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What kind of sister? The human kind.


Dear Carolyn:

I’m getting a dose of reality. I’m divorcing my husband (of 23 years) seven years after the affair and sitting unhappily on the fence. My sister has always been my best friend, with whom I could share it all ... but the blinders about reciprocity, support and validation are slipping off.

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

What kind of sister would hear stories of the packed getaway suitcase stashed in the garage in case of a needed escape and not say, “You need to get out of this relationship”? What kind of sister would take my call from the emergency room, hear the story of husband loading a gun and say, “No, don’t tell Dad; don’t get a divorce”?

Of course my listening to my sister and not acting in my own behalf is my fault. But looking back at the many times she invalidated my concerns and feelings makes me think she is not a friend. Am I being harsh, am I into blaming? Or am I right?

Let Down

The idea of “seeing the light” is such a beautiful one — yet the reality of light hitting your eyes after years in the dark is that it hurts, a lot, at first.

Think of it as growing pains, though, and the ache you feel will align with your expectations. You’re well into your adulthood, obviously, but I define “growing up” as the transition from seeing things as we want them to be to seeing them as they are. People can arrive there as children, young adults, oldsters or not at all; it’s a highly personal journey where timetables have no place. It takes as long as it takes.

For you, it took your 23rd year of marriage to create the circumstances that shoved you out of what I suspect is a lifelong pattern of self-abnegation.

Why do I suspect that? Your sister. Her responses to you say on the surface that she isn’t your best friend, yes, but deeper down they could also be saying she was cast in the same don’t-upset-any-authority-figures mold you were.

This kind of emotional training can easily be mistaken for a dedication to “family” — hich would then lead you to assume your loved ones were invested in your best interests. Because that’s what love and family are about, right?

You wanted that to be true, as virtually everyone does. And so you counted on your husband and sister, year in and year out, to care for and about you, even though they demonstrated often that they served other masters — himself and your father, respectively.

Assigning terms like “harsh,” “blaming” or “right” might help you write a new narrative to replace the old one — but then you’ll be tempted to see only what fits your new story. Instead, try just applying at face value what people reveal about themselves.

Specifically, go into any dealings with your husband and sister — or, heck, just about anyone else — with the understanding that they’re inclined to see things their way, not yours. That way, instead of trusting others to guide or care for you, you trust them merely to be themselves, good and bad, and trust yourself to serve as your own best friend. It’s from that vantage point that you’ll be able to see who really has your interests at heart.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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