More Advice Column Incompetence: The Case of the Jealous Sister

"My wife is behaving irrationally. Is it me, or might she have a teeny problem of her own?"

Once again an advice columnist’s response has me considering whether there needs to be a standard of malpractice for the profession, especially when desperate, trusting people rely on them in times of crisis. I agree that anyone who is prepared to adopt the recommendations of a stranger that are based on a probably inadequate and incomplete description of a dilemma, especially when the columnist could well be a college intern, the janitor or a lunatic, is in desperate straits indeed.  Still,  if you are going to give advice, it had better meet some bare minimum of competence—even if you are just an intern.

A sad and remorseful man wrote “Annie,” the Boston Globe’s advice maven, about whether there was hope for his marriage, which recently and unexpectedly exploded. He is in love with his wife, who apparently is cursed with an older married sister who is “supermodel gorgeous.” At a family party to watch the royal wedding, there was a casual discussion among the guys as to who was more attractive, Kate Middleton or sister Pippa. The husband used the occasion to spontaneously joke that his brother-in-law was lucky he nabbed the spectacular older sister of his wife first, or he would have snatched her up. “I don’t know why I said it,” he wrote “Annie.” “I didn’t even mean it.”

As soon as they returned home, his wife “screamed and cried about how [he had] humiliated her in front of everyone,” said that she’d felt overshadowed by her sister all her life, refused to accept his explanations or apologies, and left him on the spot, saying that the marriage was over. Now he’s been served with divorce papers. He can’t get to his wife, who has shut him out. He is full of remorse and guilt for hurting her. What should he do?

Here is what “Annie” responded:

“A. Aside from your incredible disregard for your wife’s major sore spot, many people believe that such “flippant comments’’ hold hidden truths (see: Freud). At this point, there may be no way to convince [her] that you don’t harbor salacious thoughts about [her sister]. Your best bet is to enlist the help of Amy’s parents. Apologize to them. Admit you were an obtuse idiot. Cry. Beg them to get Amy to consider counseling. We hope it works. You sound truly remorseful.”


Assuming this is the whole story, that the writer didn’t neglect to mention that he  beat his wife with a tennis racket, had gambled the house away and  maintained a harem of cheerleaders in the basement, and that his marriage was as untroubled, or at least seemed to be, before the party as his letter implied, Annie’s willingness to lay everything on the husband makes no sense. He made a thoughtless remark; a mistake. He apologized. I’ve said worse; my wife has said worse, you’ve said worse. Everybody says worse, and if people we love and care about apologize sincerely for saying the stupid things that human beings will inevitably say, then it is our duty to forgive them. Indeed, it is our duty to forgive them for bad conduct that is not indicative of a pattern or genuine cruelty and betrayal. The husband’s offense was just words.

The wife’s conduct, as described, is irrational, unfair, uncaring, and more cruel by far than anything her husband said. If she has this kind of sick insecurity about her gorgeous sister, then she needs professional help. If her husband was unaware of this landmine, she is to blame. If she would do something so extreme, walking out on a supposedly loving husband based on one dumb comment, she is 1) not very committed to the marriage, or 2) using this as a convenient way to get out of a marriage that she was already looking to leave, and 3) cruelly allowing her husband to think it is all his fault, or 4) certifiably bats.

And Annie tells him to beg and cry? She should have told him to leap and cheer, because this crazy was an even bet to shoot him while he was sleeping some night when he forgot to put down the toilet seat.

6 thoughts on “More Advice Column Incompetence: The Case of the Jealous Sister

  1. I’d like to see this in court. At least in MD, it would be entertaining:

    Wife: “He once joked that before marrying me, he could have been interested in my hot sister.”
    Magistrate: “So…what grounds are you suing on again? Your own mental defect? Otherwise, come back in 2 years.”

  2. 5) Very controlling and is using this instance to manipulate him emotionally and financially. She will require him to do something even more humiliating and demeaning than even “Annie” suggested and then she will come back.

  3. I can’t begin to imagine how many marriages would fail if that criteria was applied universally. In every family with two or more sisters in it, one is going to be regarded as the winner in the intra-familial beauty contest! But that Sibling Rivalry Syndrome should be largely dispelled with the onset of maturity. True, the husband’s careless words (though obviously not meant maliciously) might well have opened an old “wound”. We guys tend to be bad about joking about things that women hold more seriously. But the extent of the wife’s reaction reveals a tragic flaw in her own makeup. A man can only prostrate himself so far in apologizing. If his previous efforts as a good husband mean nothing to this woman, then the fault devolves on her fully. His next step should be to persuade her to get some good professional counseling, not to humiliate himself ever more in catering to her irrationality… and for both their sakes. I guess he’s also learned by now the folly of writing t0 a jumped up “sob sister” in a newspaper!

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