Am I a bad sister?
June 17, 2010 7:27 PM   Subscribe

Is it a horrible breach of family trust that I shared an email from my sister to me with my husband?

My sister (Jessica) and I are not on good terms. We had had a very fragile relationship for about a year in which hurtful things were said by both of us, over email and in person. At one point, in the midst of a larger, seriously stressful back and forth on email, she said some things to me that I found particularly awful and since my husband (George) had been hearing my side of the story throughout the debacle and was currently sitting next to me when I received the email, I had him read it. This email also contained some disparaging remarks about George's brother, Ian. George read the email, on my invitation, and then not only was upset on my behalf for what Jessica said to me but was also offended by what she said about Ian.

Even though I asked him not to, George emailed Jessica to suggest that though he hoped she and I could work things out she should leave Ian out of the discussion. And then all hell broke loose. Jessica claims that I broke a sacred sisterly bond by sharing the email with my husband. My main objective was to give George a better understanding of my reasons for being so upset with Jessica and feel like I should be able to share anything with my husband. My family (father, brother, etc) think that I was disloyal to my sister for having showed George the email. Did I screw up?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
All I know is that my personal rule is-if you don't want my husband to know it, don't tell it to me either. We don't have secrets between us.

(There have been occasional exceptions to this rule but they have been...exceptional. And understood to be so at the very outset.)

You did not screw up. Your bond with your husband trumps everything else.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:30 PM on June 17, 2010 [52 favorites]

No, and your family is being unreasonable to expect you to keep things from your husband.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:31 PM on June 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

(That having been said, hopefully next time your husband will realize that it would have been wiser to do as you wished and not contact the sister.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:32 PM on June 17, 2010 [7 favorites]

No, but your husband screwed up royally. He should have kept his mouth shut and not emailed your sister. That was a big mistake, and a betrayal of your trust with him. It's for you to manage your relationship with your sister, and he just set things back tremendously.

You need to let things cool down and apologize to your sister (even though she should assume that you'll share her emails with your husband, she shouldn't be confronted by him... that's the "deal" with spousal privileges to each other's secrets -- you get to learn secrets but you can't really act on them).
posted by BobbyVan at 7:33 PM on June 17, 2010 [70 favorites]

No. Husbands and wives should share secrets like that. If anyone showed bad faith, it was your husband. He should have respected your wishes and not confronted your sister.

That said, you should examine why you showed him to begin with. Might it be that you did it to turn him against her completely in an effort to "win"? That's pretty shitty if it's true.
posted by inturnaround at 7:34 PM on June 17, 2010

While I agree that it's fine (expected, even) to share things with your husband, he was quite out of line to jump into the discussion, especially after being asked not to. I'd bet that their anger is due to his intrusion on the matter rather than his knowledge of the matter. After all, those are two very different things.
posted by reductiondesign at 7:34 PM on June 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

The answer to this is weird, in my family. As far as I'm concerned you did not screw up. I never tell someone something and then say "Don't tell your spouse" because I assume they will tell their spouse no matter what I tell them and also that I think this is normal. That said, in my family part of the deal is that this spousal sharing goes on but it's PRIVATE. That is, it was okay of you to share that email with George because it's relevant to you, but it wasn't quite as cool for George to email Jessica. Basically, George put himself in the situation, as if Jessica were talking to him, which she was not. This put her on the spot and, with things being tough between the two of you, did not help things.

So, basically my deal in my family is that I don't presume that people are not sharing information I've given them with their spouses, but that if they are, it's for their own purposes [i.e. to talk to the spouse about something] not to get the spouse to talk to ME about something. I can see why Jessica felt hurt, because she felt ganged up on and she certainly did not intend for her statements about Ian to make their way back to George in a way that could come back at her. That's sort of dropping the ball on the sister agreement, in my opinion [I also have a sister]

So as far as who is right, I'd side with you. That said, I think George should maybe apologize to someone [you?] because he made this problem worse when he should have probably left it alone and I think this is what your Dad and brother are reacting to.
posted by jessamyn at 7:34 PM on June 17, 2010 [9 favorites]

Emails are like letters. It is up to the recipient of the email to decide who is allowed to read it, not the sender. Your husband should have followed your wishes not to respond directly to your sister, but you are not in the wrong having allowed him to read the original email. If the sender of a letter does not wish for the contents of the letter to be known, the sender should not write down said contents.

