How do I help my sister whose marriage is on the rocks?
July 7, 2013 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Ten year marriage that includes a 4 yr old kid is about to fall apart. How can I help directly or help them help themselves through this rocky period?

My sister was arranged married to a mostly decent person ten years ago. Most of the difficulties in their relationship come from being uncommunicative. They dislike each other's families and every contact with the spouse's family seems to ignite a new conflict in their relationship.

Seems to me like they are not mature or articulate enough to talk things through or stick to promises even if they resolve a conflict. I don't want to take sides as I think (with all the impartiality I can muster) they both have shortcomings. My sister is a house wife (visa issues initially, kid later on but looking for jobs currently) , he earns well and both families are relatively affluent. It looks to me that he might be considering separation. What is the best way I can help? I live close enough and don't have a problem finding a new job and relocating if that helps in anyway.

Does couples counseling work? I want to bring it up when I meet them but we come from a culture that is dismissive of professional help when it comes to family. I will admit to having some skepticism myself. If that is a viable option, what is the best way to choose a counselor?

Our own ethnicity to grasp a better picture or a different one for impartiality?
Specific skills?
How to know if they are any good given the confidentiality of issues like this?

My BIL: Normally rational, not suave or articulate, given to bouts of frustrated anger and can be impatient and closed minded sometimes when it comes to issues that need patient resolution.
My Sis: Easily offended, proud and breaks down easily when she needs to stand her ground or be articulate when her position needs explaining. A bit insecure.

As parents they are doing what they can and I don't think there's anything wrong right now from the kid's perspective except that she notices when one of them is mad at the other.

Like I said, it's hard to be rational for me or anyone else given no one really knows what goes on in a marriage. But if anyone has any insight that can help me help them, I'd greatly appreciate it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total)
It's hard to answer this without the cultural context of what country this is happening in. A lot of advice people here would commonly give about protecting herself financially may not apply where this family actually lives.

I don't want to take sides as I think (with all the impartiality I can muster) they both have shortcomings.

That's not the point. She's your sister, your job is to be on her side. You don't have to be mean or talk shit about her husband but you certainly need to convery that you have her back. He'll have other people who have his back.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:21 AM on July 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

As a couples counsellor myself I feel like I'm always on here recommending relationship therapy. The thing is that it really does work. I know that you want to help and I admire your attempts to be impartial but it sounds to me like they need a third person in the room with them to help them talk things through without getting to lost or angry. This is not something that family can really do for one another.

I know lots of cultures are suspicious of therapy but when communication breaks down in a relationship it really can be invaluable. My clients often want to do short bursts of work focused on something specific. They've had all of the conversations before but they really need someone to help them hear each other. This may be a good way to pitch it to your sister and BIL. Everyone wants to feel heard.

Choosing a therapist can be tricky and the method for finding a good one will depend a little on where they're based. Some people find it helpful to have someone of the same culture, same ethnicity or same orientation as them but for others it doesn't help and can hinder. Just because I've had the same experiences as you it doesn't mean I am better placed to know how you felt about them. Someone who knows they are different from you can be better at remembering that.

A good fit is important but I think it is often something much more subtle than the stuff you listed. Personality, approach, tone. These things are all important and if they don't click with their first counsellor they should definitely think about starting over.

I work systemically and psychodynamically but there are lots of different approaches out there which suit different people. Happy to memail if you'd like more advice.
posted by Dorothia at 8:30 AM on July 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

What is the best way I can help?

The best way you can help is to offer your sister any support she needs, as DarlingBri said. Make sure she knows you're there for her, offer to do anything she needs. If she needs a day away to come hang out with you and have a shoulder to cry on? If she needs someone to watch the kid while the couple takes time to deal with the issue and / or attend counseling? These are ways you can help.

Otherwise, it's really not your place to be involved. It's tough to watch because they are family. But in the end, it's their relationship, not yours. Make sure sis knows you're there. Assist when they ask, otherwise step back and let this run its course.
posted by SquidLips at 8:51 AM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

You let your sister know that you are there for anything she needs, but don't try to anticipate what those needs will be. She might need a shoulder to cry on, or she might need someone to help her paint the inside of a closet. You never know what someone who is hurting will ask of you, but knowing that someone is there to be asked is always a great help.
posted by xingcat at 11:51 AM on July 7, 2013

Every marriage has difficulties. If couples counseling doesn't feel appropriate, then I would presume there must be another avenue that is culturally accepted. Be it a religious or community leader, or elder family members (I'm assuming uncles/aunts, cousins, not immediate family), or some such.

I think you can help in a couple of ways; gently suggest to your sister that she try whatever available avenues to open up communication with her husband, and then make yourself available to babysit if they make arrangements to go talk with someone.

Otherwise, keep your mouth shut and mind your own business. If she wants to vent to you about her husband, nod your head supportively but don't join in and criticize him, that will only make her feel worse about him and about herself for staying with him.
posted by vignettist at 1:14 PM on July 7, 2013

My advice is that unless your sister asks you for input, don't offer any. Therapy can be beneficial for some people/couples/families/etc., but whether it actually could be in this situation is unknown. Unless your sister and her husband want to stay married, whether couples therapy "works" is irrelevant.
posted by sm1tten at 2:52 PM on July 7, 2013

One thing you could do if you so desire is to ask them to consider the well-being of their child above all, and if you like this Nora Ephron article, you could share it with them, noting especially the paragraph that starts with "I can't think of anything good about divorce as far as the children are concerned." The well-being of their child could be common ground upon which they can agree and for which they could redouble their efforts at marital harmony.
posted by Dansaman at 11:13 PM on July 7, 2013

That Nora Ephron article is pretty limited to Nora Ephron, in my opinion- what an odious person she comes across as in that essay! And as a child of divorce I heartily disagree with her, though I am not saying anything about the OP's family situation. If they haven't tried counseling, I think it's worth it, or at least the OP's sister should try it on her own.

I do agree with DarlingBri- support your sister! And is there is a way to support your niece/nephew? Special ice cream/aunt time together? That would be good for your sister and your niece/nephew.

I can't speak to marriage counseling specifically, but I go to Al-anon, which is a support group, and I have seen it save marriages that were in similar straits as your sister's sounds like it is, so there's hope.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:56 AM on July 8, 2013

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