What Would You Say to a Decent Man Who’s Having Romantic Fantasies About His Wife’s Younger Sister?

If you were a therapist, counselor or relationship coach, how would you respond to the following plea for help?

The Plea

I have a major, major problem that might kill me some day. My wife and I have been married for 7yrs and about 18months ago we allowed my wife’ little sister to move in with us. My sister in law and I have always had a great relationship and we have been close even before she moved in. She went through some hard times and came to us to help her out. I love her. A major part of me loves her as a friend and a sister but a part of me wants more. I care about her so much. The thought of her moving out crushes me. Yes she is younger than me and my wife but not by much. And it is not a physical thing either, she gets me and understands me in a way my wife doesn’t. I don’t really think about making love to her, I just have the feeling to hold her kiss her and be with her 24/7. she is such a wonderful person. Now I must say my wife is a terrific woman, she is very loyal to me and I know she loves me with all her heart. And she is a bombshell, way prettier than the little sister. I love my wife and I would/will never cheat on her. My question is, how can I destroy this attraction I have for some that will never love me and I do not want be attracted to? I cant take this, sometimes I want to end my life because I hate feeling conflicted. My wife deserves better, they both do… and its not like I can kick my sister in law out, she needs us and it would be so cruel. I’m at my end. I don’t want to feel this way anymore. Help me!”

My Response to the Plea

When I read your earnest description of how you feel about your wife and her younger sister, I was deeply moved by how much you love them, but I was also troubled by how harshly you’re judging yourself. It feels like you’ve become your own judge, jury and executioner, and it’s a no brainer what the verdict will be.

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Have you ever seen the film Twelve Angry Men? It’s about twelve guys on a jury, eleven of whom are absolutely certain that a young man accused of knifing his father to death is guilty. Only one guy on the jury is not convinced of the young man’s guilt and he raises questions based on reasonable doubt, the one legal principle that offers any hope of saving the boy from the electric chair. With your permission, I’d like to take on the role of the lone dissenter on the jury by putting some questions to you, and the other ten members of the jury, about your guilt or innocence regarding you’re feelings for your wife’s younger sister.

First, is it possible for a decent man, a man who’s good right down to the depths of his soul, to have strong, romantic feelings for his sister-in-law without acting on them? You’re probably too young to remember an interview President Jimmy Carter gave to Playboy Magazine way back in 1976 (the stone age!) in which he said, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do – and I have done it – and God forgives me for it.” From this quote we can safely conclude that Jimmy Carter’s God is not a hanging judge. Also for the rest of us agnostics, you don’t even have to believe in God to be your own hanging judge.

Second, how can you ever lessen the pain you’re in now by destroying the attraction you have to your wife’s younger sister? You could if you committed suicide but it doesn’t sound like you’re seriously considering this option because you’re reaching out for help in your email to me. So how can you, or any of us, lessen the pain we feel from having romantic feelings for a sister-in-law, or our spouse’s closest friend, or a first cousin, or some other family member?

Third, what’s the difference between guilt and shame? There’s a hell of a big difference! Guilt is what you feel when you’ve seriously fucked up or actually done something that hurts someone who loves and cares about you. Guilt is a painful feeling but you can do something about it. You can make amends to the person you’ve hurt. Shame, on the other hand, is never “I’ve done something wrong and feel shitty about it,” it’s always. “I am wrong, so deeply, profoundly fucked up as a person, that there’s virtually no hope for me.” The difference between guilt and shame is an important idea that comes from Brene Brown, a gifted therapist who explains how shame affects both men and women in our culture in her video on vulnerability. It would be very good for you, your wife and your sister-in-law if you sat down together and watched this video.

Fourth, Brene Brown believes there are three ways most of us have in coping with shame and they’re all bad. 1) We blow up at everyone around us in a feeble effort to escape the feeling and, of course, this makes things worse. 2) We become overly apologetic, brown nose everybody and generally try to kiss ass; this one hardly ever works because we usually can’t fool people. 3) We zone out on those who care about us and retreat into our own private swampland of secrecy, judgment and self-disgust, and die a little bit in the process. Which of these are you using to cope with your feelings for your wife’s younger sister? From your note to me, it feels like you’re heavy duty into zoning out and beating yourself up in secret.    

Finally, here are some additional thoughts you may find useful that I picked up from Sue Johnson, another gifted therapist who collected them from people who know something about how to cope with shame:

  • “A person’s heart withers [i.e., your wife’s heart] if it does not answer another heart.”- Pearl S. Buck.
  • “Like a scratched cornea, relationship ruptures [i.e. secrecy] deliver agony.” – Thomas Lewis, et al.
  • When someone loves you and says your name, you know your name is safe in their mouth.” – Billy, a four year old posting on the internet.
  •  “Talking with my wife is a relief from the things that happen here…like that first breath you take when you have been under water for too long.” – Joel Buchannan, a U.S. soldier in Iraq.
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