I am writing to you because I am facing a big dilemma. My sister and I are really very close. She has an only-daughter who is 25 years old and she is a very strange girl. When she was a teenager she got involved in various situations, was very unruly, and didn’t listen to anyone’s advice – and many times my sister got into serious problems over her. Ever since my niece went to university she seemed a bit more mature and things calmed down. But some time ago I found out that for a year she has been in a relationship with a much older man who is married and has small children and that upset me very much. I was very ashamed on her behalf, for her immorality – that she is not ashamed to come between a couple with small children. My problem is this, normally I would let my sister know, but she is currently dealing with a serious health problem that has upset her a lot and I don’t know if she can handle any more grief – and that stops me. If I talk to my niece, I’m sure it won’t help, because she’s defensive and unruly and as many times as I’ve tried to advise her in the past she’s spoken to me in a very bad way and done the opposite of what I told her. What should I do?
A relationship with a married man is complicated, often painful and toxic, especially for a young woman, who may feel very much in love. Although no one disputes that these relationships are a choice, it is not always done with awareness of the situation and the consequences. Moreover, it is not easy to move away from such a relationship where everything is experienced intensely. The excitement of the forbidden, the love offered in stolen moments, the feeling that one cannot have what one desires, act as a distorting lens that magnify feelings and sensations. Love is experienced more intensely, passion dominates, and guilt, jealousy, anger constantly struggle with the pain of missing the other that is only cured by reunion.
Many women, in fact, who are having an affair with a married man believe that he made a wrong choice at some point in his life and then got stuck in a situation from which it is difficult to escape, which is what most men use as an argument to justify their infidelity. Then the woman who gets involved with them also takes on the role of ‘savior’, the one who will help her lover to ‘free himself’ from his ‘wrong’ choice and find happiness again, with her.
Behind the choice of a relationship with a married person, many things can be hidden. There may be an absent father, especially if the girl is very young. There may be low self-esteem and a need to confirm one’s worth by claiming another’s man, but also a fear of commitment.
Perhaps some of this applies to your niece. That’s why, and if you really want to take it up with her it would be especially helpful to help her understand what’s behind her choice. If she herself does not realize what are the reasons that led her to this particular relationship, what she gets from this relationship and what she loses, and what needs it meets, it will not be easy for her to make the right decision about her life.
It would perhaps help to talk to her with love and understanding, without criticism and accusations. Accusing her of immorality or pressuring her to break up will get you nowhere.
So if you feel that you can see things through a wider lens and not be swayed by your personal sense of what is moral, right, or fair, then perhaps you could have an honest conversation with your niece and come to understand what is wrong with her. The girl needs your love more than your advice, if she doesn’t ask for it herself. After all, don’t forget that she is an adult and has the right to manage her own life in any way she wants.
As for whether her mother should know, think about whether that would actually help anything, or if it could make the situation even more complicated. Most of the time the conflict, the pressure, the emotional blackmail bring the opposite results than what one might imagine.