Dear Bartender and Priestess,
My two sisters and I have generally been close. Recently, we have undergone a bit of an upheaval, and it’s causing some issues in our family.
The youngest, Susan, has been married to Stan for 13 years. Susan and Stan separated four months ago. Last month, Susan started dating again. She seems to have clicked with one man in particular, and has even introduced him to her children. The children are, understandably, confused by what’s happened between their parents. They told me and my other sister they’re unhappy. Of course, we know my sister’s separation isn’t the boyfriend’s fault, when he’s around he reminds the children of their parents’ problems. We see that this hurts them. When we tried to talk to Susan about this…suffice to say that talk didn’t go over very well.
We are planning a birthday party for our aunt, and I know Susan wants to bring her new boyfriend. My other sister and I haven’t invited him and, quite honestly, aren’t ready to meet him yet. We are still mired in the emotional conflict between Susan and Stan. And, we know that the boyfriend’s presence at the party won’t go over well with Stan. It will damage whatever chance of reconciliation they may have, or affect their ability to have a working relationship if they do divorce.
I don’t want to sound mean, but we are exhausted with Susan’s current situation. I don’t want to have to fake it with the boyfriend. We don’t condone any of this, and we know it’s hurting the children. How can we show support to our sister when we see how much this hurts her kids?
~~~The Bartender and The Priestess respond~~~
P: Wow, so, Terri, How many people were in that marriage bed? Do we need to count toes?
B: I know, right? This question comes with a lot of holes in the backstory, so much of what I want to say about this is probably going to be more general than I would like. And yet, there’s still so much to talk about…
Or rather, I would have a lot to talk about, except I’m suffocating.
My lovely Priestess has hit one of my initial questions square on the head: who was in this marriage, anyway? Was it your sister and her husband? Or was it you, your sister, your other sister, and the separated husband? How are you “knee deep” in their emotional conflict? Do you even know what a boundary is?
You say you and the sister in question have always been close; surely, you must have had some inkling that she and her husband were unhappy, before their separation. When my brother left his wife, I knew he was desperately unhappy. I didn’t know it would happen on the day it did, but when he left, it made sense. You know “close family” isn’t synonymous with “hive mind”, right? Your sister doesn’t have to behave in a way that you like, even a little, if it doesn’t suit her. She can wear short skirts and vote Democrat and change her religious affiliation and date men who aren’t her (legally separated) husband, and she doesn’t owe you an ounce of explanation, right?
P: Exactly, my sweet Purveyor of Spirits! Sisters, let’s start at the end, where you wonder how to support your sister. I have to say there is nothing, nothing I’ve heard that begins to suggest that you are looking to support your sister. I’ve heard a little bit about your supporting her children and a lot about supporting a marriage about which you have said nothing. News flash: judgment is not support, it’s judgment. So, my dear supportive sisters, do you have any idea why your sister wants a divorce? Because it was your sister who was in that marriage. If you’ve been in it, it’s been because you’re butting in. Your sister needs your support. No one ends a 13-year marriage without a lot of pain, particularly when the spouse is the person with whom you made a family. This was never an easy decision.
B: The only people she owes anything to in this time of significant emotional upheaval are her children. You say they’re reminded of their parents’ conflict by the presence of the boyfriend. I call BS. They’re reminded of their parents’ conflict by the fact that Mom and Dad live in two different places. They’re reminded of the conflict by one less body in the house at night. They’re reminded of it by the hole at the dinner table, by who’s not checking their homework, by who’s not giving them kisses goodnight, every night. To blame the children’s sense of loss and confusion on the presence of one man undermines the reality of that loss, which is with them much more than their mother’s new boyfriend. Their pain and confusion should not be greeted with, “We’re sorry this is your mother’s new normal, kids. Blame THAT guy.” Care and support? Missing in that statement. Instead, try saying, “Welcome to the day after everything changed. Let’s hold hands as we plunge together into the void.” How do you approach these hurt, confused children? Arms folded, sniffing over the tops of your glasses and “Tsk, tsk”ing at your sister as she goes on a date? Or arms open, ready to offer love to a grieving family?
Because believe me, your sister is grieving. Even if she’s the one who initiated the separation and claims relief, there’s still grief and confusion. Chances are she’s played every second of her marriage over in minute detail, asking herself any one of the million questions that accompany this seismic shift. Why didn’t this work? Why did I pick the wrong guy? Maybe I’m the wrong girl. How did I stay with this person for 13 years? Should I have left earlier? Would I have been better off if this marriage never happened? Did we ever really like each other?
And so on, and so on. Even if she is stock-sure this was the best move for her, she’s still got to climb out of an emotional bog. That is her reality.
P: If this is only about your religious beliefs about the sanctity of marriage, what, if anything do you know about whether or not the husband held the marriage as sacred. What was your sister due in her marriage? Was she getting it? Did you ever talk to her about it? Or did she, understanding what kind of response she would get from you, stifle her feelings and say nothing? I don’t even know from what you’ve said who wanted the divorce. Do you know? Or are you just clear your “little” sister is wrong.
