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Carolyn Hax: Family is ‘angry’ at brother who wants to divorce his wife

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Hi, Carolyn: Out of nowhere, my sibling informed our family that he has been very unhappy in his marriage of almost 20 years and wants a divorce. Our family is reeling, and we’re all at a loss in how to handle it. His wife is a lovely person and they have children, which is making this even harder.

We love him, but are also angry at him for choosing this because, from our perspective, his reasons don’t seem acute enough to end a marriage. Additionally, I find myself handling my parents’ feelings, as they are extremely hurt and angry about it. This is a burden on me. I am also angry and upset but have closed off that area because it’s almost too much to emotionally manage.

I’m staying supportive of both parties and hoping they are willing to attend counseling. But I’m also fearing the worst and know I will have to help pick up the pieces of whatever happens.

Do you have any advice on how parents and siblings of those going through separation and/or divorce should act?

— Sibling

Sibling: Act as if it wasn’t “out of nowhere” for him.

Act as if it is not your marriage, or divorce, to judge.

Act as if your most compassionate role is to play no role at all.

When you say his reasons “don’t seem acute enough,” you’re declaring yourself qualified to judge this. But you aren’t. No one is if they don’t wake up in this marriage personally every day.

You do not know how it feels to be your brother.

The lovely person he married and the mother of his children could just be wrong for him. That’s it. A bad fit. And maybe he has worked for two decades to make a bad fit into something better — for all the same reasons you want him to keep trying, even — and maybe now he’s tired enough that working at it is no longer a healthy option.

Are you really all going to gather round to say, “Sorry, bro, your unhappiness doesn’t meet our family threshold for doing something about it"?

Of course there are good and bad reasons to leave marriages. Self-preservative, and selfless, and hurtful, and thoughtful, and disloyal/rash/long overdue ones. Maybe his reason is one of the worst. But there are bad reasons to stay, too. Who wants a spouse who doesn’t want to be there?

The only bystander who can make these distinctions with any accuracy with any given couple is one humble enough to know how much is unknown.

I realize your brother’s decision set in motion certain things that involve you — like upset parents dumping their stress on you. It is indeed your place to manage these.

But you can do so in most cases by deciding upfront what you will and won’t discuss, with whom. “Mom, Dad, I understand you are upset, but I can’t be the one you lean on right now.” “I love you/them both and don’t feel comfortable talking about this.” “Only the people in a marriage know what goes on inside it.”

Act as if being sad about something — genuinely, legitimately, understandably sad — and actually being able to fix it are two different things. I’m sorry you’re all going through this.