I'm sorry that you're in such a difficult situation.
posted by Mizu at 7:34 PM on June 17, 2010

I gotta ask why would you do this? I wouldn't say you were "disloyal" or broke some sort of trust, but what you did do is stir up even more shit and get your husband in on a fight that was just between you and your sister. And I would be really mad at your husband for escalating the situation even further. The whole thing just sounds really immature. I'm sorry to be so harsh, but you hugely escalated the whole situation.
posted by whoaali at 7:36 PM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

BobbyVan is right - your family is being nuts, but your husband was an idiot to get involved. Sounds like you all need to apologize and cool it for a while.
posted by Dasein at 7:36 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is one of those things where there really are two camps on this sort of thing. I am in the "if you don't want me to tell my spouse when you say 'don't tell anyone' you need to be explicit about that" camp, because he's not anyone, he's my spouse.

I do however, completely understand people who do not have this exception to the rule. I also know that you will never get agreement between them.

My issue would be with your partner, however, who having read a confidential email to you in breech of that confidence, then made bald with that breech and emailed your sister. That was juvenile and rediculous and I'd be furious.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:36 PM on June 17, 2010

No. Anything your sister says in an email, she should be prepared to say to someone's face. And, your husband could have just as easily wanted to take that action from your description, "hey, Jessica is dragging Ian into this" as reading the email its-self. Plus, what bond??? I hardly feel bonds of loyalty to people who are actively engaged in antagonizing me; shared genes be damned.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 7:36 PM on June 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Husbands and wives share secrets -that is perfectly natural and I'd have done the same.
However, the secrets shared should stay secrets - whatever my husband and I tell each other doesn't then get bandied about in public forum - it's shared for us to know and that's it.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:38 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

There should be no secrets between married people. Your sister is just angry that she has to actually bear the consequences for the things she said when she'd rather not. What kind of sacred sisterly bond does she imagine you have if you've had a rocky relationship and she's currently saying crappy things to you? You're not wrong here. I wouldn't apologize to anyone.

Your husband shouldn't have sent the email to Jessica. He should've known it would do no good and only serve to stir up drama. I'd probably talk to him and tell him that if a similar situation arises in the future, he has to abide by your wishes or you'll be less willing to share information. Hopefully he's learned his lesson.
posted by kpht at 7:39 PM on June 17, 2010

Yeah... I agree with what everyone else is saying. There's lots of wrongness and intemperate judgment going on here but on the core issue, people should by default expect that there are not going to be any boundaries between spouses. I mean, in the more high-fallutin' language you're the same person.

Perhaps some of the negativity you're feeling from your father and brother is from them realizing "Oops, I guess I can't act as though George isn't the most important and intimate person in her life, moreso than the rest of us in her family, either."
posted by XMLicious at 7:46 PM on June 17, 2010

Agreed, only the very exceptional secret would be kept from my husband and after 11 years together, I still haven't found something that has been that exception.

You're born with family but choose your spouses. IMHO, one has a partner to help them stand back, examine things, reason them out, support you when you need it, help you fight those battles or wages ahead in that battle if you need someone to do so. Your spouse is ideally your other half and you share fluids with them. Assuming you've your ideal partner, you are absolutely not in the wrong by sharing your life with them, and since that includes them joining your family, they have every right to sound in on what you want to share with them. Of course diplomatically your husband should have stood back, respected your request, but maybe he felt compelled to establish boundaries and step back out. In any case, from my own experience, my husband has had to step in a few times when I was feeling particularly bullied by my family and set boundaries in a way I was simply not able to do. That's why I chose him, trust him and made a life long vow with him that I strive to honor every day. He's my everyday and has every right to engage in every aspect of my life that I share with him... including our family.

Put it this way, if your sister was making caustic remarks to your mother about your father's brother, would not your father have heard of this and stepped in? Would you consider that inappropriate? It's supposed to be the same bond, so why is it any different?

Honestly, it doesn't sound like your husband wrote an email intending to inflame or insult your sister, maybe it was overreaching since you asked him not to, but he didn't do anything but put his foot down and establish that your sister was being hurtful and setting that boundary that his brother shouldn't be brought into it. Shame on your family for similarly getting involved and passing judgment. Good for the goose, good for the gander.

