Update: Sister of “Questioning my Sister” Responds

updatesIt’s time again for “Dear Wendy Updates,” a feature where people I’ve given advice to in the past let us know whether they followed the advice and how they’re doing now. Today we have a first! We’ll hear not from a LW, but from the subject of a letter. In this case, it’s the sister of “Questioning my Sister,” who thought her sister was giving bad advice to her teenage sons.”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.” She was concerned that this was too cynical a view and wondered if she should offer a different POV to her nephews. Her sister, the mother of the teenage boys, read the letter posted here – which, by the way, Carolyn Hax also answered in her Washington Post advice column last week – and had this response to share:

I was shocked when I read your column and found out my sister had written you about my parenting advice, and I am upset she aired this online first, although I do appreciate your sensible advice that they are my children and my sons.

Nonetheless, I feel a need to explain why I teach them the way I am doing so.

I was married to my husband for six years, and for a long time he was the person I wanted to spend my life with. Then, I decided I wanted something new. I wasn’t “unhappy” per se, but I wanted to explore. Sex with others, etc… And this could have happened in many marriages for many other reasons, like infidelity or different career locations, but for me, I decided I wanted out. I don’t regret it. Maybe I should feel sorry for him, but I don’t, to be honest. He sees me as irreplaceable, and he’s hurt to have lost me, and maybe I should feel sorry about that given things were lovely once, but I don’t. To some degree, maybe it makes me laugh, a little, because history is replete with men doing the same to women.

With that said, I have sons. I see my ex in pain, and I don’t want my sons to be in pain. But how can I guarantee the women they might be with won’t do the same, or something else won’t go wrong? I can’t. The way I see it, I should be honest. Everyone wants to be loved, sure, and in the short-term a relationship provides that in spades. The longer you go, the chances increase that your partner — the person to whom you have developed an attachment which science has shown triggers the same parts of the brain as addiction — will see you as replaceable/disposable and/or replace/dispose of you. All you can do is take that into account. Try and have a great relationship, with the two of you being wonderful to each other as long as you can swing it. But I want them to tuck it somewhere in their brains when they enter a relationship that their partner one day can be replaced with someone equally good. Because I can only assume from my ex’s woes that unreturned love sucks, and I don’t want them to accidentally end up wanting to be with someone more than is likely to be returned in the long run. If drugs and love trigger the same parts of the brain, I see no reason why moderation in love is less of a good idea than with substances.

I think this is good advice. Sure, it would be nice to find someone who loves you forever and wants nobody else, but it won’t happen. I see no need to pull the wool over their eyes.

– One Person’s Cynic Is Another Person’s Pragmatist

Hi! I hope you aren’t too upset with your sister and that any harm this experience may have had on your relationship in short-lived. I do stand by my advice to your sister to butt out and let you parent your sons as you see fit. I also think that between your cynicism and your ex-husband’s grief and pain over losing you, your sons probably already have pretty strong models of the more devastating part of the love-them-and-lose-them equation. But you’re wrong that this is the only equation available in romantic love, and I would hope that if your sons are lucky to see models of long-term love that look different than the kind of relationship you had with your ex, you wouldn’t try to negate whatever message they might glean from seeing these kinds of models.

In the end, your ex-husband is going to survive his heartbreak just as millions of people before him have survived their own heartbreaks and just like your sons will survive their own potential heartbreaks one day. A key to good parenting, if I may be so bold, isn’t to protect our children from hurt and grief so much as it is to empower them and give them the tools to get through to the other side and to be stronger for the experience. I read something the other day – I think it was part of a graduation speech and now I can’t remember whom to credit – but it went something like: “I wish you just enough pain and grief and hardship and disappointment in life that you will be wiser, more empathetic, more compassionate, and stronger from those experiences.” Heartbreak is just one of many disappointments your sons might experience one day. You cannot protect them from all the pain the world may throw their way, but you can always be a soft place for them to land. It sounds like you really love them, and I bet they know you’ve always got their backs.

