious amounts of compassion and empathy. EVEN IF YOU DON’T FEEL THAT WAY. Because the quickest way to conflict is to put somebody on the defensive. You might want to begin by saying to your brother-in-law, “hey, I know you and your family have been through some really tough times lately…boy we’ve all gotten beaten up in the last couple of years! But mom and dad are really struggling and I was hoping we could put our heads together to help them get to a better place.” Is that your responsibility? No. Did you borrow the money and not pay it back? No. But the chances of him engaging in a way that creates resolve vs revolt are far higher if he doesn’t feel blamed, called out or like the villain in this situation. For as much as you may be right, encouraging the best in your brother-in-law vs. pointing out his shortcomings is ALWAYS both more effective and productive. If you help him feel able to solve the problem vs. merely focusing on his irresponsibility in creating it, he will come away a better person rather than angry and likely making YOU the bad guy. So first ask if you can help him make it right and set blame and wrong-doing aside at the onset of the discussion. When I start to feel righteous and therefore frustrated by a situation, I try to remind myself that there are ALWAYS two sides to a story. This doesn’t mean his actions or lack thereof are right, but I find that keeping that in mind usually helps me find a way toward a discussion rather than a confrontation.
So pursue knowing your in-laws story, then work at knowing your brother-in-laws narrative and insert your own perspective, strength and principles. It is then that your entire family stands the best possible chance at a happy ending.