My sister is having an illicit affair

I'm sworn to secrecy, but I think maybe I should tell the rest of my family.

Published May 18, 2007 11:05AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

You've been writing quite a bit lately about who has the right to tell a story (i.e., the dad who wanted to tell his daughter about his ex-wife's abortions, the relative who wanted to spill the beans about the adoptive dad and Chinese ancestry, etc).

I have another one. I suppose the answer is going to be the same: This is not my story to tell. But I'll ask your advice anyway.

My younger sister is a beautiful, blond, brilliant 32-year-old with a high-powered job in a coastal big city. She's classy and cute and smart and kindhearted. She's doing great in her chosen profession.

And she repeatedly chooses really bad men. About five years ago, it was the asshole who intentionally -- yes, intentionally! -- gave her herpes. He waited until he had an outbreak, then invited her over for a glass of wine.

The latest in her string of bad men? A three-year relationship with a married man. This man, who initially was her superior at work, has two young kids with his wife. One was born before his relationship with my sister started. The other was born about eight months ago.

My sister and I are close -- but not as close as she and my other sister are. (The two of them are really tight -- I'm a bit of a black sheep, but I love my sisters just the same.) The thing is, my big-city sister has not told our other sister, who really is her soul mate of sorts, about her affair. She has told only me. The reason for this, I assume, is that she knows I will not be as judgmental about it, because I've got something of a wild-and-crazy past (now finished!). Our other sister had a cheating husband and isn't as likely to look kindly on my sister's decision to keep up this relationship with a married man. She also has not told my mother, who has very strong feelings about the sanctity of marriage. She begs me to never, ever breathe word of this.

For a long time, I was not judgmental of this affair. I figured she was having fun, and at some point, my sister would come to her senses and go looking for available and decent men to marry -- because she does, in fact, say she wants marriage and children in the long term.

But it's just not happening. About every six months, my big-city sister calls me in a fit of hysteria, weeping and weeping, because she had a fight with this married man, or she just found out his wife is pregnant, or whatever crisis is threatening their affair. Each time, she swears it is "over." The M.M. (married man) is not necessarily nice to her. I think he is smart, and witty, and rich. I think he enjoys my sister's company. (We all do -- she's wonderful fun.) But he has no plans to leave his wife and children, and gets actively hostile when my sister dates other men. This doesn't happen as often as it used to, anyway.

I am just sick with sadness, watching my sister spend some of her best years -- her childbearing years, the last of her youthful-glamour years, her "finally grown-up" years -- with this married man. It breaks my heart. The most recent falling out, in late February, I really thought my sister would stick with it and finally move on. She didn't. Although she does not admit it to me, I'm fairly certain she is still sleeping with him and seeing him regularly.

My sister wants me to come visit this summer. (I haven't been in a long, long while, as I have young children.) Although I would love to go visit, when I asked myself why I was stalling in buying the plane ticket, I realized it was because I'm so dang angry at her for throwing so much away on this boob.

Sometimes, when I think about it, I wonder what would happen if I told my mom and our other sister -- both of whom often ask me if I have any idea why my big-city sister stopped dating so suddenly three years ago. I'm sure my sister would be furious. But she also might finally get over this guy and move on. I really think our other sister would not be as upset as we think -- I think that, as my big-city sister's soul mate and confidante, she might have some support and insight that I'm not able to provide. Maybe she'd help our sister move on.

I know: Bad idea, right? Not my story to tell? It will surely ruin my relationship with one, if not both, sisters?

So then, can you tell me how can I persuade my sister to move on with her life? Should I go visit, and if so, can you give me any words to say? Any magic fairy dust we can sprinkle on her, to clear her sight?

Not So Nonjudgmental Anymore

Dear Not So Nonjudgmental,

Yes, I think you are correct when you say that I've reached the same conclusion several times lately about how one should handle knowledge of a secret.

I thought at first your case would be different, for my gut response is that you should tell! My wish, in the sense of a child's wish, is that you should tell. But that is because, I'm afraid, I am as emotionally enmeshed in the family drama as you are. I, like you, want to see justice done. I want to see people act right. I want things to turn out the way they should.

But the goal here is for you -- and me! -- to rise above the family drama. In that sense, what is best for you is to distance yourself emotionally from your sister until she changes her life and you no longer have to keep her secrets.

This is not a way of punishing your sister or forcing her to change her behavior, but a way for you to protect yourself from emotional pain and manipulation. If you insert yourself into this drama you will be punished from all sides by your family. There is no way for you to win.

Here is the ugly but freeing truth of it: Whatever your sister is getting out of this thing, that is what she wants right now. What is she getting out of it? Functionally speaking, she is achieving delay. She is holding others at bay, protecting herself from their expectations and their demands. She's holding you at bay, too.

