My husband is groping my sister

My sister told me, and he told me, but there was a lot of drinking involved and their stories don't match up. So what's going on?

Published October 29, 2007 10:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have had a relationship for the past eight years, though we have only been married for three. We have two adorable young children. Five years ago, my husband had a sexual encounter (without intercourse) with one of my close friends. We have since gotten past this, and I eventually even trusted him again. However, my sister recently told me that on two occasions in the past three months my husband has kissed and groped her when they were both drinking.

After I confronted him, he told me about four other instances in which they kissed and touched. All of the occurrences he mentioned, he said, were initiated by her a year ago or more. He denied the instances she had told me about, which were much more recent and which, she said, were initiated by him. He claimed that he didn't remember doing anything she had accused him of, but when I asked if he thought he could have, he said yes.

I know that on at least one of these occasions, he drove one hour from her house to ours afterward, so he could not have been drunk enough to black out. By the way, she also denies everything he says.

My problem is that I still love him. I want to believe that it was a mistake and I want our lives to go back to normal. However, I'm not sure that my husband actually wants this. He says that he is sorry and that he wants and loves me and our children, but he has not done much to show me this. In the past month since I found out about this mess, he has bathed the kids all by himself once and offered to rub my back once. I will admit that he has generally been nicer to me, but he has definitely not gone out of his way to show me that he is sorry and truly wants our relationship to last.

There was no actual intercourse, and I realize that people make mistakes, especially when there is alcohol involved. The fact that it happened so many times and that it was with my sister makes it so much harder to forgive. I love him and want to have my family, but why should I believe he won't do it again?

Am I being too hard on him, or is he really the creep that I sometimes believe he is?

Too Hurt for Words

Dear Too Hurt,

Actually, you can drive an hour in a blackout. You can do lots of things in a blackout. I know a guy who started drinking one night in New York and woke up on a traffic island in Tel Aviv in a blackout. It's amazing what you can do in a blackout.

So why should you believe that he won't do it again? You shouldn't. You have no way of knowing that he won't do it again. Not only that, you have no way of knowing that he won't begin doing it more, not only with your sister but with other people, or that he hasn't in fact already been doing it with other people and doesn't remember, or can't be sure, because he was in a blackout.

So the question you have to answer for yourself is not "What is he going to do?" but "What am I going to do?"

What are you going to do if he does not immediately recognize that he has a problem and immediately take steps to get help? Are you going to wait however long it takes for him to admit to himself and to others that he has a problem? Are you going to stick by him while he goes through the agonizing and sometimes years-long process of realizing that he is out of control and that it's only going to get worse?

Keep in mind that "worse" is relative. That is, if he continues to drink to the point of blacking out, the things he hasn't done yet are just things he'll do eventually. If this keeps going, you will one day find with shock and horror that you are feeling warmly nostalgic for what used to be your worst nightmare!

So what would you do if you knew your husband was going to continue doing what he has been doing? If he were to say to you, for instance, that he has no way of knowing what he's going to do, and there is no guarantee that he will even remember what he does, and that he will eventually die an ugly death from this, or end up in jail, or in the hospital, or dead on the road, or in prison for killing other people on the road, or just depressed and dirty and unable to work, lying around the house, useless and incoherent, unshaven, swollen about the face, that he is going to come home sometimes beaten and bloody with no knowledge of the evening's events, that sometimes he is not going to come home at all and will have no explanation, that friends will on occasion carry him home and dump him on the doorstep, that there is nothing on earth you can do to stop what is about to happen, and that what has happened so far is only a bare glimpse of what is to come, what would you do then? Would you leave him? Or would you stick around to watch it all happen?

It happens in slow motion. The incidents of outrageousness begin far apart. First it is an anomaly. Then it is something that happened once or twice. First it is pretty bad. Then it is really bad. Then it is unbelievable. Then it keeps going. There is the first time you can't believe he did what he did. Then there is the first time you realize you don't even know who this person is anymore. Then there is the first time you are afraid of this person. There is the first time it occurs to you that it's actually possible he could kill you and your kids. There is the first time you realize that he is literally insane. It keeps going like that. The cops come. The social workers come. The sober friends come. The relatives come. The ministers come. The co-workers come. Everyone comes to look at him and help and nothing helps. It keeps happening.

It keeps going like this until maybe one day another person with his very same problem talks to him honestly and confidentially, spills his guts and says, yeah, here is what I did when I was drinking: Yeah, I blacked out and slept with both my wife's sisters, I slept with my wife's mother, I slept with my wife's father and brother, and one night I had the whole family in bed with me including the dog and then I took a crap in the family bed. But I was in a blackout so I didn't even know!

And your husband nods his head thoughtfully and says, yeah, that's plausible, I can see how that could happen.

And that's when he begins the identification process by which he has a little self-revelation, which begins the remarkable personal transformation that has been liberally documented in the annals of alcoholic recovery.

Which leaves you to ask yourself, what do I do in the meantime?

Well, maybe he and you don't have to go the full route to where he has your whole extended family in bed with him including the dog and he craps the bed in a blackout. Maybe he could stop in time. You could start with a good therapist. You go to a good therapist with problems of one variety, such as marriage problems, and a good therapist, so I have heard from people to whom this has happened, will often say something like this to one of the parties: Maybe you should stop drinking. And then the person will say, Well, drinking is not the problem, and the therapist will say, well great, then it should be no problem to stop. So come back in a week, and don't have a drink in the meantime.

Maybe a therapist would say that to your husband.

And then maybe he would try to stop drinking for a week and then realize that, wow, Jesus, holy fuck! It's hard to stop drinking for a week. In fact, it's impossible!

So then maybe it would begin to dawn on him that indeed an inability to control his drinking could have played some small role in these unconscionable betrayals.

Maybe. No guarantees. But it's worth a shot.

That's what it looks like from here. It's not a pretty picture. But there is hope for a great new life if he can begin to face the truth.

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