How do I help my brother get out of an unhappy marriage?
November 17, 2010 3:32 PM   Subscribe

How do I help my brother go from a problematic marriage to breaking it off and getting a divorce?

My brother has been married for about 11 years, has two kids aged 10 and 6. His wife has historically been a great person, the rock in their family (my brother can be short tempered, etc), and someone I would have described as a pretty amazing mother (she stayed home when the kids were younger, they went to great lengths to move into the best public school districts, etc).

I only see them about once a year or so and I know the family has had money problems in the past couple years but the last time I hung out with my brother's family last xmas it was clear things had gone past disagreements and were irreparably broken. My brother's wife was cursing in front of their kids (something I would have never in a million years imagined her doing) and she was openly mocking my brother, calling him names in front of the entire family (me and my parents included).

When I talk to my brother on the phone every few months, he now says stuff like "I have to go get dinner for my wife even though a divorce is impending" and he said in the past that she mentions divorce all the time. This has gone on for a year now and I don't think they've actually made any plans or have any resources (money/time) to do a divorce, they just seem to hate each other. They don't get along anymore, but they still live under the same roof in a small apartment and have two kids that I don't want to be emotionally harmed any more than they have been going through this.

I have money, time, knowledge, etc that I could offer to my brother, and I think the best path forward would be for him to actually get a real divorce and each parent live in their own space and stop messing up their kids by hating each other openly. I don't know what to offer or the best way to go about helping him. We haven't really talked about what a divorce would entail (I have no idea if he could afford child support or how much parental rights he wants) and this is way beyond the idle chit-chat we normally discuss, but I would like to see both parents get onto a path that would make themselves happier and keep their kids from getting any more tweaked than they already are (I'd already planned to suggest therapy for the kids after this blows over).

What would you do in my situation? Is it presumptuous of me to offer money to pay for his lawyering? They seem beyond counseling, so I don't know what other options for help I could give. They are in California if that matters, and my brother works full-time while his wife is mostly sporadically part-time employed and perpetually going to community college (taking one class/semester since I've known her, over a decade ago).
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Please know that I'm there to help in any way that you would find useful, including helping you out financially with attorney's fees or whatever."

Often some counseling is helpful in supporting couples as they negotiate the end of a marriage, so don't overlook the possibility of helping with that if that feels right to you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:34 PM on November 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think the best path forward would be for him to actually get a real divorce.

Isn't that his decision? How about "I'm here to support you and your kids emotionally and practically regardless of what decision you make."
posted by headnsouth at 3:45 PM on November 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the correct thing to do is to continue to be supportive. You seem to think you know what's best for them, and although their situation sounds scary to me, I am not in their shoes and neither are you, so we couldn't possibly know.

You seem like you really are on your brother's side and that, for some reason, you just don't like your sister-in-law. In fact, you never even call her that, you say "his wife" or "my brother's wife". And you say that your brother "can be short tempered, etc" (you are generalizing here to make him seem less of a bad person), but you go way into detail about her wrong-doings. And this:

my brother works full-time while his wife is mostly sporadically part-time employed and perpetually going to community college (taking one class/semester since I've known her, over a decade ago).

Do you have any idea how hard it is to raise two kids, work, AND go to school? I sure as hell don't, but I know what it's like to work and go to school at the same time. Throw two kids in there... and my mind is blown.

So, maybe you should stick to offering support before you go rushing people to get divorced and assuming anyone is beyond counseling (geez!). When your brother and his wife are really ready to get divorced, then you can offer your financial support.
posted by two lights above the sea at 3:49 PM on November 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

I think you can help him by not making the decision to divorce for him.

There might be some stuff your brother hasn't told you that caused the dramatic change in the wife.

Good job caring, though. Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:05 PM on November 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you have any idea how hard it is to raise two kids, work, AND go to school? Not to mention having financial difficulties, professional/career dissatisfaction, while probably doing the majority of housework and child rearing. Only being able to have a part time job in this economy isn't exactly a mark of poor character either.

It is possible for them to being going through a really rough spot, and it is possible that they both want to work through it, but don't know how to start.

