Q: Brother has been married for 15 years. Two kids. Sister-in-law has all control — brother's and kids' schedules, (over)spending, etc. Her often-heinous attitude has her family and his, who support this family however possible, in various levels of exasperation. He has abandoned autonomy because it causes more grief from her. What can he do to change the situation? He won't consider breaking the family because of the kids.
A: Sad but true: From your (admittedly scant) description, the wife sounds like an abuser. If so, then your brother might not be doing his kids any favors.
It also means the families' sideline exasperation, while common, isn't their only recourse; they can get educated. The nonprofit Peace at Home is now defunct, but no one yet has improved on its handbook (particularly for male victims), still available at peaceathome.org/fact_book.html. Family also can gently lessen his isolation, which may in turn encourage him to stand up for himself and the kids.
Too many people still define "domestic abuse" as "man hits woman"; it may not even have occurred to your brother that his wife's isolation, control and punishment count. They do. You can't make him do anything, but maybe you can wake him up.
Try tackling the topic
Q: I was unable to have children and my husband refused to consider adoption. Therapy has helped me come to terms with this, but I find myself struggling for a graceful way to cope when people talk at length about kids and grandkids. For example, I was at a breakfast event with a group of professional women, and fairly quickly they started telling each other about their children and grandchildren. This went on for 20 minutes. I felt terribly left out, and after a while I simply got up and left.
Sometimes I'm able to introduce a new subject so that I can participate, but other times people are very obviously enjoying each other. So I wait, and try not to feel sorry for myself.
I do have a nice circle of close friends who don't have kids. But I need help figuring out what to do in those unavoidable situations where the conversation leaves me feeling like an outsider and stirs up residual pain.
A: I appreciate your sense of loss, and I'm sorry for it.
I also appreciate, more generally, your fatigue with conversation topics that leave you no room to join in. We've all been there, tried to jump in, hung around, felt like houseplants, walked away.
Sometimes that's all anyone can do. There will always be topics that pass us by.
But if that's not satisfying to you — if this comes up too much, or hurts too much — then it might be time to walk toward what scares you, as opposed to walking away.
There's the tiptoe option: You can take an interest, ask questions, listen, laugh, stay. Experiences needn't be shared to be enjoyed.
And, there's the plunge option: Research, sign up, acquire any necessary training and start volunteering your time with children in need. This is clearly no substitute for having children. But it is a way to read to them, mentor them, reach them — and they, and you, can be so much fuller for that.
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