Dear Virginia,

I've only been married for a year and my wife has cancer and it seems she only has six months to live, if that. It's so sad – we're both under 30 and don't have kids. Her sister asked if we'd like her to come and help as my wife's had chemo and is very ill. We were delighted, but my sister-in-law has now taken over the house, organised all the furniture in different places, laid down rules about taking shoes off before coming in, and my wife is too weak to resist. I feel my last few months of my married life are being blighted. What can I do? Yours sincerely, Alan

Virginia says...

It takes two to be bullied. One to do the bullying and the other to play the victim. Now, of course I understand you're not playing the victim willingly. In any other circumstances I imagine you'd stand up for yourself. And presumably you're hesitant to say anything for fear that your sister-in-law would retaliate by saying: "Well, you asked me to help. Do you want me or don't you?" Or she might pull a weepie and say: "My sister's dying and you're spoiling our last moments together by telling me to go away!"

To be honest, whatever you do is going to result in a wobbly, I feel. Her nerves must be as ragged as yours. It sounds as if your sister-in-law is incredibly angry (understandably, if her sister's dying) and is desperate to keep control of a situation over which she has no control. Unfortunately you are feeling exactly the same.

Myself, I would come home one day and simply say: "Now, I'm going to put all the furniture back as it used to be. My wife feels more comfortable in familiar surroundings, and so do I, so I'm sorry, but that's how it is." Underlying this is the message: "It's my house!" In other words, I would bully back. Keep your shoes on in the house, and say: "In my house I keep my shoes on." There is no arguing with this.

However, as a sop to your sister-in-law, you could, if you felt kindly, give her power in a specific area in which you don't mind her taking control. Could you bear her to organise all the food and the cooking? Could you bear her to supervise the pill-taking? Perhaps she could "do" the nights while you "do" the days, or vice-versa. You could behave like king who, fed up with having a pretender to his throne making trouble, gives him a bit of land to keep him busy instead.

Failing all this, of course, you could try to have a sensible, calm, mature talk with your sister-in-law, explaining how you want the last weeks of your wife's life to be peaceful, how you need time alone together, and how, though you appreciate her help, you feel she's taking over and that makes you feel bad.

The prospect of having a sensible, calm mature talk with anyone in your sister-in-law's position (or, probably, yours come to that) is pretty much pie in the sky. But at least you could give it a try. It'll probably end in tears but the result will almost certainly be better for you than the horrible, tense situation that exists at present.

Readers say...

She needs control

I think your sister-in-law's need to take over your house and life is her desperate effort to try to control what is uncontrollable. You need to help her recognise what lies behind her frantic activity and acknowledge that you can both work together to make your wife's final few months more bearable. I feel that once she realises what she is doing, and why she is doing it, she'll be able to let go and begin to come to terms with facing the future.

Georgina Mallalieu

By email

Let her do this

You say she's taking over your marriage. She's not. She's taking domestic control. Let her – it doesn't matter and it's all she can do to show her love. You'll have complete control of your home in the future. Your wife's needs are paramount. Don't add to her burden by expecting her to "deal" with her sister. Make light of it, joke about it.

It's tough, Alan, it's unfair. You are all so young to have to cope with this. Be strong. Spend this summer taking your wife to pleasant places, either mentally or physically.


By email

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, I'm getting married this summer, but I'm starting to have second thoughts. The thing is, it turns out that my fiancé can't swim, or even ride a bike. He doesn't know how to change a plug, and when I asked him to bleed the radiators he didn't know what I was talking about. True, he can always fix my computer, but I'm starting to get irritated by his inability to do anything practical. My father was always fixing gates, repairing machines etc. It's preying on my mind and I'm starting to feel he's not a man. Do you think it's just pre-wedding nerves, as my mother says? Yours sincerely, Carla

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