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Family Almanac

Teenager Doesn't Need To Know Divorce Details

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page C04

Q.My brother and his wife ended their difficult and unhappy 20-year marriage four years ago, but the pain still lingers.

They had some happy times, but were essentially mismatched, especially in the way they dealt with problems. She is highly emotional, with lots of blaming, fighting, crying, chaos, tale-telling and drama, while he, like the rest of my family, resolves problems swiftly, efficiently, coolly and with little recrimination. When he grew weary of her angst, she must have felt that her grievances were ignored.

The divorce was painful and sad. He was eager to resolve the issues and move on; she, in her anguish, behaved badly and placed all blame on him and his family. Their children suffered accordingly, which makes all of us unbearably sad.

My brother has since remarried, and now his ex-wife tells everyone that their marriage had been perfect until he ended it.

I hope she will heal and grow, but in the meantime, her behavior affects me, my parents and my 16-year-old daughter as well as my brother. She has cordial but rare phone conversations with my parents but has emphatically rebuffed my calls and never responds to holiday and birthday cards or graduation invitations. Now her legal wrangling and subterfuge makes it hard to be friendly with her.

My daughter, however, believes that her aunt has suffered terribly at the hands of a brutal ex-husband and his family and wants her included in our larger gatherings. I told her that this might be painful and difficult for everyone, but I haven't told her about her aunt's behavior because it seems cruel to the aunt, because it could undermine my daughter's real affection for her and because it isn't a child's story.

Without this information, though, my daughter is making a romanticized, emotional response based entirely on her aunt's reports, as her own children have done. I hate to see that.

Should I tell my daughter how her aunt really behaved?

A.Much depends on your daughter's discretion and what her aunt really did in her anguish. Some 16-year-olds are mature enough to keep confidential information to themselves, but many are not.

But don't give your daughter any reports that she may be tempted to ask her aunt about. If you do, she will find herself in the middle of another family quarrel.

Nor do you want to tell her about any truly private matter, such as infidelities or suspected infidelities by either your brother or his ex because there is no such thing as a secret.

Sooner or later your daughter will repeat this news to her best friend, who will tell her mother, and then her mother will pass it on to her friends at work and the facts will become a little more distorted with every telling. That's how a confidence turns into mean and gritty gossip.

Instead, help your daughter see the shades of gray in this marriage, so she will understand that every argument has many sides and that very few marriages end on a whim. Your daughter should know that it was just as upsetting for your undemonstrative, moderate brother to put up with his wife's wild outbursts as it was for her to be surrounded by the cool, dispassionate people in your family.

Tell her, too, that since her aunt won't even attend a graduation, it would be unkind to ask her to one of your larger family gatherings. This may happen in time, but for now her anger and bitterness would make her miserable and it would probably hurt the feelings of her uncle and his new wife, too.

It's fine for your daughter to be generous, but let her be generous with her own time and through her own efforts. Tell her that she can stay close to her aunt by calling her and visiting her and especially by sending presents and funny postcards to the children and offering to baby-sit -- free. These gestures will do much to restore civility.

As painful as this divorce has been for your daughter, it is teaching her about the fragility of feelings and how important it is to listen to others, even when she doesn't feel like it. Indeed, your whole family may need to learn this lesson.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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