Until he says "help me, I want a divorce" I think you should butt out. How would you feel if it came out several years down the road, when they've mended things, that you were pushing for a divorce?

If they don't learn how to appropriately talk around their kids, those kids are still going to hear horrible things about the other parent for the rest of their lives, just in separate homes. (you seem to paint your brother as innocent in this, but the appropriate response for him would be to take their fight to a different room)

If you've got money and time to lend to this situation, offer to send them to couples therapy. A therapist isn't going to necessarily work to keep the couple together. It can be about helping them understand their lives as individuals and how to begin to separate. Hopefully it'll teach them a bit about how to communicate with each other that doesn't involve curse words shouted in front of children, divorce or not.

Heck, depending on how bad their financial situation is, offer to send them a few months rent. Living hand to mouth will change you in the worst ways.
posted by fontophilic at 4:28 PM on November 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't agree that it sounds like you dislike your SIL, you sound like you honestly don't have a dog in this fight, but you want your family to be happy. You provide strong evidence that divorcing is the thing that everybody wants here.

You can offer your brother support, just precede it with a "hey, if you're serious about that divorce, I would do what I could to help with attorney's fees, counseling, or whatever". Let your brother know that you Don't have a dog in the fight, and you'd be willing to offer support if that Isn't the route he wants to take (if you're willing to pay for marriage/family counseling, for instance). For your own sake, be prepared with good ideas about how much help you're willing to give, and for what purposes.
posted by ldthomps at 5:00 PM on November 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Be there to listen, and to validate him if he chooses to stand up for himself, and to help him if he asks for assistance. That's it.
posted by davejay at 5:14 PM on November 17, 2010

Oh, there is ONE thing you can do: you can ask these questions:

"I noticed she was swearing in front of the kids. How do you feel about that?"


"I noticed she was insulting you openly. How do you feel about that?"

BOth are just a means to let him talk if he needs to; he might not feel comfortable bringing it up, although "divorce is imminent" is essentially him letting you know he wants to talk about it, and hoping you'll say "tell me more."
posted by davejay at 5:17 PM on November 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd already planned to suggest therapy for the kids after this blows over.
Why wait until it blows over? It's hard to know for sure what changed between your brother and his wife, or what the best solution for their relationship is, but it's pretty clear that as things stand now, the kids are being hurt by the situation. Advocating for them, and doing what you can to be a stable, caring presence in their life, could make a difference.
posted by pompelmo at 5:17 PM on November 17, 2010

I would think that you, as his brother, would be encouraging him to consider that he and his wife go to couples counseling rather than consider divorce as the sole option, because you are all family. Do you dislike her and want to see her gone? Because it's far better to try and repair their communication than to just get a divorce and sort all the "what went wrong" all out later. Honestly, divorce is expensive and that's taking away some financial resources that the kids would benefit from. Of course parents' unhappiness would have worse effects, but I think both of them would probably benefit from some emotional support from the greater extended family.

She may be cursing in front of the kids, but that's not the worse thing in the world. Insulting him openly is pretty awful, but I would try to understand what's happened and how it can be repaired. She may be depressed or unwell or having some kind of health or mental health problem that's manifesting itself like that. There's no way of knowing unless you have a real talk with your brother about what's going on.
posted by anniecat at 7:10 PM on November 17, 2010

Look, know one knows what is really happening in a marriage except for the two parties involved and they are unreliable reporters.

You have not talked to your brother at length about his marriage nor your SIL, who you have decided needs to be gone, though she previously has had a stellar reputation. Seriously, offer to be a rock to both of them because if they decide to stay together after your offer of divorce help then one party will think you tried to wreck their home.

Unless you think that there is abuse of either spouse or children this is not an intervention you should be committing irrevocably. Hell, you got time and money why not offer those in service of saving the marriage or taking the kids out of the poisonous atmosphere?
posted by jadepearl at 7:18 PM on November 17, 2010

Damn you iPad auto spell. The first "know" is "no". Grrrrr...
posted by jadepearl at 7:21 PM on November 17, 2010

Offering to pay attorney's fees, etc. is very generous. However, once the divorce is over - then what? Could they afford to maintain two households? Childcare? Would you be paying for that too? I just think it's a lot more involved than shelling out the money for the divorce itself. Perhaps they'd love a divorce but realize that it's just not possible (monetarily) at this point.

