My sister is two years older than me and has a 3-year-old son with a guy she's been married to for 10 years. She feels stuck and fights with her husband all the time. I am 100 percent sure he is cheating. They make just enough money to make ends meet and just bought a house they can't afford. On top of that, they recently found out their son is autistic.
I take her side when she complains about her husband, but then she turns the tables and acts like I am attacking him. They want another child, but that's a huge mistake. They don't have the money, and with all the fighting and cheating, I'm afraid my little nephew is learning terrible lessons about love and how men should treat women. If I told her that, she'd get defensive and tell me I don't understand because I don't have kids, then dish out some conservative mantra about motherhood being the greatest thing a woman can do. I think a good mother would do what's best for her son. They don't even spend time with him to help with his learning disability; they just sit him in front of the TV and feed him McDonald's. What can I do?
Sad Sister (female, 33)
Dear Sad Sister,
Unfortunately, there is not much you can do other than be honest and support her. I understand your desire to protect your sister and your nephew, but her life is her own, and she is his mother. Plus, no one knows what goes on in a marriage behind closed doors.
It's natural for husbands and wives to feel protective of each other — for many people, their spouse is an extension of themselves. So when you criticize him, she may feel like you are criticizing her.
That doesn't mean you can't be honest about your concerns. But avoid being combative, and try to create a safe space for dialogue. Your sister is in an abusive situation; the last thing she needs is to be judged.
Also, be sensitive to the probability that your sister may be risk averse and, at 35, may feel like her maternal clock is ticking. For you, an unhappy marriage may not be tenable. But for her, the idea of undoing her life at this stage may be too steep a climb. She may already have calculated that being on her own would make her unhappier than she is now. In that case, your job is to help her make the best of it.