Somewhere in the world, there’s a photo of a 14 year-old me standing in my family’s kitchen beside a lanky, gray-faced, shirtless young man, giving a thumbs up. His name was Jake and he’d just gotten a “Dr. Feelgood” tattoo on his back, thus the reason he was shirtless. I guess the thumbs up meant I approved? Jake was my sister’s first serious boyfriend. She dated him when she was a freshman in college and I was a freshman in high school. I don’t remember having any initial opinion about him, other than that I hoped he and my sister thought I was cool. (They did not. No one did.) I also remember that he seemed perpetually stoned; not in an endearing way, more in a “Does he need a nap?” way. He was remarkably unremarkable and, as you may have noticed, had terrible taste in music. I don’t remember the details of their break-up, but I do remember he was shitty to my sister. By the time they broke up, we were all glad to have him out of the picture.
I’m sure my sister has some opinions about the guy I brought home in college who wore sweatbands as accessories and wanted to name his firstborn son “Champion”.
You can’t pick your siblings, but (most of the time) you love them. You definitely can’t pick your siblings’ mates, though, no matter how hard we might try. Lucky for our family, my sister married the antithesis of Jake, and my fiance rejects the use of any impractical accessories.
No one tells you when you’re 13 years-old that your best friend/your brother/your cousin might marry a giant loser or someone with the personality of a tree stump. The assumption is that if you love them so much, you’ll love their person so much. But maybe your best friend grew up without enough examples of healthy relationships in her life, maybe your brother is deeply insecure, maybe your cousin doesn’t care who she marries as long as he has a pulse. Whatever the reason, and no matter how poor their choice might seem to you, it is ultimately their choice. Cool, huh? Most of the time you live with it, adjust, let it go. Sometimes dire situations require loved ones to step in. Other times, loved ones want to step in but should instead just sit their ass down.
I’ve had these two inquiries sitting in my inbox for awhile. I kept going back and forth about which to choose until I came up with another approach. So for this post, you get two predicaments around the topic of “When do I interject?”
1) My sister’s husband is deeply depressed. Last holiday season, we rented a cabin in the mountains as a family. My parents were there, my sister and her husband, my brother and his family, me, my husband, and son. For the entire four-day weekend, we saw my sister’s husband twice: once when he and my sister arrived, and once when they left. He spent the entirety of the trip in their room. This is the last straw for me after years of his odd behavior and my sister making excuses for him. He doesn’t even work and yet she praises the smallest gestures, like him heating up dinner. I know she worries about his ability to live without her, but she’s literally sacrificing her whole life for him now. She avoids social outings, rushes home to be with him, etc. etc. How I handle this? I want to help her, but not alienate her.
You should talk to your sister as soon as you can find a time and a strategy to do so. Your sister is in a rough situation, one you may only know a small portion about. If you’re able to, set up a day or some extended amount of time together, doing something you both enjoy. If you like to hike, hike, if you like mani-pedis, get those. Maybe hike AND get mani-pedis. I don’t care, just spend some time alone together for more than three hours. Your sister is aware that her husband’s behavior over the holidays was odd, even if she doesn’t say it, and it was probably a stressful situation for her to be in. You mentioned that this was the last straw for you, so I imagine you have a number of things to draw on. Find a time once you’ve been alone for awhile and ask if how he’s doing. Then, mention how his behavior at the cabin concerned you. Ask how she’s doing. Listen to her, wait for an opportunity to express your concern about his job situation as well. Maybe he’s getting help. Ask. Maybe she is too. If not, encourage her to. This is a heavy burden to bear and she needs a professional to guide her through the effects of her husband’s depression. Be careful not to get preachy. When we (especially me) feel desperate about a situation, it’s hard to be patient, be quiet, to listen. But do that. Remember that you don’t need to unload all of your concerns about the situation the first time you talk to her about this. Test the waters and see where she’s at.
The most important thing is that you establish yourself as a rock in her life, a person for her to turn to. This could be a long haul and might require a bit of fortitude on your end, but if you’re concerned enough to write into a small-time advice column, it shows you care. That’s what your sister needs right now.
2) My brother recently got engaged to a nice, but boring girl. She’s kinda lame too. Our family is funny and she doesn’t really get jokes nor tell many jokes either. My brother is fun-loving, she’s… just nice. I said that already, but she IS really nice and I feel guilty saying she’s lame, but that’s all I can say about her. Well, that and that she treats him well. I don’t think she’s enriching his life in any way, though. I don’t think she challenges him or makes him better. Some background: He’s my youngest brother and I’m the oldest of five. I’m married with a kid and despite the fact that he’s 31, I still consider him “little”. He and I have always had a close relationship and before he marries this girl, I want to say something, but I’m not sure how to bring it up. I feel like as a big sister, that’s what I’m supposed to do. Say something, Sammon!
Despite the fact that you love your sweet little brother, he is actually a 31 year-old man with a fiance who is nice and treats him well. Sammon says: keep ya mouth shut! He’s not in jeopardy, he’s living his life, and if all signs point to happy and healthy, you don’t get to butt in. You only get to butt in if he directly asks you about it. If he says, “Do you think I should marry Jane?” Maybe then and only then can you say something like, “She’s lovely. I just wonder if she challenges you enough.” That could start a conversation. If your brother loves this woman enough to want to marry her, you can’t come out and say exactly how you feel. Which feels wrong, I know, but this is a “handle with care” situation. You expressing even the slightest hint of doubt could make waves you’re not up for dealing with. BUT! He probably won’t ask you that. And that’s probably a good thing. If she’s wrong for your brother, only time will tell. Just don’t sit around wishing for it. Wish for his happiness, manifest your love into support and patience. Family members can tend to look on at loved ones through a filter. We project what we want for them onto them, especially the babies of the family. Maybe your fun-loving brother likes lame, boring, unfunny people and wants to make half-boring, half-fun babies with one of them. If she starts holding his hand over open flames, draining his bank account, or generally making his life miserable, put on your cape and swoop in. In the meantime, try to look on the bright side; he could have done way worse.