I'd offer to pay for counseling before offering to pay for a divorce.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:50 PM on November 17, 2010

From the OP:
I just wanted to post a little clarification. Like ldthomps said, I don't have a dog in the fight, I just see two unhappy people, with the wife calling my brother an asshole in front of the whole family and the wife point blank saying "I want us to get a divorce" but my brother sticks around and nothing has come of their divorce talk in a year. I didn't mention counseling since it seems like they are so unhappy they should start moving on and it sounds like minds are definitely made up regarding divorce. I wasn't sure what I should and could offer and I can't pay their rent for months or child support so I guess I'll try and get time to have a serious talk with him and ask him what he wants to do next and how I can help and make it clear what I had in mind regarding limits to what help I could give monetarily.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 8:27 PM on November 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

That is a good cause for concern, but as long as there's no actual abuse going on, I don't see why you have to intervene and force something to happen. Obviously there is something keeping them from divorcing. Even if your brother got cold feet, his wife could have filed herself. Perhaps the prospect of having to fend for themselves or divide up the children makes divorce unpalatable; maybe they're afraid of the unknown generally. In any case, it's their relationship, and they have the ability to file their own papers and acquire lawyers if they want to. Your only responsibility as a brother is, as you said, to let your brother know that you're available to provide help if they need it. Maybe a serious talk will allow the real issue to come out, and you can act from that.
posted by shii at 9:07 PM on November 17, 2010

One note: sometimes a person gets it in their head that divorce is the worst possible option, and so will take endless abuse from their partner in order to avoid it. Meanwhile, the partner gets it in their head that if they don't bring the thing to a head, it will never get better, so they attempt to provoke their partner by treating them badly and shouting divorce divorce divorce. One, both or neither of these things may be happening, but it's possible that both are happening and neither of them actually wants a divorce. Still, sooner or later they're going to have to communicate effectively about this, and you can't make that happen.
posted by davejay at 9:24 PM on November 17, 2010

Even knowing that he has your support would be good. Some people worry about being judged by their family members during a divorce. Nonjudgmental support would be best, including support for him if he wants to find a way to work it out. Expressing your worry about the kids might also be useful and honest. It'd be better to say "I worry about them" than to say something more accusatory like "how can you expose them to that?"
posted by salvia at 10:16 PM on November 17, 2010

I've seen couples counseling do amazing things for people in real crisis, in marriages such as you're describing your brother living in.* Both parties have to show up ready to work, as they are really going to have to go against the grain of what they've been doing, which appears to me to be avoiding avoiding avoiding some very basic facts.

And I'm not saying that the goal of this therapy is to save the marriage. Some marriages just no longer work, for whatever reason, who knows what might have been said or done behind closed doors. But break up or stay together, they're going to have to learn to fight fair if they want to leave (or stay) with their dignity intact. It's really damaging to be either one of the people you've described here, neither of them can be happy, they're both miserable.

A shame, really, sounds like they have potential of real happiness, or had that, anyways, before this thing blew up.

If they go to an experienced marriage counselor, someone to say things in front of, someone to support either of them if/when the other goes off into cruelty or goes off and hides, then they can begin the work of staying together with dignity or the work of separation with dignity; they can work together. But they've got to face some facts that they've just not been willing to face.

And let me channel Ann Landers here: If one party won't go to counseling, the other party should still go. And not to some hokum inner-child jive counsel but to an experience marriage counselor. Even if attending alone, they'll maybe be able to find that dignity piece, and walk away standing tall, or stay standing tall.

So. If anything, throw a few bucks his way for that. Or not -- there is all kinds of sliding scale stuff everywhere, people willing and able to help others in crisis at bargain prices; if they want this, I bet they'd find a way to do it.

I truly do wish your brother and his wife good luck.

*(Seems I cannot do love/marriage/relationships/etc, this counseling thing is what I've seen others do; I'm not trying to be holier than thou, just would like to see them get help.)
posted by dancestoblue at 11:30 PM on November 18, 2010

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