I want to somehow phrase that maybe you'll have to backtrack a bit for peace and tell your family that your husband shouldn't have, but honestly he is your husband, there is no way they shouldn’t know you would choose to share everything with him. He is your family and your sounding board for life. Family squabbles cut deeper than the whole of the world and it's absolutely his business to help you. You are not a bad sister or daughter, you're simply a normal wife.
posted by eatdonuts at 7:54 PM on June 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think that if you want to share with your husband everything private anyone tells you, that is your right. But I think you have a duty to make that absolutely explicit before they share the private thing with you.

I have had the experience of telling a friend something painful and private that had nothing to do with their husband, having the friend swear she wouldn't tell even the husband, and then, after she did tell the (loose-lipped) husband, having the friend be righteously indignant that I'd presume to ask her to keep secrets from the most important person in the world to her!

So, I do disagree with everyone else. I do think that it can be a betrayal. But as long as you're up front that you're going to tell him everything, I think you're in the clear.

But although I still love my friend, I am never going to share anything private with her again. There's something that you give up when people can't tell you things and be certain they'll stay with you, only. You might be giving that up with your sister by insisting it's okay for you to tell your husband everything private. However, if you feel it's worth it to sacrifice that to have a no-secrets relationship with your husband, I think that's fine.

And I agree with everyone else that your husband shouldn't have gotten involved. Your sister probably felt ganged-up on. I think this should be nipped in the bud because this is how picking-sides rifts start in families.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:58 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would never expect anyone to keep a secret from their significant other; your sister is being unreasonable.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:15 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

But your husband was WAY out of line to get involved; I'd say you two need to have a talk about that.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:16 PM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seinfeld taught me that your sister should have expected this. You're supposed to be cut out of the loop.
posted by rhizome at 8:21 PM on June 17, 2010

As many other people have said, you were fine in showing it to him (well, it might or mightn't have been wise to do so, but it wasn't disloyal), but he was terribly wrong in commenting on it to your sister. (If this is something he does regularly -- comment to others about things you tell him that should be private -- then you've got a different problem, but your family's request would be more reasonable.)
posted by jeather at 9:06 PM on June 17, 2010

No, you don't have an obligation to share everything with your husband. And your husband doesn't have a right to know the secrets of your friends or relatives. However, an expectation on all sides is generally one of discretion. If a friend tells me something that she would be embarrassed by and asks me to keep it a secret -- most likely, I will. If I do tell anyone, it would probably be my husband but I know he'd never tell or ever bring it up. In fact, he would probably forget it within minutes but that's a different issue.

I think you apologize for this but that you also say, "Hey, this is a stressful situation for me and I'm tired of the drama and my husband is my sounding board. He should not have confronted sister about this and I apologize for my part in making a bad situation worse. We should all just try to cool off and move on from this." I think one positive thing to come out of this is that it may deflate the situation somewhat. Sometimes, you can't just bark at someone, you gotta bite back.

You're not a bad sister but you could probably be a better one as could your sister. Hopefully, this was just the kind of blow up that actually helps people step off a bit and give each other room. Try to come to an understanding with your husband about handling this stuff in the future. There are better ways.
posted by amanda at 9:22 PM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

No. Your husband is your family, too. You don't HAVE to share everything with him, but I pretty much consider it unsaid that anything I tell my sister will become public family knowledge.

Maybe your husband should have shown a little more discretion, however. I know some things about my sister that I'd never mention to her face, even if our mother told me.
posted by GilloD at 9:39 PM on June 17, 2010

Demanding secrecy is a classic isolating technique, and it's bullshit. You have the right to support from your loved ones and friends. If she doesn't like the way her emails to you look to your husband, well, maybe she should write nicer ones. It's not like she's saying "I had an affair, help me" or "I have cancer, don't tell anyone." She's fucking insulting you. Insults are not actually secrets.

So you can't share with your husband...

But your sister can share with your brother and father. And insult some random dude who has nothing to do with the fight between you and her. All of that sisterly loyalty, yeah?

