Carolyn Hax: The limits of warning a sister-in-law that she deserves better in a boyfriend

Carolyn Hax
Columnist May 12

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

When, if ever, is it advisable to tell a loved one you are concerned her relationship is not worth staying in, assuming no abuse?

My 30-year-old, wonderful sister-in-law has long wanted to marry her boyfriend of 12 years. They live together and she supports him financially, but he seems totally lazy or genuinely uninterested in marrying her.

I think she deserves so much better, but I’m sure the idea of breaking up with him is terrifying to her. Neither my husband nor I have really expressed these concerns to her — should we, or should we just trust that she will do what’s best for her?


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Concerned

Is she happy? Stranger pairings have happened.

Expressing concerns and trusting her are not mutually exclusive. Turn it around on yourself for a moment: You know you’ve got most things covered, right? But don’t you occasionally appreciate when someone you respect, and who respects you, offers some useful perspective?

We rant plenty about the nuisance of judgmental bystanders and unsolicited advisers, and it’s often warranted — when your parents keep telling you how to raise their grandkids without acknowledging that times have changed or that you do a few things right, or when strangers weigh in without a scrap of context on your situation, or when people assume that what worked for them applies to everyone.

But when the foundation of trust and respect is there, and you think the value of your view outweighs the risk it’ll be poorly received, it’s important to speak up.

Also, concentrate on what you do know instead of undermining yourself with what you don’t know. In this case, you don’t know “the idea of breaking up . . . is terrifying to her.” That’s just you talking. Instead, her concerned sibling can say, “I’m worried about you. I’ve noticed X and Y in the past few years, when your norm has always been Z.”

It doesn’t explicitly indict the boyfriend, which helps by not forcing her to defend him. You’re just saying, “I care, and here’s what I’m seeing, and here’s a mirror.”

Then you back off and let her figure it out.

Carolyn:

She’s been with this guy since she was 18. I don’t think we see any big changes in her. The issue is really that he doesn’t treat her well enough: He does not seem to enjoy spending time with her family (which is very important to her); has no plans to get a job and instead continues to play poker professionally but unsuccessfully (he’s apparently in debt); and he has suggested that he might like to move — despite the fact that my sister-in-law would leave behind a fantastic job. Is there a good way to frame these things that avoids indicting the boyfriend?

Concerned again

Actually, I don’t think there’s a good way to frame things that doesn’t indict the sister, for failing to take care of herself.

In those cases, you are essentially stuck, since the problem is probably bigger than her romantic deadweight.

Still, someone close to her can declare: “I will love you and back you always, but man will I celebrate when you get your head out of your [seat cushion].” Again, a judgment call on what the sibling bond can withstand.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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