Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Sister Is Giving Her Teenage Sons Bad Advice”

My sister left her husband two years ago, and he’s been pretty heartbroken about it. From his perspective, she is basically the woman of his dreams and the love of his life, and he is hurt for all the reasons everyone is hurt in relationships. I’m emailing because I’m concerned about what my sister is telling her two sons, both aged fifteen. Basically, she is telling them to choose a spouse wisely and treat them like any good husband should, but also to resolve that they can fall out of love with them one day, because eventually anyone you’re with might very well either not care about, or enjoy “tearing down/bringing to an end,” what was once a great love story — something she says from personal experience.

I have so many misgivings about this advice she’s giving her sons. Is that really how they ought to be going into relationships, trying to resolve internally that they can fall out of love even if that’s not how they treat their partner? Everyone deserves the right to leave, and so their partners deserve the right to take that into account. But above all, I think my misgiving is wondering, “Is she right?” Is this cynical advice good advice in the long run? The more I hear it, the more it sounds completely logical, and that desire to fall out of love is something I’ve felt in past breakups myself, but it pushes against every romantic bone in my body.

Should I talk to her and see if she might stand down? Should I offer an alternative POV to her sons? Is this what I should be telling my own children one day, quite frankly? — Questioning my Sister


Well, first of all, your sister is your nephews’ mom and so she can give them any advice she wants, and if she had wanted your perspective on said advice, she’d have asked for it, right? That’s not to say you can’t give them your own advice or that she doesn’t want you to tell them certain things, but I think questioning her parenting here isn’t the right take. I get the feeling this is more about you and your ideas about love and romance and lifelong partnership than it is about your concern for your nephews. I suspect your sympathy lies with your brother-in-law in part because his heartbreak triggers a very real worry that you could experience a similar heartbreak one day, and this was something you hoped choosing wisely would spare you from. Oh, if only life worked that way!

The truth is, your sister is right in a way: There’s no guarantee that the person we choose to spend our lives with and even vow to love and stand by until death parts us will uphold his or her end of the agreement. There’s no guarantee that feelings won’t change one day or that circumstances won’t separate us sooner than we imagine some far-off-in-the-distant-future death from old age will. What we know about life is how uncertain it can be (how many of us predicted we’d spend 2020 at home, isolated from our friends and family and co-workers?), and how it can sometimes change on a dime. So, while I think your sister is right to caution her sons to prepare for anything in love even after choosing a partner wisely, I also think it’s fair to ask yourself whether there’s a less cynical perspective to consider. I think there is.

I think there’s a way to prepare one’s self for life’s inevitable curveballs and disappointments and even sucker punches that leave you breathless and momentarily disoriented and still be vulnerable in the way that allows you to fully be seen for who you are and loved for all the aspects that make you a multi-faceted, complicated person. That’s what you want, right? To experience a love so great and rich and full that your need to have a protective guard up comes crashing down? You can have that, but it takes two very important things: the cultivation of multiple sources of love and support so that if one source – like a romantic partner – suddenly becomes less available or unavailable to you, you are still receiving the nourishment your soul needs to thrive; and the acceptance that heartache isn’t an end point, it’s a temporary stop on a long path – one that is very much survivable.

So, here’s what you can not only tell your own children one day, but also what you can tell yourself about love: If you are lucky enough to find love in your life, whatever its form and however it’s available to you, hold it while you can. Hold it and nourish it and invest in it. If you see it begin to wither, tend to it in the ways you’ve learned the source appreciates and needs – the ways that have always helped grow the relationship in the past. If those ways no longer work, ask if there’s a different way you can offer your love. Sometimes, in what can be the saddest experience, a source of love becomes unavailable to us and there’s nothing we can do cultivate a regrowth. Sometimes a love source changes the way it’s available to us and that transition can be painful and complicated (and sometimes it’s easier than we might imagine). If this happens, it’s the love we’ve cultivated all around us – including the love we have for ourselves – that helps us through the loss or the transition and the pain. My advice for you (and for your nephews and for anyone else who needs to hear it) is this: Don’t love less out of fear of rejection or heartbreak; love more. And re-imagine what it means to “choose wisely.” It’s not just romantic life partners we choose to invest our love in. They alone are not the key to a full, joyous life full of love.

***************Follow along on Facebook,  and Instagram. If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.

12 comments… add one
  • anonymousse May 17, 2021, 10:09 am

    MYOB. And maybe think about being less judgmental of your sister and her life. I’m sorry you are feeling so disappointed with how she ended her own marriage and parents her own children but it’s actually none of your business what she does. You aren’t entitled to an opinion about it and it doesn’t seem like she’s asked for your help or advice, so consider backing off. Work to have a better relationship with your sister and stop defending her ex husband, who she doesn’t love anymore.

    How’s your love life going?

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    • CanadaGoose May 17, 2021, 1:42 pm

      Agree with MYOB advice. However, while she should not express it, she is absolutely entitled to her opinion. I have recently seen a lot of people in a variety of situations telling people they have no “right” to think something. That’s not true. We all have freedom of thought and will routinely form opinions about things that are none of our business based on information shared with us. (My news feed is currently FULL of people weighing in on why Bill and Melinda Gates are divorcing and what their decision says about them as people.) So while everyone can have an opinion on anything they like based on the information they have, it does not mean they should do anything with it.