If you've been mostly on the receiving end of insulting, critical, offensive bullshit for nearly a year, think about whether the entire family dynamic is fucked up, beyond disagreement and into dysfunctional on a systemic level. In which case you should stop trying to make it make sense because it probably never will, and work on containing the damage done to you and your husband.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:44 PM on June 17, 2010 [9 favorites]

I'm also firmly in the "don't tell me if you don't want my spouse to know" camp. You husband is the one that dropped the ball on this one, but I expect it was a learning experience.
posted by Harald74 at 9:53 PM on June 17, 2010

I think it's common for families to have an unspoken "don't ask, don't tell" attitude toward that type of spousal disclosure. In other words, "Sure, I understand intellectually that you are probably going to share certain things (e.g., my email) with your husband, but for God's sake don't let me actually find out that you did." And as others have said above, this 'willful blindness' was breached when your husband intervened.
posted by cribcage at 10:13 PM on June 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Family rankings go:
2)Parents and siblings you're on good terms with (equal footing)
3)Parents and siblings you're on bad terms with
4)Uncles, Aunts, Grandparents, etc. (this may vary by relationship, closeness, actual friendship)

Your sister is dead wrong about this one. Of course you showed it to your husband. Her objection is because she's embarrassed - and she should be.
posted by medea42 at 10:19 PM on June 17, 2010

Your husband made a mistake by transgressing a big boundary and responding to an email that wasn't written to him and was shared with him in confidence, and your family is certainly making an ongoing mistake by being fixated on you sharing a confidence with your husband (totally normal in a marriage, anyway an inter-sibling email hardly qualifies as a confidence unless it contains family secrets) but not noticing the boundary thing. i.e. to the extent that they have any right to be pissed off at anyone, it's technically your husband they should be pissed off at. But really, it's a fight between you and your sister that ended up gathering reinforcements on both sides, so in a way all that stuff is sideshow.

I think it's worth asking yourself if you didn't also have a role to play in this drama -- your husband's reactions aren't unknown to you, is it possible that you shared with him an email insulting his family in the hopes it would wind him up to the extent that he'd get involved? Did you offer to address his concerns in your email response, on his behalf? There was probably some timeframe in which you knew he was responding but before he hit "send", so I guess your emotions at that time are probably the key to knowing whether his involvement was something you wanted or not.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 11:28 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd say that you are allowed to share with your husband, but your husband is not allowed to tell anyone that you shared.

He's your husband, you are going to go to him with stuff. That's pretty much part of the marriage vows. But as a courtesy, he needs to pretend like he never heard it. If he can't pretend well enough, you need to be very careful what you share with him.

My husband told me something about his sister once. Years later she told me herself. I stupidly said, "Oh, yeah, Mr. SLC mentioned that to me." Huuuugggggge mistake. She tore him a new one, and he passed it on right smartly.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:59 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

My marriage got immeasurably better when I realised my loyalty was due to my family of choice, not my family of origin. If George subscribed to my view, he wouldn't have emailed your sister, because his loyalty is due first to you, and not his brother (and therefore he would have considered the repercussions of what he did, before he did it).

Perhaps what would have worked out better for everyone is if a. you let George see the email and discussed it with him and then b. emailed your sister saying "Ian is part of my family too. I don't like it when you dis him."
posted by b33j at 3:13 AM on June 18, 2010

You are not a bad sister, and (generally speaking) no one should expect someone to keep secrets from their spouse.

Your husband, however, behaved like a tool for emailing your sister against your explicitly-stated wishes. He owes you an apology for that.
posted by DWRoelands at 5:20 AM on June 18, 2010

You're not in the wrong, as someone else mentioned, it's up to the recipient to decide who gets to read the letter/email. Mrs. arcticseal and I talk about everything and I'd have done the same thing in your situation. Where your husband screwed up was contacting your sister directly, thus opening up a second front for conflict. He should apologise to you and your sister, and your sister needs to stop behaving like a 10 year old.
posted by arcticseal at 8:51 AM on June 18, 2010

You are not in the wrong at all.

Your sister was wrong for talking shit about someone who wasn't able to defend himself. You and she are not on good terms, so I don't think you have any moral obligation whatsoever to keep her nasty words secret...especially between you & your husband. She needs to understand that there are consequences to communicating things through email -- any email can be forwarded at any time. Such is life.

Your husband was wrong for replying to an email that wasn't addressed to him. At the very least, he should have asked you before he did it. Even though it was his brother he was defending, it wasn't his battle to fight. He needs to understand that if he's going to be kept in the loop with regards to stuff like this, he cannot take it upon himself to interject himself without at least talking to you about it first.

