By Esther Mann, LCSW
Ben and I have been best friends since elementary school. He’s a great guy, and through the years, as some friends moved on and others came along, Ben and I have always been thick as thieves. I admire and respect him, and he has always been there for me in difficult times.
Coming around my house so often, he got to know my younger sister, Alice. I always thought Alice was spoiled and difficult. The two of us never got along well, but I didn’t let that get in the way of Ben and Alice being attracted to each other. As close as I always felt toward Ben, I kept my feelings to myself in terms of his growing relationship with Alice. And though I was not a great fan of Alice, I did think it would be kind of cool to have Ben as my brother-in-law.
Eventually, Alice and Ben got married. And Ben and I continued to be close friends and now family. I knew from the beginning that the two of them were having a hard time together. Ben never told me any details, but I could see that Alice treated him with disrespect and was demanding and unpleasant. I often wondered how Ben was able to put up with Alice, and felt sorry for him, even though Alice was my sister.
Recently, Ben and Alice announced that they were getting divorced. I can’t say that I was surprised. After 16 years of marriage, I wondered what took them so long! I felt sad for the children and for my parents, but in my heart I felt that Ben would finally get the opportunity to find someone much nicer, and I was secretly happy for him.
Alice called me this past week and told me that even though she knows that Ben and I are such great friends, she was giving me notice that if I continue to speak to Ben or have anything to do with him, she will have nothing to do with me. She will keep herself and her children away from my family. Basically, I have to make a choice: I can be on the Alice team or on the Ben team, but not both.
I know that blood is supposed to be thicker than water, but I feel as though I am in a bind right now. Bottom line, I love and like Ben, and I don’t like Alice much at all. If family weren’t involved, there would be no discussion. I would tell Alice to have a nice life and never look back. I wouldn’t miss having her in my life. However, I can’t help but think about what holidays and family celebrations would look like. Would it mean that if we show up, Alice and her children won’t? Will we never be able to celebrate, as a family, someone’s birthday or any kind of milestone?
I have children who feel close to Alice’s children. I’m worried about how their relationships would be affected. As far as my wife is concerned, she never cared for Alice and also couldn’t care less if she never saw Alice again.
Does Alice have a right to make such a demand of me? What should I do? Walk away from a best friend who has always been there for me through thick and thin and who loves me like a brother, or walk away from a sister who has never really been a sister to me?
Divorce is a painful process. On so many practical and emotional levels, it creates upheavals that can be overwhelming. It can change people—and not necessarily for the better. Some people who have gone through a divorce report symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), so great is their pain. Often it takes a long time to recover from the experience. Some never fully recover from the ordeal.
It sounds as though Alice wasn’t the nicest person in the world to begin with. Dealing now with a divorce is probably bringing out the worst in her. Her ultimatum to you sounds as though it is coming from a place of great anger, if not absolute fury. She is out to get Ben in every way possible. Knowing how much you and Ben mean to one another offers her a perfect opportunity for revenge. She probably believes she has the upper hand, since you are family.
The first question you ask is whether Alice has the “right” to demand of you that you cut yourself off from Ben. Alice can ask or demand anything she wants. No one can stop her. That doesn’t make it nice, right, or mature. It is an outrageous request to make of you. No one would disagree that she was wrong to do so. Maybe she hasn’t even taken the time to think through all of the repercussions in the same way that you have. But it sounds like, right now, she’s out for blood.
Speaking of blood, yes, many people do believe that blood is thicker than water—no matter what. It’s a great concept, but in some cases the blood is tainted, and the water is as pure as can be. Individuals need to look beyond the catchphrase and examine how appropriate it is within their own lives.
You have a difficult decision to make, and there is no right or wrong answer that I can offer you that will not ultimately create some collateral damage. It’s hard to live within a fractured family. If you decide to stick with Ben, understanding that you will then be unable to enjoy your family in its entirety at important family occasions, this will affect everyone. It doesn’t mean that your children will never again get to see their cousins. You can certainly arrange get-togethers between your children and Ben’s children when he is with them. But it is a compromised trade-off, with potentially damaging results.
If you relent to Alice’s demand, and explain to Ben that you are no longer able to be his friend, you will lose something valuable indeed. It will leave a void and a sadness within you, not to mention guilt.
I’m wondering if there is anyone who might be able to speak to Alice and explain to her that she is making demands that are absolutely unreasonable. What about your parents? Are they alive, around, involved? Might they speak to her and try to talk some sense into her? And speaking of your parents, have you asked them how they would feel if you didn’t cave under Alice’s threats? Their answer might influence your decision.
Meanwhile, you are caught between a rock and a hard place. There is no easy answer. I would suggest that maybe, just maybe, after some cooling-off period, Alice might soften a bit and not be quite as demanding of you. But there are no guarantees here. And maybe Alice’s bark is not quite as bad as her bite and despite her threats, maybe she’s not totally prepared to follow through on them. No one can know for sure.
For now, you just have to follow your heart and accept the consequences for the time being. You’ll all get through this, one way or another. Ultimately, Alice is the big loser, as she is focusing on all the wrong things and continuing to be a manipulative, insensitive individual—which probably helped bring her to this point in the first place.
And, as I often say, hurt people hurt people. You and Ben seem to be the healthy ones in this story, which tells me you’ll both be OK.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.