My brother-in-law has been cheating on my sister

How can I look him in the eye now that she's told me what he's been up to?

By Cary Tennis
December 8, 2009 6:08AM (UTC)
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Dear Reader,

Well, I finally found time in between medical appointments to write answers to your questions. I am an advice columnist, after all!

Meanwhile, nothing new to report on the medical front. I'll keep you informed. -- ct

Dear Cary,

I would love to get some advice on dealing with anger when you can't address the person you are angry with directly.


I spent a few weeks with my sister and her family as well as my mother this past summer for a much-anticipated reunion of sorts. My sister moved to Singapore last year, I live in Germany, and meeting up on Cape Cod was something I really looked forward to. Particularly because I work long hours for the Army and most of my leave is spent flying home to visit my parents. My father has dementia and is in a nursing home. Travel has been exchanged for family priorities over the past few years and for the most part I'm fine with that.

Still, during the two weeks at the beach house, during which I had a great time with my little niece and nephew, I noticed that my sister and her husband were fighting a lot more than normal. There was so much tension between them that I finally asked my sister what the deal was.

Turns out he cheated on her with two different colleagues and both affairs occurred at the same time their children, now 4 and 1, were conceived.


I listened to her talk about how angry she was, and am the only person she has shared this with. She said she would never tell my brother-in-law that I knew.

So here's the deal. It's been two months and I am incredibly angry.

Part of that might be because I don't have the opportunity to say, Hey, pal, that thing you did? Not so great. Or just a simple "I know." Instead we're looking at years of family trips where I'm going to stifle my thoughts and feelings and just play nice. My brother-in-law is a very sensitive guy who always is emoting about everything. He is a highly educated (Ph.D.), ponytailed poet who is highly critical of others. His opinions about other family members' choices are always freely given, which is why I can foresee this being difficult. He doesn't deal with illness very well either, can hardly bring himself to visit my father, and I was already angry about that. Angry about a lot of things, actually, that I just have swallowed because I believe in the high road. Suffice it to say that I'm flabbergasted by how judgmental he is of others when all the while he was doing this.


But now ... I saw my sister's pain. I am worried about the future of my little niece and nephew. Trips planned to see them in Asia? I have lost interest now because I can't see myself not having "the talk" at some point.

I need advice. Assuming we're a family for life, I need to know how I can constructively deal with this. I can see myself at 90 finally telling someone and, yuck, I don't want to carry this. That sounds self-absorbed, I realize, and this isn't about me. But still ...



Dear Angry,

Forgiving him does not mean that you approve of what he did. It means that you unlock the boundless human compassion that lives within you. It means you come to see him as just one more imperfect human doing his best to get what he needs and find wholeness.


It means you let go of the urge to throw him out of a moving car.

Surely it would be gratifying to throw him out of a moving car. Feel free to meditate on that. It may have some brief therapeutic benefit. After all, you can tell yourself, it's not his body tumbling with sickening flips and thuds along the gravelly shoulder of a freeway at 70 miles per hour. It's the body of his tragic incompleteness. It's the body of our shared human flaws.

But going down that road is a lost cause. For as you meditate on this image, your boundless human compassion will kick in, you will empathize with that body being torn and broken by the impact of the highway, and you will have a millisecond of revulsion.


Then you'll feel all dirty inside. He's your sister's husband and the father of your niece and nephew, after all.

So. We all have such thoughts. We move beyond them. You have to find your way into a moment of forgiveness in which this resentment rises into the air and disappears. You have to experience this. It might happen in a conversation with your brother-in-law. That may or may not be the best course of action. (If you decide to do that, however, I caution you to talk it over with your sister first. She may be concerned about how he will react if he learns that she told you.) No matter what overt action you take, the letting go has to happen within you. And it won't come through understanding what happened. That's not how it works. We arrive at forgiveness through a somewhat mysterious process. We pray, we meditate, we play rugby about it. It can take years. One day it lifts. If we practice, we can shorten these intervals. We can inoculate ourselves against these things by remaining in a state of constant awareness of our own flawed nature. But it remains a mystery and comes upon us unexpectedly.

My recent cancer diagnosis caused me to let go of certain resentments. I was thrown into situations where my resentment lifted; I seized moments, too, under this pressure, to resolve certain long-standing issues.

You may be prevented from letting go of this because of unshakable moral conviction. Surely he violated his marriage vows. Surely his actions caused pain to others. But they flow from something we all share: our hunger and incompleteness, our tragic fragmentation of the spirit. If you can come to see that, then you can see these reprehensible acts as expressions of his flawed nature rather than as acts against your sister.


Without knowing exactly how this is going to play out, I suggest you treat it with seriousness and urgency. Seek fervently for release. Throw yourself into the effort. Face this with the desperation of a man who knows it's a life-or-death situation. You have already imagined what a shame that would be to carry this with you until you are 90. So begin now.

Start with what you know. Whatever you have done in the past to move on, to cleanse yourself of attachments and beliefs that no longer serve you, turn to that practice now. It may be religion or exercise, martial arts, philosophical meditation and thought, hiking, sailing, scuba diving, music.

Whatever practices you have, turn to them urgently, for resentment can be deadly. It can poison relationships, ruin families, catalyze addictive behaviors and deaden us to our own innocence. Throw yourself into this. Find its root in your own spirit and tear it out. Let it go. Let it rise into the air and disappear.

Somehow, eventually, you must forgive this man his weakness and move on.


We're still selling books out of the house, one at a time as long as they last!

SYA cover

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?

Cary Tennis

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