Can This Relationship Be Fixed?

By Katherine Smith
Katherine Smith
Katherine Smith
is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a gifted divorce mediator in NYC. She is a former high school English teacher and college counselor with a passion for enhancing the lives of others. Additionally, Katherine has extensive training in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, family systems, and group therapy. Readers can contact her at AskKathyMFT@gmail.com.
October 27, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

Dear Kathy,

     My husband’s brother left his wife for another woman. My sister-in-law, “Diane,” was devastated. She reached out to me several times after he walked out but I never returned her phone calls.  We haven’t seen each other or spoken since.

     My mother-in-law told me that “Diane” went into a bad depression after the split. It got worse after he remarried right away. I feel partially responsible because I basically ignored her cries for help.

     In a couple of months, my in-laws’ daughter is having her Sweet Sixteen party and the whole family will be there. I feel really awkward about seeing my sister-in-law again. Should I just say “hello” like nothing happened or apologize for not responding to her calls?

     At the time they divorced I didn’t know what to say. Because I didn’t know what to say,  I didn’t say anything.

     My brother-in-law married his first wife on the rebound. He was originally engaged to another woman he had been living with. She was the love of his life and he was crazy about her.

     While they were planning their wedding, he got drunk and had a one night stand with a mutual friend’s girlfriend. There was a huge fallout between all of them and my brother-in-law’s fiancé broke up with him.

     My brother-in-law was broken-hearted when he couldn’t get her back. He met “Diane” a couple of months later and he married her after she got pregnant.

     “Diane” isn’t a bad person but her family is materialistic. She put pressure on her husband to get her a big house in an expensive neighborhood and buy her designer clothes and bags so she could keep up with her sisters’ and cousins’ lifestyles.

     “Diane” agreed to work to help with their mortgage and other bills. As soon as her first child was born she decided to stay  home full-time and she wouldn’t go back to work even after their youngest was in full-day school.

     My brother-in-law was unhappy in their marriage from day one. His in-laws always looked down on him because he’s not from the same ethnic group and he doesn’t own his own business (all the men in her family are contractors or tradesmen with their own businesses).

     He worked two and sometimes three jobs to give his wife everything she wanted. No matter what he did it was the wrong thing. If he only worked one job she complained that there wasn’t enough money to pay their bills and if he worked extra jobs to pay for everything she was upset because he wasn’t home more.

     They were married for many years before he met someone else and left. He really tried to make it work but she never appreciated him. My sister-in-law was taken totally by surprise and blames his new wife for being a home wrecker. The only thing the rest of us were surprised by was that it took him so long to meet someone else and move on.  

     When he moved out and she called me I knew that she wanted me to commiserate with her. I would have felt like a hypocrite. I didn’t want to be honest with her, though, because it would have come across as mean. That’s why I never returned her phone calls. 

     He and his second wife are a good match for each other because they work together. Our whole family loves her because she makes him so happy and we’re thrilled that they’re expecting. It is great to see him with a smile on his face and enjoying his life for a change. His second wife is also a lot friendlier and she includes us in their family life more.

     My first sister-in-law treated our side of the family like second class citizens. Her family was “family” to her, period. The only time she was genuinely interested in connecting with the rest of us was after her marriage broke up and I think that was because she hoped we would shame him into going back to her.

     What should I say when I see his first wife at the Sweet Sixteen? I feel like avoiding her because so much time has gone by. It’s incredibly awkward at this point. It will be even more awkward if I hug my new sister-in-law hello like usual and ignore my first sister-in-law. Is there some kind of etiquette to follow in these modern family situations?

Feeling Guilty

 

Dear Friend,

     It sounds as though you have a lot of mixed emotions. I suggest that you process your feelings with a counselor or good friend as soon as possible before the family party.

     Refrain from talking things out with a member of your husband’s family as there seem to be hurt feelings all around about not being included more in your brother-in-law’s family life during his first marriage. Additionally, the apparent reasons for the breakdown of that marriage appear very one-sided. There are surely three sides to the story – his, hers, and the objective truth.

     Put yourself in your sister-in-law’s shoes for a moment. She is attending her daughter’s upcoming birthday party with her ex-husband, his new (and pregnant) wife, and her former in-laws, who prefer the woman he left her for. No matter who did what to whom in the past, she deserves some of your compassion.  

     Call her up and ask to meet with her. Tell her the truth – that you didn’t know what to say to her at the time of her divorce, so you didn’t say anything at all. Don’t be specific. She doesn’t need to hear that her former in-laws think that it’s her own fault that her marriage ended. Apologize for hurting her feelings and tell her that you hope she can forgive you.

     Your brother’s children will always be in your life. Your former sister-in-law will attend all of their important life events, also. It is in everyone’s best interests, especially your nieces’ and nephews’, to get along with one another as well as possible.

     There’s no time like the present to clean your side of the street. All you can control is taking the next right action. Once you do that, the ball is in her court.

     If she won’t meet you, apologize over the phone. If she doesn’t pick up, write her a letter. All you can do is conduct yourself as well as possible – apologize and move forward. Say “hello” when you see her and don’t participate in gossip sessions about her with members of your husband’s extended family. Apply the Golden Rule and things should work out in the end.

Sincerely,

Kathy

Readers, please send your letters to AskKathy@gmail.com. Your feedback on this post is welcome, as always!

    

 

is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a gifted divorce mediator in NYC. She is a former high school English teacher and college counselor with a passion for enhancing the lives of others. Additionally, Katherine has extensive training in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, family systems, and group therapy. Readers can contact her at AskKathyMFT@gmail.com.