If you’re someone I’ve given advice to in the past, I’d love to hear from you, too. Email me at wendy@dearwendy.com with a link to the original post, and let me know whether you followed the advice and how you’re doing now.
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  1. Wendy, this is a very compassionate and thoughtful response. From the original letter, it wasn’t very clear what exactly had precipitated the end of this LW’s marriage (as in, why exactly she was telling her kids that their partners were likely to just dump them). With this clarification, I can see why her sister was a bit alarmed! I mean sure, people fall out of love all the time, but I don’t know if it’s super healthy to tell your kids that a person who swears a lifetime commitment to them is inevitably going to get bored and leave. Maybe something more like, “monogamy isn’t for everyone” or “you don’t have to get married to have a fulfilling love life” or something about how they should be really sure before they make a legal commitment, and get premarital counseling or whatever. I mean, most people’s wedding ceremonies involve language about promising a lifelong commitment for better or worse, etc. If you stand with your partner and make that promise, it seems like a reasonable expectation that you won’t just blindside them a few years later by announcing you’re bored and want to get divorced so you can go date around. (And if I’m doing the math right, the husband probably wasn’t her sons’ dad – they were married for 6 years, and the sons are teenagers.) Unless the LW’s husband was a massive jerk or there were longstanding problems, she sounds remarkably callous about the whole thing. 6 years is pretty quick to go from “things are lovely” to “I don’t love you and I want to have sex with other people”. Although, props for getting a divorce instead of just cheating!

    In the end, the sister doesn’t have any say in how the LW parents her kids, but I hope they don’t end up super cynical and unable to trust their future partners.

    1. Good point that the ex-husband may not be the sons’ dad. I edited a few words of my response to better reflect that.

      1. He might be – I’ve known long-term couples who got married after being together for years, whose marriages fell apart within a relatively short time. But it didn’t sound that way from the information in either letter.

        I think it’s interesting that this LW thinks she can protect her kids from being hurt by a romantic partner, simply by telling them that they should always keep in mind that their partner could walk. Knowing that my husband could decide to up and leave me one day wouldn’t make it any less painful if it happened. I wonder if she is actually using this language with them to describe her actions in ending her marriage: “enjoy “tearing down/bringing to an end,” what was once a great love story” – that’s pretty intense for a parent to put on a kid; maybe keeping it to “sometimes people grow apart” would be better?

  2. Lots of people were sure that the husband who was sad that his wife left him must have cheated or otherwise had it coming.

  3. “He sees me as irreplaceable, and he’s hurt to have lost me, and maybe I should feel sorry about that given things were lovely once, but I don’t. To some degree, maybe it makes me laugh … ”

    Sorry, this LW sounds like a sociopath to me.

    It is in no way, shape, or form inevitable for kids to have their families ripped up. And, yes, it does affect them. Sometimes it’s necessary, but this … this sounds pretty cold.

    1. This is kinda what I wanted to say but was trying to be more charitable! Lol. I hope the LW doesn’t get married again if she thinks this is the inevitable conclusion of every relationship. Nothing wrong with just dating.

    2. Yeah, I was thinking Sociopath as well when I read that.

  4. “Sure, it would be nice to find someone who loves you forever and wants nobody else, but it won’t happen.”

    It’s great to prepare one’s children for the practical possibility that Happily Ever After is sometimes just a fairy tale, but when you get this cynical with it, I wonder if you might do more harm than good. I’d be very sad if my child kept those she loved at arm’s length, loved “in moderation,” on the off-chance she might get hurt if they left. If you expect a relationship to fail, you’ve doomed it from the start.

    “The longer you go, the chances increase that your partner… will see you as replaceable/disposable and/or replace/dispose of you.”

    This line made me feel very fortunate that I’ve had the chance to observe quite a few relationships where the longer the couple went, the deeper the bond, the greater the intimacy, and the stronger the union – with death finally bring the only thing that could part them. I hope to have that in my own marriage, but will certainly not hold myself back from loving deeply to avoid heartache. Even if it doesn’t work out, it will all have been worth it.

  5. I think there is a kernel of truth in what she says but she is bringing it up at a weird time. I think she is right that when someone we attach ourselves to replaces us, mentally or physically, we want to replace them too. It helps us detach from someone who has detached from us. I don’t know as much as Wendy does her ex “survives” this, or if he has a pain that lasts forever (which is what it seems like at the moment if he sees her as irreplaceable). But I think the lesson isn’t to go into a relationship knowing they are replaceable, so much as to love with all your heart and hope that you find they are replaceable IF you have to. What is the phrase “other fish in the sea” if not a form of social insurance?

