Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Dismaying Story #76: Longstanding Complaints

Dear Andrew,

My younger sister is 50 years old and has been married for 27 years. She has complained about her marriage most of that time. As you may have heard, arranged marriages are the norm in India, where the parent finds the prospective spouse. My parents gave her the freedom to reject her current husband before they were married but she chose to go through with it. We later found out that he wanted very much to marry another girlfriend but his mother forbade it and finally, under pressure from her, he agreed to marry my sister. She found out about this around the time she had her first child, but she stayed with him, had a second child, and kept complaining.

He seems affectionate to her family (she says it's all put on) but I have seen flashes of anger when he deals with her. Much of what she says of him may be true. Whenever any of us suggest a strategy, though, she rejects it because it's not exactly what she has in mind. Now I no longer feel I should get involved because I feel she has to make a decision herself. She still rings my 89-year-old mother up and complains. She may sound ready to walk out one evening and sound totally different the next day.

Don't you think my sister and her husband have gotten so used to this destructive relationship pattern that it actually fulfills some need in them both? What should my mother and I do? Should we intervene?

Signed, Concerned Older Sister

Dear Concerned,

Your sister gets some sort of payoff for complaining to you and your mother, or she wouldn't do it. It sounds to me, though, as if she is confusing activity with accomplishment. She talks about her marriage a great deal but apparently does little to actually improve it; if she had, she would no longer need to complain.

Your sister is facing the same issues and pressures today that she has for so many years. After consistently making the same decisions all along, she is highly unlikely to take the initiative and make a change now.

So should you intervene? I'll answer that by asking you a question: what sort of intervention could you try? You have already listened, discussed, cajoled, sympathized, and made suggestions to her. What else could you do? She has not listened to you so far, so she is unlikely to start now.

Like it or not, she is an adult and is responsible for making her own life decisions. You can't step in and decide. Given that there are children involved, I'm not sure you would take that responsibility even if you could.

As callous as it may seem, I recommend you simply take steps to reduce the amount of frustration this causes for you and (if possible) your mother. You have to accept that the situation is not going to change and there is nothing you can do about that. Step 1 is to stop trying.

Step 2 is to construct a protective emotional barrier around yourself. Your sister will want to keep on complaining. You could ask her to cease and desist, explaining that this has never done any good and you would prefer not to have this conversation anymore. If that is too stressful for you (for example, if you know that would hurt her feelings) you can listen, nod politely and then forget about it as soon as she is done talking. You need to have the wisdom to recognize this is a situation you cannot fix, and the courage to give yourself permission to stop worrying about it.

That is easier said than done, I know, and it may be especially so for your mother, who has undoubtedly spent a lifetime doing her best to protect her girls. I suspect, though, there is little more that either of you can do.

Unless, of course, you talked her into asking for advice on how to improve her marriage. To whom could she send an email.... Hmmm, let me see...

All the best,

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  1. Hey, this is actually good advice. You should do this for a living..Oh, never mind. I see that you do..

  2. Anonymous3:21 AM

    Thanks a lot. Mostly what I was trying to do. But as you said very difficult for a mother.
    Concerned older sister