Heavy Meddle: Help! My Sister-In-Law Is Stuck In An Unhealthy Marriage

How can I get her to see the cost of a bad marriage? (Nick Fuentes/flickr)
How can I get her to see the cost of a bad marriage? (Nick Fuentes/flickr)

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Dear Steve,

My sister-in-law is in an emotionally abusive marriage to a man who ignores their two young children, doesn't help around the house and spends money recklessly to maintain his expensive golf habit. He's always been not-the-greatest, but it recently reached a fever pitch when he didn't attend a family event that was incredibly important, leaving my sister-in-law reeling.

When the brother-in-Law is home (which isn't often), he spends his time playing video games. Their home is in her name only (due to inheritance). She works part-time and shared with me that she fears she doesn't have any marketable skills to support the family if she kicks him out. He works full-time, but only gives her cash for expenses (including utilities and food) if she begs for it. Every conversation with her is about how awful he is and usually ends in tears. My husband (her brother) is normally a very calm dude; however, I've seen him shaking after speaking with her on the phone because of what she's shared.

I have told her that we are there for her and the children, and will assist her monetarily with legal fees for a divorce and support her going back to school or training so she can return to the workforce. She also has family members close by that help out with the kids often.


On the surface, it appears she has more going for her than many people who leave abusive relationships. Yet she stays. And I know it's more complicated than "I have an out," but I am baffled. I don't know what to do. It's even harder for my husband to stand by and do nothing to help his baby sister.

I’m at the point where I want to sock this dude straight in the mouth when he does deign to show up to family events. But this is not about me or even my husband — it's about my sis-in-law and her children.

What can we do beyond continued emotional support and putting cash on retainer with a good divorce lawyer?

Thanks, in advance.

Worried About Her

Dear WAH,

I recognize how painful it is for you, and your husband, to hear your sister-in-law weeping over the state of her marriage. It seems to me you’ve done everything you can do, in terms of offering emotional and even financial support. In the end, she’s the one who has to decide to leave the marriage. You can’t rescue someone who isn’t ready to be rescued.

One thing you don’t mention, though, is whether this couple has sought counseling. I’m asking about this, in particular, because what your sister-in-law needs is a safe place where she can tell her husband (as opposed to you guys) how unhappy she is. Clearly, this is a marriage in crisis, and your brother-in-law should recognize the pain he’s causing. Just as important, he needs to be able to talk about why he has retreated from the pressures of family life.

I don’t doubt anything you’ve written. But I also suspect that your brother-in-law would tell a different story. And both of those stories need to be heard. Because the ideal outcome here — for their children, as well as each of them — isn’t so much that they separate, or reconcile, but that they find a way to get along.


Maybe they’ve already been down the counseling path. Or maybe one or both of them refuses to engage in the process. If that’s the case, obviously, it’s a lot harder to see why she would remain in a marriage that causes her so much sorrow.

At the moment, your sister-in-law is in a kind of paralysis. She’s chosen an awful present over an uncertain future.

But the truth is that most people are terrified of change. To a greater extent than we’d like to admit, our lives are ruled by a desire to avoid feeling destabilized.

At the moment, your sister-in-law is in a kind of paralysis. She’s chosen an awful present over an uncertain future. Millions of people — women and men — do the same thing every day. They stay in relationships that are far more abusive, and ones that are less extreme but still clearly unhealthy.

For this reason, the other suggestion I would offer is that you urge your sister-in-law to seek individual therapy. Often people who are frightened and confused need some professional help in recognizing the changes they need to make.

One point you might consider making to her, regarding therapy, involves her children. You don’t mention the exact ages of her “young” kids. But it must be deeply disturbing for them to be in a household where mom is disconsolate and dad is sullen and checked out. The idea isn’t to make your sister-in-law feel guilty (i.e. “get some therapy or you’re a lousy mom”) but to impress upon her how much she deserves a greater share of happiness, and how important her mental and emotional health is to her children.

All this being said, the most important sentence in your letter bears repeating: This is not about me or even my husband—it's about my sis-in-law and her children. By all means, continue to offer support and counsel. But also recognize that there are limits to what you can do. Try to remember, also, that you and your husband can provide a good model for your sister-in-law simply by supporting one another and enjoying your own marriage.

I wish you and your sister-in-law good luck!


Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.


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