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To Speak or Not to Speak

Dear Village Pickle,
My sister has a boyfriend no one in our family likes. He is rude to others and treats her poorly. She has been with this guy over a year now and I am worried she will settle down with him. I told her once I don’t think this guy is good enough for her — a little honesty with a minor side of confidence booster — and she didn’t seem to take me seriously. We live apart and I don’t see her often. Is there a good way to tell her what I really think or is it best to just keep quiet?
—To Speak or Not to Speak?

Dear Speaker:
Fun fact: I have had two of these conversations with friends in serious relationships. Both ignored me, got married anyway and then divorced within five years. There are two morals to this story: first, The Pickle is never wrong about relationships. Second, your opinion will almost definitely be ignored.

This being the case, I believe it is still important to have this conversation with your sister. It’s important for you to feel like you can be honest with your sibling and it’s important for her because it just might be the proverbial straw on this relationship’s back.

You get to initiate exactly one conversation with her about your concerns. Because of this, it’s important to choose the timing wisely. I would suggest bringing it up at some kind of juncture that implies a deepening commitment. If you notice increased talk of: moving in together, getting married, buying a house or having a child, those would all be good times to express yourself. When you share your feelings, use concrete examples to illustrate your points: “It bothered me the way he got angry with you for forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning.” “He never once let me or Mom finish a sentence without interrupting us.” As you have already rightly done, make the conversation about supporting her, and not about vilifying him: “You are such a smart, ambitious girl and I feel like you deserve to be with someone who supports your goals.” It’s also helpful to note specific changes that you have seen in her over the course of their relationship. If she is more withdrawn, passive, nervous, depressed, etc., point that out and then remind her who she used to be. Observations like that, when done lovingly, can be like looking in a mirror. They help us see what we have grown accustomed to ignoring.

The reason you only get one conversation is because anything beyond that will start to make her feel alienated from her family, and then much more likely to dig in with her man. Also, you will need to respect her choice if she decides to stick with him, so don’t say anything unless you are genuinely prepared to do so. She might change her mind at a later date and you will want to be there for her when the time comes. That won’t happen if you punish her for ignoring you.

Between the time you may have to wait before you have “the talk” and the long odds of her actually listening to you, I am predicting you may well have this unpleasant man in your life for some time. This being the case, I’ve included below some strategies for staying connected with your sister in the meantime.

• Stay in touch with her as best you can. Call and text as frequently as is comfortable, or maybe a tad bit more than you normally do. When a loved one partners up with an unsavory someone, they tend to become isolated from their friends and family. Unfortunately, this means that when they really need some perspective, there’s no one around to give it.

• Visit her if that is at all possible. Watch their interactions and look for the good as much as you can. While it may not shift your opinion, it will help you provide a more balanced view. “He is really funny and I can see why you like going out with him, but he doesn’t always treat you with respect” is easier to hear than “He’s the jerkiest jerk I’ve ever had the bad luck to meet.”

• On a similar note, ask yourself why she is with him. I had a dear friend who ended up marrying someone with more red flags than the bull run at Pamplona. When processing my distress with my very wise aunt, she said, “Your friend must be getting something out of the relationship. What do you think it is?” This is an extremely important question to ponder because it can help you have empathy for what otherwise might just look like a hot mess. Does he offer her companionship in a place where she has few friends? Status in her social circles? Stability during a time in her life when everything else is uncertain?

• If you can do this without sounding too judgmental, ask her the same question. Not “Why are you with him?” but, “So, tell me about your guy. What do you like most about him?” Again, this is a way to keep the lines of communication open. If she knows she can talk about him without getting an earful of righteous indignation, she is more likely to share when she has concerns.

• Don’t treat every argument she has with him like a soap box in the “Why You Should Break Up With Him” campaign. If she talks to you about her relationship, support her feelings (“Hmm, I can see why that would bother you”), give opinions only when asked and only about the topic at hand (“You know, I’m not sure that the silent treatment is really the best way to handle conflict”), and listen, listen, listen.

The point of all of this is to keep your relationship with her strong so that you will have some credibility when the time comes to express yourself and so that she will feel comfortable talking to you if/when she starts to have doubts.

—The Village Pickle
 

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