Help! My Wife Died in an Accident Years Ago. Can I Marry Her Sister?

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 15 2013 6:15 AM

Keeping It in the Family

How do I explain to people I’m marrying my late wife’s sister?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a widower in my mid-30s. Five years ago a drunk driver killed my wife. I was devastated. For the first couple of years I was in a sad, isolated, and withdrawn state. But the passage of time did help heal me. My wife’s younger sister moved to my city to begin her medical residency more than two years ago. She invited me to a few social events when she arrived and soon we became physically intimate. At first I was in shock, as she had been my sister-in-law. However, things developed and it is serious. There’s a problem, however: She’s never told her parents about us. I understand the topic is awkward and her parents and I have had a strained relationship. But she and I are planning to move in together and will be getting engaged, so it’s only a matter of time before they find out. We've discussed breaking the news to them thousands of times, and even sought professional advice. Each rehearsal scenario inevitably ends with us having to defend our relationship, something we both don’t feel is necessary. Are we right for believing that we shouldn't justify ourselves to her family and those who view our relationship as suspect or immoral? Or do they have a point that we've crossed a huge social boundary between brother-in-law and sister-in-law and we must hear them out?

—Not Taboo

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Dear Taboo,
I’m assuming you’re not a member of the Inuit or Chiricahua people. They and some other groups around the world have followed the practice of sororate marriage, in which a widower marries the sister of his late wife. (It’s a variation of the much more widespread tradition of levirate marriage—commanded in Deuteronomy—where a widow marries her late husband’s brother.) You, your sister-in-law, and her parents all suffered a sudden and grievous loss. It’s one that will always mark your life, but as has happened, you have been able to love again and move on. Your late wife’s parents must live with a different kind of pain. Of course they want their living daughter to happily marry. But her marrying you will complicate how they cope. Images of you with their late daughter will be hard to keep from their minds when they see you coupled with their younger child. I wish you’d said more about the reason for the strained relations with your in-laws. It would be instructive to know if they simply disliked you from the get go, or whether they irrationally hold you somehow responsible for their daughter’s death. Nonetheless, you’re absolutely right that it’s way past time they were informed of this 2-year-old relationship. Hearing this news will be an emotional event for them, so I think your fiancée-to-be should do them the courtesy of breaking it to them alone. Your late wife’s sister does owe her parents an apology for not being more open with them sooner. But neither of you should feel you need to justify yourselves or that you’ve crossed some boundary. I had a letter last year from a man whose older wife had died and whose stepdaughter wanted to become his lover. I felt that was violating a taboo. But you and your love don’t have anything to be ashamed of, so stop acting as if you do. Her telling her parents without you there will give them a chance to react and discuss this with her, even if it’s not a particularly pleasant conversation. After she hears them out, she has to explain that whatever their feelings, she loves you, you’re committed to each other, and she hopes they can reopen their hearts.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence Classic Video: Crushing on the Boss

Dear Prudence,
I’ve been dating a decent guy for two years now, but I’ve always been a little sensitive to the fact that there are really no “firsts” or “onlys” left for people our age. We’re experienced people—I’m 44 and he’s 46—so I can’t be his first or only sexual partner, wife, mother of his child, etc. If or when the relationship ends there will be nothing memorable for us to take away from it, except for one thing. Since we met we have talked at length about traveling to a special place that, due to work, distance, and finances, has always been only a dream. However, I’ve been secretly squirreling money away to someday get us there. I’ve been desperately holding on to this as our chance at having not just a “first” but also an “only” experience. My boyfriend is currently on a trip with a buddy of his and at the last minute they decided to go to the special place! I’m seething over his Facebook posts and photos. I just want to put his stuff outside for him to collect when he gets back. I know it’s not his fault, but I have nothing left to give. Am I wrong for feeling so indifferent toward this relationship now? All we have left is companionship, but I want more.

—Nothing Left

Dear Nothing,
I can understand how crushing it must be to nurture a secret plan to someday get you and your beloved (or maybe let’s call him Mr. Adequate) to the Annual Gathering of the Juggalos only for him to go and do it without you. So you’re left behind, looking at him on Facebook in full clown-face, spraying his buddy with Faygo. No wonder you want to put his personal effects onto the street. OK, maybe he’s not at a celebration of Psychopathic Records, but your complaints make you sound a little psychopathic. Sure, it would have been considerate of your boyfriend to give you a heads-up about the possibility of a detour to this magical place. But your keeping secret the plan to spring a special trip on him means you’re not entitled to be bitter about his taking advantage of the opportunity to go. You also seem inordinately focused on a bizarre scrapbook version of what makes a relationship. A romantic partner does not exist to provide you with a documentable series of firsts and onlys. That person should be the one with whom you most enjoy sharing the present. So if you want this relationship to continue, snap out of it, and when he returns tell him you want him to go back there someday with you, or that you two should plan a trip somewhere new and memorable. 

—Prudie

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