Q: 18 months ago my sister – married with 2 young children – began an affair with a man – also married with a child. He made it clear he would not leave his family and, I think, he felt ‘safe’ that she would not do so either (he is known to have had affairs before – a shallow charmer). However, he began the ‘if only we could be together’ type of talk and no sooner had he said it than my sister had thrown her husband out. (I suspect this horrified her lover, who was content with the status quo). Since then her lover has seemingly tried to cool their relationship with some quite obvious diversion tactics which my sister fails to recognise as snubs – standing her up, preferring to see friends, faking illness, lies, blaming others, etc. He frequently paints his wife as a psychotic, scary woman who he blames for his inability to leave (fear for his son and such). People who know his wife do not see her this way. He is weak and easily manipulated, so eventually responds to my sister’s constant texting and demands for his attention.
More recently, to try to satisfy my sister’s demands, he has started to make promises to leave his wife ‘in a few months’. This keeps my sister happy a while, then his inaction drives her to pester him again. Finally last week he announced the drastic decision that he is to move to the Far East! (work related allegedly). His wife is not joining him. Once again on breaking this to my sister he was unable to be honest and end the affair – so he ended up suggesting that he send her money until she has enough to visit him there (note ‘visit’ not ‘join’ him). I sincerely believe this was a panic tactic on his part to subdue her but I believe she is now giving serious thought to dumping her children on her ex and moving out there too, the moment her lover gives the nod. I believe he is afraid of her (as much as it hurts to say so, ‘bunny boiler’ is a term that doesn’t seem too far from the truth). She once adored her children but they have suffered 18 months of neglect since this began. She has shunned lifelong friends. My sister has changed beyond recognition in pursuit of this doomed ‘relationship’ and is constantly crying and depressed. She is very strong-willed and manipulates people so my family are afraid to confront her for fear she will sever these ties too. I believe this obsession with this man is an illness. She sometimes acknowledges how ridiculous it is, but then says she “can’t live without him”. She did at one point suggest herself that they stop the relationship and he made no further contact – but within a short time she was begging him to see her again and he gave in.
We fear she will abandon her family in pursuit of him, or worse, will then harm herself if this doesn’t work out (which it most probably won’t). My mum is desperate to ‘bring her to her senses’ but does see that my sister’s behaviour can be likened to being in a cult. She can’t see the craziness of the situation and won’t just ‘snap out of it’ by being confronted. She is likely to cut her family off if we challenge her in any way, even if done as kindly as is possible. The question is – what, if anything – can we do to help her? Is she ill? Is this something someone can ‘recover’ from or be treated for? Do we try to point out how badly he has treated her, not to mention his wife? What sort of man he is? Do we confront him? We are desperate for her to rediscover her life, her children, her friends, her family and end this painful hopeless selfish fantasy. We fear she may do something terrible while being so irrational.
A: What a worrisome and sad situation! You must feel like someone spirited your real sister away and left this irrational and desperate person in her place. I can understand why you and your family are walking on eggshells with her. The whole situation is terribly confusing.
The very first concern is to make sure her children are safe. You didn’t mention if their father is in the picture. If so, it might be wise to consider whether he (or another member of the family) should assume their care for awhile. Please trust your instincts. If you fear that your sister may do something terrible, protect the young and the vulnerable.
It’s possible that your sister is in a manic episode of bipolar illness. You can suggest to her that she go to a psychologist for an evaluation and seek treatment but she probably won’t listen to you. It is going to take something like her guy heading to the Mideast and not making contact (or something equally dramatic) to put the brakes on this. Confronting the man probably won’t help, although it’s always worth a try. If he’s as weak as you say, he may need your family’s support to get out of this.
Adults have the right to make unwise decisions. Sadly, all you can do is watch in dismay until she gets in trouble and then be there for her. If she is mentally ill: Yes, she can recover from it. With treatment and support, most people do.
I wish you well.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Sep 2008
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2008). She would leave her children for a man. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 9, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/09/01/she-would-leave-her-children-for-a-man/