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      • anonymousse May 18, 2021, 6:38 am

        Wow, yes! You are correct. I was factually incorrect. Thanks so much for pointing that out for me. She is completely legally entitled to have her opinion about anything she wants. My mistake!

        My point was that no one wants to hear what she thinks.

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  • Fyodor May 17, 2021, 10:56 am

    I think that that people sometimes have a personal response to others cheating or frivolously breaking up their marriages (not saying this happened here) that goes beyond your individual sympathy for the wronged party. There’s a sense that we all kind of depend on this fabric of honorable behavior and if someone is undermining it, it puts everyone’s marriage in danger. If that guy is leaving his wife and not bearing any bad consequences, what’s to keep my husband from doing the same? So as Wendy said, I think that you worry that if your sister-in-law is spreading this view, it’s putting your own marriage at risk too and your concern isn’t specifically grounded in concern for your nephews.

    That being said, I do think that the SIL is importing her own baggage into her kids lives in a way that’s not terribly helpful and she should keep up better boundaries.

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  • Kate May 17, 2021, 11:08 am

    What Wendy said. Your sister is actually pretty much right, and while I think it’s a bit off to be giving them this advice in this way, I think it’s a lot healthier than advice like “There is no divorce in this family!” which my grandfather who would now be 110 used to dictate to his kids. And guess what, 2 of 3 got divorced. So did I. I think your sister’s phrasing is a bit off but the idea is, you grow and change, and you may even fall out of love. Don’t feel like you have to stay and make it work at all costs and make yourself miserable. You can move on. It’s okay.

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    • Karebear1813 May 17, 2021, 5:06 pm

      ” I think your sister’s phrasing is a bit off but the idea is, you grow and change, and you may even fall out of love. Don’t feel like you have to stay and make it work at all costs and make yourself miserable. You can move on. It’s okay.”

      Weird wording but that’s exactly what I thought she was trying to convey.

      LW – MYOB – your nephews are 15yr old. Old enough to likely know what happened between their mom and dad, and hell, they might even like them better apart.

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  • Bittergaymark May 17, 2021, 12:16 pm

    Wait, what’s the bad advice?

    PS — Also, NEWSFLASH: I so don’t think you quite know the whole story about why your sister left her husband. Her warning about spouses that “enjoy tearing down and bringing to and end” rather clearly imply that he was hardly the innocent saint you insist on making him out to be.

    Frankly, it’s rather curious to me that you are so quick to take HIS side.

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    • FYI May 17, 2021, 3:59 pm

      100%.

      Someone cheated here, that was my take. Husband or maybe wife. I could of course be wrong — I don’t know these people at all — but “enjoy tearing down what was once a great love story”??? That doesn’t sound like a drifting apart situation.

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    • Thought It Was SIL Cheated May 18, 2021, 1:58 pm

      I got the sense the sister cheated and that’s what tearing down a love story meant, assuming it seemed like a great relationship up until that moment.

      If HE cheated, SIL’s advice to her sons would make sense to be “don’t do that.” I got the sense it was more like (from SIL’s perspective) “I cheated, so I know my son’s wives could one day cheat, and I want my sons to be happy, so they need to be prepared to fall out of love even when they fall in love”

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  • brise May 17, 2021, 1:39 pm

    In agreement with Wendy. Anyway, LW, kids don’t take so seriously their parents’ advice. My mother gave me a lot of advice about men that I find slightly ridiculous or outdated. Children make their own mind about relationships on the basis of what they see and experience, not so much about the advices that they are told. So if you want to give them a more positive perspective on marriage and love, just be a happy couple and invest some time and energy in inviting them or propose them some fun stuff to do, without intruding this very sensitive and painful situation of a divorce.
    A divorce within the family is always a difficult period for all, but please keep in mind that it is more difficult for the ex-couple, your sister included. Have some compassion for your sister. She broke up for a reason. Maybe it is a mistake or a delusion, according to you, but she has her own motivation for doing so and nobody knows really what happened in her couple. Every couple is a black box for the outside. Be a gentle support for your nephews, your sister, and don’t get overinvolved in their private life.

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  • Sister Cheated? May 18, 2021, 2:30 pm

    I get the sense it was the SIL who cheated here, and that’s why she tells her sons everyone can ruin a “great love story” because she is the one who did it. Right? If it was the husband who cheated, why not just tell the kids “don’t do that.” I think her telling her sons this is a way of acknowledging her acts and wanting them to be prepared for their spouses to do something like that.

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  • ron May 19, 2021, 3:07 pm

    Sister Cheated? — I had the same take on what LW said, although I’m not sure her assignment of blame for cheating can be more than an educated guess. LW’s wording is strange but the “anyone you’re with might very well either not care about, or enjoy “tearing down/bringing to an end,” what was once a great love story — something she says from personal experience.” seems like her warning her sons that a wife, like herself, might decide to tear down a great love story for quirky, unexplainable reasons of her own. It doesn’t read like “don’t treat your wives like your father treated me.”

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