Relationship Connection: My husband’s sisters haven’t talked to him in 30 years

Composite image for illustration GettyImages-487329799 -by AndreyPopov, St. George News

Question

My husband’s sisters have rejected our family because of something they say my husband did when he was a teenager.

We have to attend separate events with my husband’s parents because the sisters refuse to be near my husband. This has gone on for over 30 years. We don’t attend family reunions because it hurts and we want no contention. We aren’t invited to weddings but make sure the sisters know they are welcome at our children’s weddings.

It caused years of hurt and sorrow for our children and us. It has been especially hard on me – the confusion and separation, especially during the holidays, used to hurt a lot. Now it only hurts a lot occasionally. I am a convert and my family of origin is far away.

My husband and I have tried to reconcile this family through a counselor. The counselor said we probably would not be successful. We reached out to my husband’s parents, but they offered little hope that things would reconcile.

My sisters-in-law are wonderful people and so are we. Why can’t we be friends and have a strong, unified family? I think strong families are a great force for good. It is something I have always desired. When I think about what might have been, I am sad. Is it really too late? What can I do? Why do I continue to care?

Answer

What a painful situation for all of the members of your family. It sounds like you’ve worked hard all these years to find a way to remedy this situation, but haven’t found a way to reconnect everyone. You’re asking many important questions. I will answer your questions to the best of my ability and also suggest some areas in which you might make some attempts to reconnect with your extended family.

I agree that strong and unified families are a great force for good. Obviously, this family’s strength was compromised decades ago when something happened that shattered the foundation of trust and security. While it’s possible these sisters will never trust your husband again, it’s important to make sure he’s done everything he can do to fully restore that trust.

Since only your husband and his sisters know the truth of what happened, I’m going to share some perspectives on how you can respond if he’s guilty and if he’s not guilty.

If the accusations from his sisters are true, I wonder if he has been fully accountable to them? Has he offered to do whatever it takes to restore their trust? If he did something to harm them and he hasn’t repaired the damage, then I can see why they’re keeping their distance from him. They can still forgive him, but don’t have to trust him. Trust is only earned after the offender works to restore safety in the relationship.

If he did do something to violate their trust, a large part of his accountability will be to develop empathy for their hurt. Thirty years may seem like an extreme amount of time to keep a distance. It’s impossible to measure the impact of trauma on relationships. He can’t minimize the impact he had on his sisters, even if he doesn’t understand it.

If he hasn’t been fully accountable after all of these years, then these sisters deserve to hear from him, even if in writing. It’s easy to hide and minimize things that happened years ago, especially during adolescence. Trauma is no respecter of time or age. If he crossed lines and hasn’t been accountable, recognize that it’s never too early and it’s never too late to make the needed reparations.

On the other hand, if he’s been falsely and unjustly accused of violating them, then it’s unlikely that anything he says or does will change their minds. I believe this is what previous counselors have tried to communicate.

Acceptance is difficult. It’s not the same as agreeing with someone’s decision. It will free you to move forward without holding onto the loss of what could have been. Melody Beattie teaches that acceptance “is not forever – it is for the present moment.”

Naturally, you want to clear his name and prove that nothing happened. Acceptance allows you to stay in the present and explore what you can learn from this experience. Author M. Catherine Thomas further explains this concept:

Wisdom requires accepting what we are tempted to reject, to stay open without condemnation, and to see the larger reality. Acceptance doesn’t imply passivity or inaction or condoning. Rather, it implies refraining from taking a position, that is, a decision to stay open so that we can see the reality of a situation and be open to the wisdom available. In any event, the response of openness, even compassion, will usually be the most helpful.

You don’t have to figure out the future with your sisters-in-law. For now, they don’t feel safe being around your husband or your family. I recognize that this has gone on for 30 years and may never change. It’s easy to lose hope and feel discouraged when their reaction is so strong. When you are in acceptance, you are at peace with the present reality and keep yourself open for things to change.  

Whatever happened, it was significant enough to split the paths of these siblings. Stay open to other possibilities for why they may be keeping their distance. Your openness to seeing all possibilities will give you greater peace than a narrow conclusion of why they’re keeping their distance.

You care about this because, like all of us, you need connection from a family. These relationships give tremendous meaning and purpose to our lives. As his wife, you personally did nothing wrong, and, yet, you are suffering the tragic consequences of a family situation that you can’t fix.

I want to commend you for your openness to his sisters and your willingness to keep them in your life. Please don’t lose hope and shoulder-shrug by writing off his sisters as a lost cause. There is obviously pain you can’t see. It’s easy to judge his sisters for being difficult and dramatic. This is a loss that has to be grieved. Your longing to bring everyone back together is healthy and normal.

Part of accepting this situation also allows you to see ways you and your own family have grown despite the years of disconnection. Perhaps it’s allowed you and your children to grow closer together and experience more loyalty to one another. Perhaps it’s increased your ability to make room for other people’s experiences that you don’t understand. Maybe you’re better at handling uncertainty.

Staying open isn’t a passive response. It’s very active and takes tremendous humility to not become reactive and defensive for the losses you’ve faced. Continue to extend love and openness to them so they know your family is safe. They need to know they are welcome when they feel they want to take the risk to rebuild the relationship with their brother.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

 

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5 Comments

  • anybody home August 24, 2016 at 11:29 am

    As is too often the case, important information has been left out of this “case story.” Does this woman know what happened? Has her husband told her about it? And if so, what does she think about it? If it was a physical violation, that’s one story. If it was something else, that’s a different story, but perhaps one just as painful. My sister and I have been estranged for years and the family often pushes me to reconcile with her. Here’s the truth of it. I’ve tried to do that more than once with her promises that the behavior that separates us will not happen again and within a very short time, it does. It’s not drugs but painful, hurtful emotional abuse from her that happens over and over. I wish her well, but want nothing to do with her. My advice to this writer is to butt out. You don’t know enough about the situation to be of any use in making everyone feel better. And the truth is the only person you want to make feel better is you. Get over it.

  • 42214 August 24, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Wednesday, must be trash day.

  • ladybugavenger August 24, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    I have “family members” that if I never speak to again I won’t lose sleep over it. In fact, I sleep better without all the hate and emotional abuse. So count your blessings lady and stop trying to reconcile this non relationship.

  • .... August 24, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    That’s between him and his sister’s. ..mind your own business. .

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