Family's notion of loyalty omits accountability

I have been married for 26 years. My husband is an alcoholic and refuses treatment. I have made the decision to leave the marriage. We have a 21-year-old son who reached out to his paternal grandfather only to be dismissed and rebuked for saying something against his father. When I backed my son, my father-in law also turned on me. As a result of this conversation he has turned his other two sons against us. I have always been close with both of my brothers-in-law and their families. Both brothers-in-law have wives who suffer from breast cancer. I have loved and cared for both of them as well as taking care of the children while they were ill. Needless to say, one of my sisters-in-law is terminal, and since the in-laws have told their sons that I want nothing to do with them, they have not spoken to me in six months.

My brother-in-law and his wife showed up at my work last week because his wife had an episode and it scared her. They told me they know (my ex) is an alcoholic, but it is not his place to say anything.

I have been hurt by my husband and now his family. I don't know if I can put myself out there again.

-- R.S. Henderson


I think it's impossible to truly anticipate the losses inherent in divorce.

One of the costs of divorce is the way it tends to shake up and reorganize relationships. Say, two years after a divorce, they find themselves in new friendships. And some former friendships are no longer present. Commonly, our relationships with our ex's family also change. We hope these relationships are respectful, even warm, especially if grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins are part of the equation. But it is unlikely we'll be present at our in-laws' house for Thanksgiving dinner.

But your experience goes beyond the normal grief of changes in family ties. You find yourself experiencing a sudden antagonism from your in-laws. It appears you are the villain. You have had the audacity to hold their boy accountable for his drinking behavior. He refused marital accountability. You ended the marriage.

You describe a family wielding distorted views of loyalty. In this case, loyalty means a reflexive antagonism toward any spouse who might no longer wish to be married to one of the family members, regardless of the reasons. Loyalty means their boy doesn't deserve to be "dumped." Ever. In principle. Because he's our boy. Had he ended the marriage (instead of you), loyalty would have meant that you did deserve to be dumped.

You describe a family with odd ideas about accountability. In fact, it sounds like the only real accountability being observed here is that "blood" family comes first. That's it. And anyone who brings a grievance against one of our family members is, by definition, "being mean" to our family member, and therefore deserving of our enmity.

Gotta say it: Is it any wonder he's an alcoholic who refuses treatment?

Now comes the brother-in-law and the wife, committing familial treason by consorting with the enemy. And you hesitate to "put yourself out there" again. I don't blame you. Love and respect me. Or despise and scorn me. But don't reach for me as a friend AND throw me under the bus with your family. Pick. Choose.

Makes me think of a scene from the Mel Brooks film "Blazing Saddles." The old, white woman comes at night to the black sheriff's office with the gift of a fresh apple pie. She apologizes for the racial slur she hurled at him earlier in the day. And she caps it by saying, "And, of course, you will, I hope, have the good graces not to mention to anyone that I spoke to you."

If my boy was an unrepentant drunk and his wife dumped him, finally, because of it, and he came to my house with his broken heart -- I'd be there for him. But, one of the ways I'd be there for him is that I'd eventually get around to saying some version of, "Uh, son, women have a tendency to divorce drunk husbands."

I'd be sad for him. I'd be sad for my former daughter-in-law, too. But it's their marriage. Their divorce. Their journey of loss and recovery. No villains -- or victims. Just two broken human beings.

Originally published in View News, Aug. 17, 2010.