She says she would like to get married and have kids, but her actions do not bear that out. She is a responsible adult with a high-powered job; she knows how to hire and fire, how to make decisions, how to begin and end relationships. If she wanted to end this adulterous affair and begin a search for an available husband, she could do that in one lunch hour. She may indeed want a husband and kids -- just not ones she has to go home to every night. She's using someone else's husband because she doesn't really want one of her own.

And that is just not right because she doesn't have permission. Basically, she is stealing. If this were France, the wife might know, and there would be some kind of understanding. But this wife probably has no idea, and she has predicated her happiness on the sanctity of marriage. I imagine that this wife is immensely vulnerable, living a life that is soon to be shattered. Doesn't that matter at all to your sister?

I used the phrase "sanctity of marriage." That rings a bell, doesn't it? Who else is big on the sanctity of marriage? Oh, yes, your mom.

One often wonders how women can do these terrible things to each other, what displaced fury must lie behind the reckless disregard for another woman's feelings. Perhaps what allows women to do this is that the woman who is the victim in such a triangle represents the hated mother. Maybe your sister is saying "Fuck you!" to your mother. Maybe she is saying, Look at how much pain I am in because I could never be good enough for you. So look what I will do: I will delay getting married and having children in order to show you I don't have to do what you say, in order to show you how I can hurt you, how much power I have to hurt you by flouting your deepest wishes for me!

For how else could she do this? I dare say she could not do it to a woman whom she thought of as a peer.

Or could she? Could she do this to one of her sisters? If so, could that be another reason that it is so bothersome to you, that you, as a married woman, are vulnerable to this kind of behavior by another woman? If so, you may find her behavior not only troubling but a little threatening and insulting as well: If she can do it to this man's wife, she could do it to you. She is dissing you -- not you literally, but you as a member of a class of women, married women with kids, faithful and true, not glamorous or all that much rip-roaring fun but faithful and true, for what that's worth, and it is worth a lot to some of us.

What else may be driving her behavior at a deep level? Well, as the family drama goes, she is rejecting Mommy, and Mommy's beliefs, in order to get what she wants from Daddy. She is taking Daddy away from Mommy. She is punishing Mommy and demonstrating that she is more attractive and successful than Mommy.

OK, so that's taking it a little far, but we all have these drives, and let's not pretend we don't. At a deep level, she is enacting a family drama.

There is also, at this level of the family drama, a set of triangular conflicts and conspiracies. Your big-city sister has enlisted you in her conspiracy against your mom, and it is probably sort of intoxicating, or at least intriguing and warm, to be included. But she is playing you off against your mom and your other sister. For all you know, she has indeed told her other sister but has sworn her to secrecy, too. You could be in the dark about that. You don't know for sure. So it's quite possible that both of you are being played off against your mother, who is the unacknowledged but central object of this conspiracy: Your mother cannot know under any circumstances because it would literally kill her, right? So what is your sister's secret wish in that regard? That your mother find out -- so that it literally kills her, figuratively speaking. Because her Oedipal wish, female version, is to marry the dad and kill the mom. So if you wanted to do your sister's most basic and secret bidding, secret even to herself, you would tell your mom. That is one more reason not to do it -- because, perverse and counterintuitive as it is, she actually does wish for your mom to find out. She is secretly proud of the power she is wielding over this married man (power, perhaps, that your mom could never wield over your dad?).

In other words, yes, indeed, something is dreadfully wrong here. But you cannot fix it by stepping in and telling the truth about what your sister is doing. That would place you squarely in a drama that is secondary to what is actually important.

What is actually important is what you actually want. You need to dig deep and admit that underlying this is your own desire for the sister whom you want rather than the sister whom you have.

She is fun, you say. But let me remind you -- for I am on your side -- she is tormenting you. She is holding herself aloof from you. This is not a free and beautiful relationship. It is filled with withholding and control. So you can't enjoy her, can you? I do not believe you can. You cannot participate in her drama except as an observer. She is offering you tantalizing morsels of her intrigue, but that is not what you want. You want her to grow up and tell the truth and be the sister you want her to be.

It would be nice to be able to help your sister out of whatever hell she is living in. But my concern is for your welfare because you are the one who wrote to me. I do not think your life will improve if you tell anyone about your sister's affair. But I do think your life will improve if you dig deeply enough into your feelings about your sister to recognize the sadness and loss that are there. The sadness and loss are there because you were hoping your sister would turn out a certain way and she has failed you. She has turned out a different way, and quite willingly at that. There is still hope that she will change, of course. But right now, whatever infantile family drama she is playing out, you can't change it. If you break down this castle she will build another one. She feels compelled to do it.

Maybe knowledge of this will break in upon her. But you can't make that happen.

You can't have your sister the way you want her. You can only have her the way she is.

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