Dear Carolyn: When we read my father-in-law’s will a few weeks ago, we learned he left a sum of money to a much younger daughter he had out of wedlock about 45 years ago. The attorney said he advised him to leave her money or else she could contest the will and get a share anyway, which means she obviously knew who my father-in-law was and that he died.
My husband and his brothers are floored by this, mostly because it changes the opinion they have of their father. My father-in-law had ample time to tell his sons about their sister, knowing they were going to find out anyway, and he didn’t.
My husband has a lot of questions about his sister, her mother, and their affair. I think it’s natural to be curious about this. The sister hasn’t responded to any communication from us.
My husband wants to request his sister’s birth certificate and try to piece this story together. It makes me a little uncomfortable, but I don’t really know why. I am having a hard time supporting my husband when he talks about that route, and I’m not sure how to be there for him during this crisis. I usually live an ordinary life, so this soap opera has thrown me for a loop.
Anonymous: It does seem sometimes like life toggles between boring and flat-out nuts.
Your husband is midway through a massive paradigm shift — everything he thought he understood about his dad, family and self is now open to new interpretations. Of course he wants more information.
Of course, I could just as easily be saying, “Of course he wants to pretend this sister doesn’t exist.” People undergoing an emotional upheaval tend to throw themselves into whatever they believe will help things make sense.
So your role is, in many ways, just to get out of the way. Having strong opinions about what he should and shouldn’t do or feel is not going to be welcome; that’ll just make you another front in this larger battle he feels he has to fight.
One way to be supportive is to get out of the way, but stand by as kind of guardrail. Let him pursue this information, say you understand why he’s upset, agree his feelings are justified . . . and save your intervention leverage for keeping him from doing something rash or harmful.
For example, suggest waiting periods — “If it’s a good idea to send that letter, then it’ll still be a good idea on Monday.” Etc.
Empathy, compassion and calm are three things you can bring to this mess.
When he’s ready and if he asks, you can also offer perspective. Mine would be: People always have, and always will have, facets of themselves that they keep private. This is an extreme situation, maybe, but hardly unique.
Right? And it doesn’t necessarily invalidate your husband’s entire view of his dad, so much as complicate it — though that’s just my opinion and you and he might think otherwise.
Ideally in this guardrail position, you’ll have room to think about your own opinions and will figure out why you’re thrown by your husband’s response. Understanding that will help you keep your husband grounded as he hunts down the truth.