BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

A couple of years ago I married a wonderful woman after living with her for a few years. I am a man in my 70s, and my wife is a few years older than me. She has an older sister who is on her third marriage and has a reputation in my wife’s family for being flirtatious and extremely manipulative. She has been living far away from us and visits three or four times a year.

My sister-in-law never paid any unusual attention to me until my wife and I married. But after that, every time she visited, she would single me out for compliments, saying I was “cute” and trying to find reasons to touch me. For example: “Your hair is so pretty. Let me touch it.” That progressed to putting an arm around my shoulders and then coming up to me and putting both arms around my neck while facing me. I never gave her any encouragement or positive reaction.

Because all of these things occurred with other family members around, I did not feel like I could snap at her or push her away. I wish I had found a way to quietly tell her that she was making me uncomfortable and ask her to please stop, but I was still new to the family and not sure of myself with them. Also, she seems to have my wife emotionally bound to her to the point that my wife gets angry at the slightest criticism of her sister. My wife seems to alternate between being intimidated by her sister and feeling as if she has to protect her.

I decided I would simply stay out of my sister-in-law’s way as much as possible. This worked until one night when she was in our home to celebrate a birthday with her daughter and granddaughter. At the end of the night, my wife walked them to the door while I remained sitting in the living room, relieved to have avoided contact.

A few seconds later I sensed someone standing near me. As I turned around, my wife’s sister bent over me, grabbed me around my neck with one arm, put her other hand on my chest, stuck her face into my shoulder, and kissed me as far down on my neck as she could get. My wife did not see what happened. After I got over being stunned and feeling really creeped out, I was angry.

When I complained to my wife, she did not seem surprised and made some feeble excuses, ending in “Well … that’s my sister.” She has refused to confront her sister about this or even ask for an explanation. She is worried that this would change her relationship with her sister. She now says that her sister “didn’t mean anything” by what she did, and seems to be trying to blame me for being offended.

The latest twist in this is that my sister-in-law and her husband are moving here and will live about 10 miles away. My wife knows how I feel, but she is excited and plans to spend a lot of time with her sister. This continues to bother me, and I have much less enthusiasm and interest in my marriage.

Am I overreacting? I think that my sister-in-law’s actions were rude, disrespectful, indecent, and calculated to cause trouble. What she did is also considered assault in the state where I live.

I figure I have several choices: Keep trying to get through to my wife and break this hold her sister has on her; try to get my sister-in-law to explain her actions to me; talk to her husband; threaten to go to the police; let it go but keep my distance; or some combination of these things.

I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this.

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I want to begin by saying how sorry I am that this happened to you, and to assure you that you’re not overreacting. What makes sexual assault so insidious is that in addition to the distress caused by the assault itself, people experience a tendency to question their sense of reality, because others aren’t willing to acknowledge what happened.

Especially when sexual assault occurs in a family, other members of the family will often seek to minimize it by saying that you’re exaggerating or misinterpreting, or by blaming you for being “too sensitive.” Sometimes people will even suggest that you had a role in inviting the sexual behavior.

On top of this, some people don’t believe that women commit sexual assault, especially against men. If your wife holds that belief, then your sister-in-law’s reputation for being “flirtatious” might be informing your wife’s perception that what her sister did was inappropriate but harmless. Imagine that you had a brother who made your wife uncomfortable with his inappropriate comments and intrusive touching and then one day grabbed and forcibly kissed her, leaving her feeling angry and violated. My guess is that if your response was a dismissive “Well … that’s my brother,” your wife would feel as you do now—angry, alone, resentful, and betrayed.

What prevents your wife from acknowledging the assault is the fact that if she does, there will be consequences that she finds untenable: her relationship with her sister might change; her “manipulative” sister could create even more chaos or perhaps try to exact revenge; her sister’s marriage might be jeopardized once her husband learns of this; and you may even seek your wife’s support in reporting her sister to the police. Your wife might also have to confront the possibility that her sister is assaulting other men or, at the very least, violating other people’s boundaries in ways that make them feel threatened—in other words, that what the family had written off as a long-standing tendency toward flirtation may have been something more troubling.

Denial is how many families, organizations, or even entire communities handle their unwillingness to deal with the consequences of facing the truth. Fear of these consequences is why a parent might respond to a child’s report of unwanted advances by an older sibling with “Ah, c’mon, he was just kidding around.” It’s why a woman might respond to a daughter who confides that her stepfather came on to her with “Are you sure that’s what he meant? This must be a big misunderstanding.” It’s why an employer might say (even now, after #MeToo), in response to a complaint about some highly valued employees, “Oh, that’s just how they are. They didn’t mean anything by it, but I’ll talk to them,” and then not take any meaningful action. If you don’t acknowledge the truth, you don’t have to act on it.

Denying abusive behavior creates a toxic stew of collusion and shame, all while normalizing the abuse and enabling it to continue. And this, over time, can lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia, substance use, and a pervasive feeling of numbness or unsafety for the person in your position.

A hoped-for response from your wife might have been something along the lines of “I’m so sorry that this terrible thing happened. Thank you for telling me. I love you and want to support you in any way I can. Let’s talk about where to go from here.” When people don’t get that kind of empathic response from the person they’re closest to, they either futilely attempt to get the person to validate what happened or they simply retreat into their own denial (for instance, your idea to “let it go but keep my distance,” which isn’t really possible and puts you at risk of something like this happening again).

Right now, both of you would benefit from talking about what’s happened with a couple’s therapist. You say that your wife has always been protective of and intimidated by her sister, and unless she gets help untangling herself from this dynamic, their relationship will continue to interfere with your marriage. You, too, could use some help to better understand why you never said anything privately to your wife about how profoundly uncomfortable you felt once her sister began making inappropriate comments and contact with you. In therapy, you’ll learn to communicate in ways that I imagine you haven’t in the five or so years that you’ve been living together, and also get clarity on why both of you have, for your own reasons, avoided having these hard conversations. Your wife may not be the only one who’s afraid of the consequences of facing some truths.

Once you build more trust by deepening your relationship in the safety of a therapist’s office, you’ll be able to talk about how you can work together as a couple to support each other in the changes that are bound to occur once you decide how you want to handle the assault and her sister’s impending move near you. It’s unfortunate that her sister’s behavior had to be the catalyst for doing this important work together, but one observation I’ve had of older couples is that they’re acutely aware of time passing quickly and of the importance of real connection while they’re able to enjoy it. I sense that there’s a lot of love between you and your wife. Imagine how much deeper it can become if you both have the courage to face the truth together.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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