Love triangle is, unfortunately, all in the family

Carolyn Hax
Columnist April 7, 2013

Dear Carolyn: Our oldest son,“Jay,” lived with a girl I’ll call “Stephanie.” He and our youngest son, “Sean,” were the best of friends and went everywhere together — camping, fishing, gun range, out to different clubs. Both young men are 30ish and have their own places.

Jay and Stephanie didn’t work out, and she broke up with him. The breakup was pretty rough on Jay, and he wanted Sean to un-friend Stephanie and not hang around with her anymore. Sean refused and the two of them fell out over it, and still don’t get together anymore except here at Christmas and important holidays.

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

Fast-forward two years, and now Sean has started to “see” Stephanie as something better than just a friend. He has told me he wants to have her move in with him and see where it goes from there.

I have told him what I believe will happen if he does: All hell will break loose, and my wife and I will be right in the middle of it with no clear winner on either side.

I understand there is nothing to be done for affairs of the heart, but couldn’t he have chosen another girl? I mean, of all the women in this world, he had to pick this one! We are at our wits’ end trying to figure out what to say and what position to take on this. Any thoughts?— St. Louis Dad


(Nick Galifianakis)

Clearly the easiest thing for all of you, even Sean, would be for Sean to break up with Stephanie and live happily ever after.

Just as clearly, that’s an outcome you don’t have the power to choose; you have already requested nonetheless; and Sean has already rejected.

Plan B time. To start, look at the angle you and Jay took from the beginning. Both of you reflexively blamed Sean. He’s the one who didn’t drop Stephanie out of respect for his brother, and he’s the one who, as you noted, “had to pick this one.” It’s a path well-worn by the many people who find themselves in your position.

Have you ever asked yourself, though, why your mind didn’t go straight here: Why couldn’t Jay himself be the bigger man, and recognize that his wounded feelings didn’t — and don’t — give him the right to ask his brother to surrender a friend?

Had Stephanie abused Jay, I’d take that back. But if the Jay-Stephanie breakup was merely a matter of dwindling affection, then Jay is the one who owes it to Sean to reach across the chasm between them. How is it a betrayal if Sean and Stephanie merely got along then fell in love?

And if it was a third possibility — that there’s sibling rivalry stuff at play and Stephanie is merely its manifestation — then the best way to end that struggle was for Jay to say, “Hey, I can’t tell you who can and can’t be your friend. I just thought I’d ask.” Poof, power struggle over before it starts.

It’s taken almost as an absolute that these love triangles must be broken in favor of the family (as in this case) or the original-friendship bond. In “bros before hos,” it even has its own revolting little motto.

Yet there’s no “sanctity of sibling” — it’s “sanctity of marriage.” As in, it’s treated as a near-absolute that one must back one’s family of choice (spouse or partner) in the face of an overbearing family of origin.

So which is it? Remember, Jay and Sean exist as brothers because two (presumably) unrelated people spun off from their nuclear families to form a unit of their own.

How about this for an alternative absolute: When it crosses your mind to ask a loved one to cut ties with someone on your behalf, stop yourself and ask how many of your affections you’d drop cold at your family’s behest. What would it take — from a sibling, parent, son — for you to divorce your wife?

I anticipate the, “It’s different, we’re married,” rejoinder, but you’re married because you were that important to each other well before any vows were exchanged. No one had a right to ask any such sacrifice of Sean, who hadn’t put himself in his place.

If it so happens that Stephanie, the (er) X factor here, is using Sean for her own ends, then my only advice here is for Sean: Break clean of everyone for a while to get your bearings again. Barring that, my advice is for you to consider that Sean’s reason for maintaining his friendship with Stephanie was more compelling, more worthy of support and celebration, than Jay’s reason for asking him to end it.

Take the hard feelings away, and this is the right thing to do. Put the feelings back and it hurts like hell, but the right thing to do hasn’t changed.

I also think Jay needs to hear this from you, though whether he’ll listen depends on whether he’s ready to put family first.

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

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