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The Question

My sister has been in the process of divorcing her husband. Sadly, things have been rough for a long time and this is their second separation in a year. She lives more than 2,000 kilometres southeast of my other sister and me. Although she's made friends in her adopted city, she has no family there and often expresses how alone she feels. I want to do everything I can for her, but even before this marital breakdown, she's always required an extraordinary amount of long-distance emotional support. This demand really takes its toll on my other sister and me, given that both of us have three kids and husbands of our own. Often it feels like having a fourth kid. Now, she is considering reconciling with her cheating ex and looking for ways to make their complicated, damaged relationship work. Dave, we're exhausted here up north and want to tell our divorcing sister that if they reconcile, we must be off the hook for future emotional support. I love her very much, but she doesn't realize how needy and emotionally draining she is. It's too much.

The answer

Oh, come on. What are we talking about? The odd phone call?

Listen. I know someone going through something difficult can be emotionally draining for the people around them. And often that person is so focused on the actual thing they're experiencing (e.g. marital problems, cancer) they don't stop to think: "Hmmm, the people around me have busy lives, I'm asking a lot of them," and so forth.

But really, what are friends and particularly family for if not to circle the wagons and rally around someone in their time of need?

How people react in these circumstances is no less than how you know who your real allies are. What I call your "foxhole friends."

I had a friend who went through something similar recently. Problems in her marriage that blindsided her and spun her into a tizzy and made her a bit of a wreck/"the walking dead."

She was staggering around with a metaphorical emotional arrow through her head and needed the people around her to embrace her and offer support.

And she was saying it was telling and surprising: People she never thought would be supportive and helpful, people she worked with and/or didn't know all that well, came out of the woodwork to support her.

And some people she thought she knew well, decades-long friends and family members, might as well have said: "Hey, I'm busy with my own life, you kind of thrust this on me, and P.S. I'm not a therapist."

You don't want, I think, to fall into that latter category. Which it sounds like you are.

She doesn't need a therapist. She needs a friend/sister. Be that to her. I know you've got a family and everything, but surely you can squeeze in the odd long phone call in her time of need?

I don't think it can hurt, exactly, if you offer her a bit of "tough love." If things have really been that rocky for that long, you could suggest that maybe she ponder her alternatives.

But really, from my experience with these matters, what she does not need is advice or judgment.

I remember thinking of Hillary Clinton: "Why does she stay with Bill after all the humiliation he's handed her?" and just assuming it was out of ambition or whatever.

But maybe not. Why do we always judge the cheated-upon person? Maybe it was just out of love and a shared history and the thought they could work it out.

(Though, of course, Anthony Weiner's wife tried to work things out but ultimately quite rightly decided she'd had it: The sad fact of these matters is once the person has gone through that door marked "Adultery," it's easier to go through again and again.)

But let none among us cast the first stone when it comes to marriage: They're tricky, complicated things, they all have their issues, and sometimes what you need from the people around you is just simple, straightforward support.

Sounds like that's what your sister needs from you now. Why on earth would you withhold it? You say she's often expressed how alone she feels. She has friends in her adopted city, but maybe they're not close enough to support her in the way she needs.

You're her sister. You had skinned knees together. Maybe you slept in bunk beds and traded freaky ghost stories with a flashlight under your chin.

Now, she has a spiritual/marital skinned knee and needs you to apply the bandage. Don't deny her. Remember: Some day it may be you who needs the support and assistance.

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