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How do I get my sister to leave her marriage?

The question

My sister got married three years ago after a 13-year engagement. She's never been sure about things and has tried to leave twice. Her husband is not a bad person, nor is she, but they essentially lack any physical and emotional connection and they're both unhappy. He refuses counselling, and she is no longer interested in it either. She is worried about being alone, being alienated from all her married friends, being unhappier single.

She's started going to the gym and talking about starting a master's degree. She is also considering getting a breast enlargement procedure. Meanwhile, it is (and I know this is selfish) wearisome to hear her complain about how things are at home, but not do anything about it directly. I left a long-term relationship a few years ago. I've told her it's the hardest and best thing I've ever done in my life and I want to lend her the courage to start that journey herself. I'm worried she'll just remain in this state of passive unhappiness. Should I keep pushing the envelope to try to stir her to action or return to the back-seat supportive role and hope she makes the big break up on her own?

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The answer

Normally I feel people these days give up on relationships too easily: As soon as one relationship loses its entertainment value, they reach for an invisible, metaphorical Relationship Remote, hoping there's something more entertaining on another channel.

But they just wind up repeating the same patterns over and over, because they don't change themselves.

You may be a little biased, having done "the hardest and best thing" and embarked on the "journey" of being single yourself.

That "journey" isn't always fun for everyone. You're not just looking for a little sisterly company when you're out there yourself, hmmm? Maybe, despite all her whining and kvetching, your sister knows, deep down, she's happier than she would be if she were single.

On the other hand, it's true: Sixteen years is a long time to be passively unhappy. Especially if your sister's been moaning about it the whole time.

Sorry to focus on that aspect of it, but it's a pet peeve/hobby horse of mine. I've had occasion to say this in the column before, but people: Ripping a new one for friends, family, colleagues and people you met in the dog park is one thing.

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But cutting up your own spouse? Downright contemptible. Whenever I come across someone airing dirty laundry in this fashion, I always want to take him/her by the lapels and say: "If your spouse is such a louse, what does that make you for choosing him/her in the first place? At the very least, a poor judge of character."

Of course, I understand there's such a thing as venting. But this is 16 years of whining and kvetching, and doing nothing.

She talks about getting a master's degree, getting breast implants, getting counselling, leaving her husband, being single.

I know you say she's "tried" to leave, but what does that even mean? "Do or do not," as Yoda says. "There is no try."

Sounds to me like what's needed here is, in the immortal words of Elvis Presley, "A little less conversation and a little more action, please."

From what you've told me, the only concrete action your sister has taken is going to the gym. Which is good, which is a great start. Faced with a recent health scare/wake-up call of my own (high blood pressure), I've started exercising an hour a day. And it feels great. I feel like a champ!

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And what feels best about it is: I said I'd do it and I did it. I like being one of those people who doesn't just sit around saying I'd do stuff, but does the stuff he says he's going to do. (I've had slightly less definitive success with the booze-/cigarette-free aspects of "the new Dave," but it's still early days.)

It's an important component of menschiness (and that's the "journey" we should all be on - striving, day by day, to become more menschy men and women): following your words with actions.

So, yes, I would definitely encourage you to encourage your sister to mensch up and either do something about her situation or stop complaining - or, ideally, both.

But following our less-conversation-more-action-please ethos, I would not continue to browbeat and badger her on the topic. Rather, I would state your case once, firmly, then drop the subject forever.

Something like: "Listen, I love you, but I can't listen to you complain about [insert her husband's name here]any more. It's getting boring. Decide on a course of action and stick to it. Leave, stay, but either way, next time we meet, instead of talking about your husband, I want to hear some fresh take you have on current events or a recent movie."

That may shut her up - in a good way. Maybe it'll be the sisterly foot in the ass she needs so she can stop flapping her gums and start flapping her wings.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, was released in March.

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