You say the separation has been stressful on the family. My suspicions are it’s been more stressful on your sister. Who are you to be knee deep in the conflict? And while you are, what are you stirring up? It seems to me the conflict is between the ex and your sister.
And if there’s conversation about reconciliation beyond your clapping for that Tinkerbelle, I haven’t heard it. (ps, as much as I love Tink, in this place, I don’t think she’s real.)
B: Here is the reality of the situation: your sister is rebounding. She is free to run around with her underpants on her head so long as she’s not self-destructive and putting herself or her children in danger. “If they reconcile”, or imagining how un-civil the divorce could be if your sister dates, are not reality. Honey, you’re projecting so hard you should get a job in a movie theater. And the reality is, also, that no matter how emotionally unprepared you are for your sister to start dating again, most divorcees do not decide to live partnerless forever. You, and the children, will have to make room for a new beau at some point. Is now too soon? Maybe. But you don’t get to decide that for your sister, any more than your sister gets to decide where you’re going to work, or how often you play the lottery as you dream about a better life in the south of France. Or whatever. You get to arrange your life as you see fit, she gets to do the same with hers. That’s how it works.
P: Is it better that people don’t dash into relationship? You betcha. Does anyone recommend that the first thing you do after getting out of a long marriage is bonk your way through life — no therapist or counselor worth his/her salt (that I’ve known) has suggested this.
But many, many people do. And your sister deserves a chance to be happy. We’ll all hope she’ll be content with the infatuation period long enough to figure out if she really likes this guy.
Your job is not to sniff about this but to be understanding.
B: I am sure your concern for the children is well-intentioned and heartfelt, but you need to make sure they are living in reality, too. “Yes, your mother and father live apart from one another. But no matter where they call home, or who they date, or whether or not they talk to one another, they will always love you. We’ll be here to help them along the way, as well, because they’re scared and confused and have to figure out the world around them, because it’s different for them now, too. But we’ll be OK, because we’re family and we have a ton of love between us. See? Now, your worries are much less scary.”
That’s what you should say. Instead of, “Poor us, we don’t have the energy for this.” You’re punishing your sister, and using the kids as leverage, because you don’t want to adapt to the changes in her life. That’s not support. That’s control.
P: The one place I’m going to give you some props is that you’re concerned about the kids. That’s laudable. Often after a death or a divorce a parent can go a little crazy with the freedom. If you’ve been unhappy in a marriage, it’s a heady feeling to spend time with someone who thinks you’re great, especially if you think they’re great too. Infatuation is a marvelous thing. It’s dangerous, but it’s marvelous.
Terri made some great points about what to say to the kids. It’s great that you are willing to stand up for your nieces and nephews. And if you feel things are really out of whack, you might say, if you can manage to be straightforward and caring: Sweetie, I know you’re really happy, but your kids are not ready to see you as a sexual being under any circumstance and particularly not when they’re reeling from the break up. They’ve come to us and they’re confused.
Hopefully that will wake a mother’s heart.
If it doesn’t then you need to talk to the kids. (also how old are these kids? What you say changes a bit with age.) You do NOT need to be disapproving of the mom, you do need to say, “wow, you sound hurt and confused. You know your mom loves you. You know your dad loves you. You didn’t want this for the family, but unfortunately families are based on marriages, and when they break is difficult. It’s rarely just one person’s fault or another’s. They’re sad too. And whatever happens, they love you. That’s never going to change, even if they’re both finding different ways to deal with the changes that are happening in their lives. And you know we’re right here to support you. Things will settle down a bit. Keep talking to us,” or some version of that. It’s a much better alternative than teaching them to be judgmental little so-and-sos.
B: Be gracious to the boyfriend at the party. I can’t even consider you have any other option. And knock it off with the “she’s the youngest” rank. She’s old enough to be married, have kids, and decide her life isn’t working for her. She is not a baby; she is your peer, and that sort of familial seniority-ranking should have stopped once you were all done with high school. Pointing out that she’s younger than you only puffs you up, but it has no real merit behind it.
P: If you’re not planning on leaving your husbands behind for your aunt’s celebration, why would your sister think she needed an invitation for her date? I’m not sure why you’re not ready. You’ve had four months to get used to this. And my guess is you’ve missed several years of paying attention to the demise of this marriage, completely ignoring your sister’s comfort.
You may be missing your soon to be former brother in law. That’s sad. There’s nothing that says you can’t eventually have cordial relations with him. However, that time is not now. He needs to lean on his family and friends for support. If you preference your B-I-L over your sister, you’re likely to lose the sister, especially if she has a spine. Nobody loves a sister who makes them earn a place in the family she was born into. She’s divorcing her husband, for goodness sakes; she didn’t steal the family silver.
B: Circle the wagons around your sister! She’s your sister. She’s not an interloper.
P: So, in the meantime, if you can’t manage to be happy about this, wish your sister happiness and love her. That’s what close families do.
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