That said, I would and have done the totally same thing. When I've gotten bitchy emails from my sister (we are generally on good terms, but had a rough patch during her wedding planning and aftermath when she went totally bridezilla), I almost always show my husband. I don't see how it's much different than recounting to your husband or a close friend how an in-person discussion went that bothered you and that you wanted to talk about.
posted by tastybrains at 9:23 AM on June 18, 2010

the one who failed in this situation was your husband. what was he thinking?!?! you don't act on emails you shouldn't have seen but got to see via spousal privilege! ass.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:04 PM on June 18, 2010

I agree with the above consensus that there are pretty much no secrets between spouses/SO's. You generally assume that someone might share something with a spouse, unless you specifically say "Please do not tell anyone, not even Tom." However, it's good spousal etiquette to *not* let on that you know the things that have been shared with you! I guess it's some unspoken I expect my friend's spouse to know most of what is going on with me but not necessarily to talk to me about it. Does that make sense?

As for the email aspect...aside from spouses, I don't really think you should be sharing personal email in general. It's one thing if it's "Oh look at this sweet thank you that Billy emailed me" or "how cute are Sarah's puppies!" but not "here's some gossip..." Then again, just remember that if it's in cyberspace, potentially anyone can see it! Doubly-true when it's work related!
posted by radioamy at 12:10 AM on June 20, 2010

Small foreword: I don't mean to imply that your sister is all of the aforementioned things, but as someone with a vindictive, backstabbing sister who does nothing but try to find ways to stalk and harass me over family-related things in cowardly ways, this is exactly what the situation is. She's just a hater, and she's at that point where she's lost so many friends to her instability, she relies on our blood to make her threats seem valid.

I don't think it's fair to criticize the husband as much as everyone is. It's admittedly hard to watch someone you love be tormented by someone that they want to have a good relationship with. Your husband was well aware of how long this had been going on for, and it became his business when his brother was mentioned - and technically, he is your brother now too. He isn't breaking his loyalty to you, he is realizing that you have been putting up with this crap for too long, and she has gone too far, and clearly you are in a state of need. The very title of this reeks of guilt when you have been far too reluctant to cut ties with her like you should have done months ago. I am the same way; but hear me on this:

You are not a bad sister. In fact, you have been too nice.

George took it upon himself because he is both frustrated with your sister making comments about Ian AND because of how long she's been harassing you and flinging crap your way. It doesn't need to be an if/then situation, it can and completely is both. Which is why he went out of his way to do something you told him not to. It doesn't mean he disrespects you, it doesn't mean he doesn't value what you say, it doesn't mean he has no qualms about breaking your family apart or some such nonsense. It sounds like this was uncharacteristic of him, enough so that you're asking the masses. But it doesn't have to be that dramatic.

It can simply means he loves you and he's not going to let her make you feel this way and get away with smack talk about his brother. If your family sides with her, they clearly don't understand the situation. Probably because all of those nasty things she's saying to you in emails? She's saying worse behind your back. I don't think that him going outside your request makes him a bad person. In all honesty, I think that as long as it's done right, it can be one of those things that makes you fall in love with him all over again. Like everyone else has said, you married him, no matter how many times you played house with your sister.

She's likely mad because someone else knows her dirty little secrets. They know that she's a coward and a bully. It sounds like she's afraid that what she said about everyone (or better yet, what she told everyone you said) is going to get out, and she's going to look like the fool that she's been.

Hopefully this is not truly the case, but if it is - you and yours are fighting the good fight. Be well, and I hope it all works out.
posted by june made him a gemini at 3:57 AM on June 22, 2010

Your sister was just looking for an excuse to blow up. Your husband presented her with one and she ran with it.

She may be also mad and envious that you have a supportive husband.

If your family has sided with her, it may be because she distorted the situation.

Last year I found out that my only sister who has never given any money to help our parents, had told the whole family that she was the one paying for everything and I, who have supported my parents for more than 32 years, didn't take care of them. As a result, my family members were very cold to me and for years I couldn't understand why. Now, I know.

So, make sure that you clearly explain what happened and how the relationship and problems with your sister have evolved as they may have distorted information and the wrong impression.
posted by dupedyestafada at 3:12 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

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