How do I not take sides in my brother's divorce?

I want to talk to my brother's wife but I'm afraid he'll think I'm siding with her

Published August 6, 2010 12:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I grew up with a father who was very controlling, to whom appearances were everything and his family only props to either make him look good, and thus gain his approval, or not, and suffer his disapproval. He was not physically abusive but very much emotionally abusive.

One of his narratives was that of the "good Christian father." We went to church twice on Sundays, Wednesday night, and frequently more often for special events. We were not allowed to go to movies or dances, use playing cards, alcohol was forbidden, etc. Everybody not exactly like us was going to hell. He was a deacon and sang in the choir. This was not due to true belief; he quickly dropped all these strictures and duties later on when he decided on a new facade. He projected a genial, charming persona in public and everybody thought he was exactly the image he projected. People were always coming up to tell me how great my father was. However, at home, he dropped the act and we all lived with someone very different.

I had a therapist once tell me that we had basically the same family structure as an alcoholic, and that feels true to me. It took me many years to overcome my early upbringing and become a person I feel good about. I've not been in touch with him since college, feeling a need to protect myself from his toxic personality.

I'm giving you this background to help explain the problem I'm writing you about, which is with my brother. In past visits (we live in different states) I've seen many signs that his behavior is a lot like my father's was. His wife, a wonderful woman, usually just laughed it off, calling him the "drill sergeant." They have two daughters, whom I adore, and my brother dotes on them, perhaps to the point of ignoring their mother. About a year ago his wife just blew up (she was overdue, in my opinion). They went to counseling but they're now going through a divorce. They're leaving the girls out of it as far as I can tell.

My brother is playing the part of the wronged, wounded husband bravely soldiering on, and most likely this is really how he sees himself. My problem is that I strongly sympathize with his wife. I haven't been in touch with her because I'm afraid that anything I say might become fodder in their divorce. I love my brother, and since he's family feel that I must be on "his side" even though my natural inclination would be to side with his wife. I also want to be a part of my nieces' lives and don't want to risk being cut off from them.

Right now I'm just trying to let him know I love and support him, because he is, no matter the cause, going through a difficult time, and do it without stating any approval or disapproval for either him or his wife. However, I feel a strong need to let his wife know I understand her anger, having lived through a similar dynamic with my father, and to offer her support as well. She's going to need all the help she can get recovering her self-esteem and finding some peace.

Do you have any sage advice? I could really use it!

Thank you,

Been There


Dear Been There,

Your therapist made an interesting observation in saying that your family was like the family of an alcoholic.

An alcoholic, once recovered, can be around alcohol without becoming intoxicated. The craving has been removed. The problem is gone. Likewise, someone who has recovered from the effects of an alcoholic family can be around that family without becoming intoxicated, or poisoned. It is as though an invisible barrier has grown up that protects him from what used to threaten him with annihilation. He or she has gained some detachment and serenity. However, in early recovery, one is well advised to stay out of bars. Likewise, for some time now, as you recover from the effects of your family, you have been well served to avoid your father.

But you have not really recovered. You have just stayed away. So you remain vulnerable to all the old entanglements, the baffling rage and depression and feelings of powerlessness and sadness. And now a drama of divorce has awakened that old family struggle; you feel an irresistible attraction to this drama. You are drawn to the wife, whom you feel you can empathize with, whose situation you understand like no one else. But just like old times, the issue of secrecy and taking sides arises also: What if your brother finds out you're talking to his wife? What will he think? Will he retaliate if he thinks you are being disloyal?

All these old monsters are reawakened. So here is a big, cold, shocking dose of existential clarity:

You cannot change the past. You cannot change your father. You cannot change your brother. You cannot rescue your brother's wife.

I would sit with these facts for a while and be aware of what arises. You may find that as you think about this you become sad, or angry. You may find yourself wishing that people knew the truth about your dad, and also about your brother. The unfairness of it, the injustice, may stick in your throat. You may feel a desire for revenge. Old hurts may surface. You may feel an impossible conflict between your loyalty to your brother and your knowledge of his character, and this dilemma may fill you with an urge to act, somehow, in any way, just to overcome the paralysis of impossible choices.

So remember: Your brother's wife was not there in your family. She didn't see what happened. She does not see your brother the way you see him.

She needs to tell her own story. If you can let her do that, then you are perhaps being of service. Just beware of your own need to express your own pain. You get to do that. But not in talking to the wife. The proper place for that is in a therapist's office or in a group such as Al-Anon. 

As far as the practical matter of whether to tell your brother you are talking to his wife, and taking sides and all that, I do not think you should keep secrets from your brother. That is your old family pattern. If you are going to talk to your brother's wife then talk to her. But don't be sneaking around. There is nothing wrong with talking to your brother's wife. Just be clear about the limits of what you can accomplish. Listen. Let her tell her story. Do not attempt to enlighten her.

But before contacting her, take some deep breaths, and consult the therapist you mentioned, or drop in on a group such as Al-Anon. You need a place to safely work through your own strong feelings first.

On the issue of taking sides, well, as a friend of mine puts it, divorce always creates a custody battle: Some folks get custody of the wife, and other folks get custody of the husband. You will probably get custody of the wife. Take good care of her. 

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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