DEAR CAROLYN: My accomplished adult niece, 43, has been having an affair with a married man for several years. He is an abusive alcoholic, according to my nephew. Since their mom, my sister, died, I have tried to be as supportive as possible to both of them. The affair is not a secret; she has brought him to family events and supposedly his wife knows.
At one point, she assured me he would get a divorce once his daughter had graduated; that date has long passed. I’ve only told her I loved her enormously and wanted her to be cherished and to come first in her partner’s life. She says she has no interest in marriage. I would like to say more but I do not want to cause a rift; I think my larger role is to keep us all connected. Her father is older, preoccupied and not judgmental. Several of her girlfriends have broken off with her.
This issue came to a head when her brother did not want to invite her lover to his wedding because he had been offensive. My niece said he had stopped drinking and asked that he be included, so the couple relented. Seating was arranged. He was a no-show with no explanation. My nephew asked me not to include his sister in a follow-up family gathering I was hosting so she would not bring him; I drastically reduced the numbers to make it just the bride’s parents, but it was awkward to exclude my niece.
Is there anything I can do? These are all adults making choices with consequences, now including a sibling rift.
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What Would My Sister Do?
DEAR WHAT WOULD MY SISTER DO?: Oh, such a loaded signature.
I’m sorry for your loss, and sorry you feel you have to carry the weight for you and your niece and your late sister.
Your sister may well have been just as worried, stymied and dismayed as you are now. That is how almost everyone feels in the role of forced bystander to a catastrophic relationship.
What might help, in its way, is that several realities here serve to shorten your list of options.
First, and most basic: To know what your sister would do is impossible, so you can only do what you think is best. Give yourself that permission.
Second, your niece’s poor judgment is costing her dearly without your having to attach a single consequence of your own. She has been friend-dumped, family-estranged, publicly humiliated, strung along. If she were ready to receive a punitive “this is a really bad guy” message, then she would notice her mailbox has been overflowing with them for years.
Third, your niece is 43. With a younger adult, the anguished parent figure can justify more forceful meddling, if only on a onetime basis. Those within a decade of AARP membership, though, for better or worse, have standing either to be confronted as peers or let be.
So there’s your choice: peer intervention, or punt?
I recommend the peer intervention recommended to me most by survivors of abusive relationships: Tell your niece simply that you love her and that, when she’s ready, she can call you and you’ll be there. Day or night.
It conveys two essential things: Yes, this is an emergency, and yes, you’re safe with me.
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