By Esther Mann, LCSW
My brother Joe and I have always been close. He is a year-and-a-half older than I am. Besides being my best friend, Joe always protected me from our abusive father. Joe was the only one who could ever make me safe.
When we were teenagers and our parents finally divorced, Joe was the only stable force in my life. Though life was much more peaceful without my father around, there were those dinners and weekends we were forced to spend with him. I don’t know how I would have survived them without Joe.
Three years ago, I married a wonderful man. Joe spent an amazing amount of time with us. We used to call ourselves the three musketeers—“all for one and one for all.” Though we both had apartments in the neighborhood, Joe often came for Shabbos. Thursday evenings we’d always go out for dinner together; it was a given. Nothing fancy, sometimes just pizza, but it was about spending time together.
A year ago, Joe fell in love and got engaged to Sharon. When they were dating, Sharon lavished my husband and me with over-the-top friendliness. Despite her nonstop hugs and kisses, there was something about Sharon that made me feel suspicious. But I had no hard evidence that there was anything wrong with her and had no reason to mention my uneasiness to Joe.
Joe and Sharon have now been married for about six months, and there has been a total turnaround in Sharon’s behavior, especially toward me. I feel as though she is working to keep Joe away from me. I know I’m not imagining this, because I can point to specifics.
First of all, we no longer go out Thursday evenings. When they were engaged, the four of us continued the tradition. But once they got married, suddenly Joe had an excuse why they couldn’t make it. I think that in the past six months, we’ve gone out on a Thursday evening maybe three times.
When I call their place to talk to Joe, after about five minutes I hear Sharon in the background asking Joe to hang up because she needs to tell him something or she needs help with something. Inevitably, our conversations are cut short and I feel like I never get a chance to have a real conversation with Joe anymore.
These past holidays were a disaster. Joe and Sharon spent most of their time with her family or friends. I’m not even sure who these friends are, but my invitations were rebuffed.
Traditionally, Pesach is spent together with our mother. Recently, Joe mentioned that Sharon is looking into going to a hotel for the holiday. He casually said we are welcome to join them, knowing full well that we can’t afford such an extravagant holiday.
I’m struggling to figure out what to do at this point. I feel like I’m losing my brother and my best friend in one fell swoop. I’m just so depressed over the whole thing. I love my husband dearly, but Joe will always be my hero in certain ways—my confidant, my buddy, the person who knows me better than anyone else in the world.
So now what? How do I get through to Joe that he is being monopolized by his wife and torn away from his family? Joe is not a stupid man, and I have to believe that he is aware of what’s happening, but then I have to wonder why he is letting this happen. It’s almost like Sharon has him under some kind of spell. And I hate to admit it, but I think he’s happy with her. I can’t imagine how or why, but if I’m being honest with myself, the two of them seem to have some powerful chemistry going on.
But why can’t they have their terrific chemistry and still allow me in? How do I break the spell he’s under so that we can all be together? It’s not like I want to take Joe away from Sharon. I’ll settle for less of Joe, rather than no Joe at all. And at this point, I feel as though we are headed in that direction. If that should ever happen, it would feel like a death to me. What can I do? What do I say?
Dear Feeling Abandoned,
It’s easy to see how you are feeling devastated right now. You feel as though you are losing not just a brother, but also a best friend, the third musketeer, someone who truly gets your past pain and understands the true you, a shoulder to lean on, and a hero. That’s a lot to lose!
But before we determine for sure that you’ve lost Joe, let’s see if there is a way of understanding what’s happening that perhaps minimizes your sense of loss and sets the stage for better possibilities.
Joe is obviously a loyal, devoted, and protective sort of guy. These qualities, which enabled you to get through your difficult childhood, are ones that Joe is now directing toward Sharon. He doesn’t do anything halfway. When he’s committed to someone, it’s with a full heart. Joe probably doesn’t even know how to behave any differently.
So for now, all that devotion and loyalty that was totally directed toward you has been redirected toward his wife. Though I agree that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, that’s how you are probably experiencing it right now. My guess is that Joe’s love toward you hasn’t changed an iota, but in practical terms, he is placing his wife in the number-one spot, the spot that was formerly held sacred for you. Hopefully, you understand that that’s how it should be.
Now let’s look at this situation from Sharon’s perspective. I have no way of knowing whether she is truly a nice person or not. But it does appear as though she has been marking her territory rather aggressively. So, what must it be like to be walking in Sharon’s shoes? She meets this terrific guy whom she is determined to marry. She’s aware enough to notice the incredibly close relationship this guy shares with his sister and brother-in-law. No doubt Joe went on and on about your history together and the wonderful times you all share with one another. It all sounds great, but for the new girl on the block, it could sound a bit threatening. There was never a fourth musketeer, so where would Sharon fit in? Maybe this dynamic has created insecurity on Sharon’s side of the equation and her knee-jerk reaction was to overstep and seek control in an attempt to secure her number-one spot in the life of Joe.
It all makes a lot of sense, but where does it leave you? An unhappy camper, indeed! Are there options for you to explore? Always. Let’s first look at the bad ones.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to say anything negative to Joe about Sharon or about your disappointment in his behavior. Clearly he loves his wife, and as you said, he is happy. If you suggest anything negative to Joe, he will most likely become defensive and possibly even angry. The last thing you want to do is to create any sort of negative energy between the two of you.
You’ve mentioned that you haven’t cared for Sharon almost from the start. Maybe you can examine these feelings and decide where they are coming from and even whether they are reality-based. Are there any qualities in Sharon that you can bring yourself to actually like? She may have been getting negative vibes from you from the start, and therefore pulled away because she didn’t feel embraced or even accepted by you. Is there room for you to be more gracious toward Sharon, thereby making her feel safe and wanted? It’s possible that if Sharon didn’t feel the need to protect herself and her “prize,” she’d be more capable of sharing. And once her guard is down, my guess is that she will allow Joe and herself to be much more accessible.
I also think it would be a good idea for you to try to get a handle on your emotions. This situation is triggering feelings of loss, and you are already anticipating grief over the loss of Joe. There is no reason to believe that will happen. Yes, there is a major shift in your relationship. The extreme closeness the two of you enjoyed is rare and often unsustainable. Once spouses, children, and changes in one’s life and priorities come along, there are often new normals. But there is no reason to believe that you will ever lose Joe’s love or that he won’t always be there for you when you need him.
It’s important to remember that most everything in life is always shifting, for better or for worse. The key is to go with the flow, remain loving and non-judgmental, and allow time for your relationship to redefine itself in a way that can accommodate Joe’s loyalty toward his wife and toward you. It may take a while, but if everyone stays clear-headed and open-minded, I believe Joe and Sharon will come around.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.