Dear Carolyn: My "perfect" brother is having an affair and ending his 30-year marriage. He says it is not because of the other woman, whom he has met only a handful of times, but it is pretty clear that is why.
His adult kids are devastated, my sister-in-law is grieving and angry, and my mother is horrified and can't talk about it. The girlfriend is still married and has younger kids.
I am reaching out to both my brother and sister-in-law with love and compassion. How does one manage to maintain bonds? I can rationalize, but it is hard. I want to shake him — and I am not eager to meet his girlfriend, if it comes to that. Any advice?
Family: “Perfect” is utter fiction. It’s corrosive if he was labeled that and expected to live accordingly; it’s corrosive if he labeled himself as such and expected to maintain that as his facade. It’s corrosive even if it was just a vibe he always kinda had and others took for granted.
So it’s entirely possible, albeit still not excusable, that he on some not-even-conscious level just dynamited the foundation of all of it. To get himself back.
It’s also possible the affair partner truly isn’t the reason he’s leaving his marriage.
He fell for someone else, yes, and that obviously played a huge part. But she could have been what brought his own misery to his attention, the living counterargument that made the denial he was living in impossible to sustain.
I offer these counter-theories just to urge you to keep an open mind about the reasons the marriage unraveled.
It sounds as if you’re managing the complex emotional fallout quite well already, with love and compassion and frank reckoning with your own conflicted feelings. You’re probably in the worst of it now, or at least the most volatile, so if you can stay calm and open and focus on listening, then you’ll likely emerge in a good position to maintain these valuable relationships.
So much is still in flux, too, so don’t worry about how you’ll deal with X until you have to.
●It sounds like classic midlife crisis. A sane middle-aged person wakes up and is 13 emotionally, falling for the first person he sees as I did over Davy Jones of the Monkees until I met him and realized Micky was cuter. And some do not get a grip and dynamite their lives.
●An area you and your family can focus on is your brother’s kids. It’s perfectly within the family’s jurisdiction to make sure even adult nieces/nephews/grandchildren have whatever emotional and logistical support they need. And it might give you a pathway to maintain a relationship with your sister-in-law without appearing to “choose sides.”
●This hadn’t fully occurred to me but resonates with my experiences. Like maybe “perfect” children/siblings/spouses might make choices in part designed to explode long-standing, oppressive expectations. It hit home that sometimes dynamite is the only viable answer when others expect you to hew to expectations that rob you of agency and authenticity. My take? If he’s saying it isn’t the affair, begin by believing him. And sit with the distress, extend compassion full circle, without falling prey to the temptation to judge or blame.