Three years ago, my wealthy, twice-divorced, retired brother e-mailed news of his sudden engagement to a much younger divorced mother with five young children. I replied with congratulations -- and gently asked about a prenup.
He thanked me and briefly outlined the financial precautions he was taking. Once married, the new couple established a joint e-mail address. With or without his permission, my brother's new wife combed through his old e-mail and found our discussion. So, two years after I sent my e-mail, she's responded with an angry lecture about prejudgment and invasion of her privacy. She also cc'd other family members. And my brother now says that my original inquiry was inappropriate. Comments?
Hung Out to Dry
Dear Hung Out to Dry,
So you made a reasonable inquiry to your brother, presuming it to be a private communication. His wife read the presumably private communication and is now lecturing you on your invasion of her privacy.
How I love family life.
Now she is widening her harangue of you to include a whole circle of e-mail recipients, in order to demonstrate her regard for privacy.
How I love family life.
Your brother now says, presumably at her instigation, that your formerly welcome expression of interest and concern was inappropriate.
How indeed I love family life.
I was raised to believe that the contents of paper envelopes containing personal correspondence privately addressed to private individuals were absolutely confidential. So when e-mail came along, I thought about it the same way.
Now I don't know what to think. I'm all mixed up.
Making inquiries to your brother about his financial affairs is not an invasion of his wife's privacy, nor is it a judgment upon her. Reading a spouse's e-mail, however, does sound like an invasion of privacy.
First, tell your brother to get his own, private e-mail account to which he has the only password. Don't tell him this via e-mail. Instead, take a long walk with him somewhere private, say, along the waterfront in a deserted industrial section of New Jersey.
People shouldn't be snooping through other people's stuff. People should leave other people's stuff alone. However, the kind of e-mail snooping you describe happens with great frequency these days. Perhaps our assumptions about privacy are changing. His new wife may think any mail may be opened by anyone with impunity.
My pique and outrage may not help much. It may help, however, to clarify what you want: Do you want your brother to enforce a prenuptial agreement? Do you want your brother's wife to be nicer to you? The more specific you can be about what you want, the more likely you are to find some peace of mind.
You could just say you're sorry. It might not be true, but it might help. She may feel wronged somehow. She is obviously the new one in the family and may feel quite vulnerable. She may be overreacting. She may need someone to reassure her that she has a place in this new family. But if she wants to be accepted, she's sure not going about it in the most strategic way. She sounds volatile. If you mollify her, she may assume that you will not object to further tirades by her. If you battle with her, you may find that you must battle her constantly. Hard to tell. I don't know you or her or your brother, so I can't even venture a guess. If principle is more important to you than domestic peace, you may want to stand your ground.
I fear I have not been a great deal of help. One day soon I would like to discourse at length on the subject of e-mail privacy. But for now, your groggy correspondent, recovering from minor surgery, must bring this discussion to a close.
Good luck. Do not assume that anything is private. Proceed with caution.
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