    (Also, maybe this is harsh, but maybe her ex should see how callous she is before deciding she’s irreplaceable. Like, taking joy in the pain of someone who didn’t even hurt you? That’s just ugly).

  6. Bittergaymark says:

    I misread that letter and thought you had been cheated on, I think. Now I don’t blame people for falling out of love… but you are so damn gleeful about your exes pain it is a bit unnerving.

    This part especially:

    “He sees me as irreplaceable, and he’s hurt to have lost me, and maybe I should feel sorry about that given things were lovely once, but I don’t. To some degree, maybe it makes me laugh … ”

    Well, it’s kinda fucked up. Actually, yeah. They make you sound pretty awful.

  7. ” he’s hurt to have lost me, and maybe I should feel sorry about that given things were lovely once, but I don’t. To some degree, maybe it makes me laugh, a little, because history is replete with men doing the same to women.”

    A couple of posters have commented on the first part of this quote, but the second half is more interesting to me. It makes me wonder what her mother or some professor taught her. It’s the bigoted leap from ‘history is replete with men doing the same to women’ to all men are like this, or she is avenging all women for what some men have done to some of them. It’s like she is Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter and she is dumping the same toxic stew onto her sons to continue the poison for another generation. How will those sons treat their wives and girlfriends? They are certainly primed to treat them very badly.

    1. Agree, Ron. That part of what she said is disturbing too. Even if she perceives history that way, how does it help anything to keep perpetuating a wrong?

  8. CanadaGoose says:

    This woman sounds like she has some kind of disorder. I do not think she’s helping her children at all. Frankly, I see why her sister is concerned.

  9. All right, yeah, with the update – this is super weird. These ideas about enjoying tearing down what was once a great love story, laughing about it, people being replaceable for someone “just as good…” All of that sounds disordered. She sounds like she doesn’t form connections the way most people do, and feels disdain for what’s a normal reaction on her husband’s part to having the connection broken. This situation sounds unhealthy for her sons and she’s making it worse by telling them this weird stuff. That said, my mom used to give me really stupid advice from her own experience and I could recognize it as such. Like, she told me at 16 that her diaphragm had failed twice and since I was born they’d been pulling out and it worked great.

  10. ele4phant says:

    Um, hmmm.

    Yeah, I agree this is a weird attitude. I mean, of course people change, things can go wrong, one partner may be more invested than the other, feelings can fade, hearts can get broken even when there’s no “bad guy”.

    That’s just kind of the human condition – we all put our hearts out there acknowledging they may get crushed, but the upside if they don’t is it’s really wonderful. We must open ourselves up to risk for the potential benefit of a loving lifelong relationship. We cannot avoid pain if we want to find that deep connection.

    It does seem like the message you are teaching your sons is to hold everyone at arms length just so they don’t get hurt. Which, may mean they live an emotionally stunted life (and potentially be cold hearted to any woman they date). Or they ignore you and end up getting their hearts broken again. Which see above, is part of life. It’s like teaching your kids never to take risks in school, because they may fail. They may, or they may succeed beyond their wildest dreams. They may fail initially, but learn something, try again (or try something else), and come out even better than they would’ve hoped for.

    I do get the sense you feel this sense of relief to be out of a relationship that didn’t serve you, and I don’t fault you for that. But you do come off as pretty callous. You say yourself he’s a decent dude, and no matter what, he is the father of your son. You will always have some sort of a connection to him.

    You can be empathetic to his pain. Doesn’t mean you should’ve stayed just so he didn’t get hurt, but there’s a way to thread the needle here and acknowledge that you care about him as a person and are sorry he feels pain, but ultimately it wasn’t fair to stay in a relationship where you both couldn’t be happy. That this way you *both* have a chance to find a romantic relationship that feels right.

    *That’s* a good message to share with your sons, that not every romantic relationship will make it, that they may feel pain, but that you can still be kind and respectful to former partners and that it’s not an earth shattering thing if a major relationship ends.

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