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Carolyn Hax: For nieces’ sake, truth is what counts

Dear Carolyn: My brother and sister-in-law are going through an ugly divorce – with her alleging emotional abuse, him trying to get shared custody of their kids (under 10), his lawyer deposing her family members, her refusing to let him see the kids unless supervised. I’ve been trying to stay out of it, at my father’s request and my brother’s request/demand.

Recently my sister-in-law emailed me and told me her side of the story, the polar opposite of my brother’s version of everything. I’m sure the truth is somewhere in the middle, but I lean toward hers because I know my brother, and his terrible temper. She wants me to talk to her lawyer; I could probably help corroborate his anger-management issues.

I want what’s best for my nieces, and I don’t mind risking my relationship with my brother and mother (parents are divorced); they are both controlling, manipulative, angry people, and neither one lives in my town. But I hate the thought of risking my relationship with my dad. We’re very close and live in a small town, and I worry that he would be stuck between me and brother.

He knows my brother’s temper, but he just doesn’t want to believe that his son could do the things that my sister-in-law is saying. Should I talk to the lawyer and, if so, let my father know I’m going to do it beforehand?

– Choosing Sides

A: I wish there were a loophole here, some way to justify your remaining neutral, but these kids need you more than your father does, and more than you need his approval. Children’s peril trumps adults’ sensitivities, period.

This conversation, too, is neither a deposition nor an appointment with the judge; it doesn’t have to go any further than you’re ready for it to go. In fact, you can allocate a fair amount of time toward figuring out whether you have to be all in, whether a background role will suffice, or whether you can help at all. This meeting can be for you as much as it is for your sister-in-law’s case.

It also needs to be about your telling the truth as you know it, not corroborating anything. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one.

Remember: As long as what you report is truthful; complete in the sense that you don’t add or hold back facts toward your preferred outcome; and motivated by truth (versus delight at the opportunity to stick it to your “controlling, manipulative, angry” brother), then you won’t be the one responsible for costing him in this divorce.

It’s safe to assume your brother won’t be impressed with this reasoning, but your father might surprise you. When you tell your dad – not upfront, only if you go on the record – he might be able to draw on his difficult history with your mom for some sympathy.

Whatever it costs you, though, think of it as less than what silence would cost these kids.