Ask Amy: Family anguished over violent relationship

June 21, 2012

Dear Amy:

I have a sister-in-law who in many areas of her life is outstanding.

One of her darker sides is in her choice of men. She was recently beaten up by her boyfriend, who broke her clavicle.

This put the whole family into turmoil as police, a district attorney and attorneys got involved. Six weeks later, it has come to light that she has gone on a weekend trip to the beach with the abusive boyfriend.

I feel he is duping her to get the charges dropped.

This isn’t the first time the family has endured this cycle with her and other boyfriends. My wife (her sister) wants to cut her off from our children, and my brother-in-law is barring her from his wedding.

Should we sever ties with her, or stand by and let it play out because she is an adult?

Frustrated in Portland

The reality of severing family ties is that your sister-in-law will have no support to make the extreme changes she needs to make to leave this violent relationship.

I can understand why your wife doesn’t want the kids to be embroiled in this extreme drama, but the flip side is that relating to these children may provide an inspiration or incentive toward change.

I can also understand why your sister-in-law’s violent partner would be barred from a family wedding, but I wonder about the choice to exclude her.

A family meeting is in order. All of the adults should gather to present a calm, loving, united front. Urge her to get professional help. Give her the name and number of a local therapist, as well as the National Domestic Violence Hotline, www.thehotline.org, 800-799-7233 (SAFE), for her to carry with her.

Encourage her to see the legal process through.

You should keep the door (figuratively) propped open — not for family members to leap in and save her over and over again, but to demonstrate your concern and compassion.

Don’t abandon her, but know that you cannot rescue her either. She must take the steps to rescue herself.

Dear Amy:

I am a 16-year-old girl with a 13-year-old biological brother, “Paul,” and a 10-year-old adopted sister, “Natty.”

My parents have never told Natty she’s adopted. She resembles our family, so I don’t think she notices.

She’s recently started asking questions about her birth, and my mom has made up elaborate lies to cover up her adoption. My mom says she’ll tell her when she’s old enough. Paul and I think she deserves to know but don’t want to defy my mom. Can you help?

Distressed Sister

Your mother’s refusal to tell your sister her adoption story has now devolved from lying by omission to outright lying.

Your mom is putting all of you in a terrible position, and it has the potential to profoundly affect everyone.

Your sister is old enough to learn her adoption story. She was always old enough to know this story, because it’s the truth. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or worried about, except, of course, when it becomes this big and powerful secret that the whole family must keep.

Tell your mother you worry that another family member will tell your sister the truth, and this would turn a wonderful story into a confusing and traumatic event for everyone.

I assume that you have quite distinct memories of your sister’s adoption. You should also say that you will never lie about this and that if asked you will tell the truth. You don’t mention your father, but he would be the obvious choice to help you advocate for the truth.

A book that would provide inspiration to her is “Talking With Young Children About Adoption,” by Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher (1995, Yale University Press). This book not only suggests ways to have this talk, but anticipates the many questions that children frequently ask.

Write to Amy Dickinson at askamy@tribune.com or Ask Amy, Chicago Tribune, TT500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.

2012 by the Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Media Services

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