Carolyn Hax: Witnessing charmed marriage leaves an ache of missing out

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I just took my first trip to visit my brother and his wife in the house they just bought in a small Southern city. The trip was amazing, great food, great wine, conversation around their dinner table, so many laughs and lovely moments. I have never spent that much time with them, and I was deeply struck by their incredible emotional intimacy. I embarked on the trip thinking I was going to visit my brother and hoping my sister-in-law didn’t feel like an outsider, and I returned understanding that I am now the outsider.

As happy as I am for my brother, this has fomented a sense of desperate loneliness in me. I want that kind of home and family. Where I live, I could never afford a house, and I’ve dated extensively for the past decade but have never even come close to finding that sort of relationship. I can’t stop feeling sorry for myself!

It feels like it’s acceptable to set professional and financial goals, but somehow embarrassing to have a goal of a happy marriage. Perhaps I am supposed to feel more accepting that that might never happen — versus, say, saving for retirement, which must happen.

Where do I start with this? I know comparing my life to my brother’s is a loser’s game, but here we are.

Ms. Lonely: Well, wait. A “goal of a happy marriage” may be a nonstarter, because 50 percent is beyond your control (though I see nothing “embarrassing” about wanting that) but a goal of investing more in your relationships is completely valid. And smart.

And it doesn’t have to involve marriage, even, because connection comes in so many forms. It’s the fact of connection that sustains us, be it from a romantic partner or a best friend or a friend group or colleagues or a child or nieces/nephews or other family or a mentor/mentee or ____.

Please don’t take this as minimizing what you crave: The animal-adoption craze at peak pandemic exemplifies both the need for connection and the human adaptability in finding that feeling in whatever form we’re able.

This is a clarifying moment for you, and a good one even though it’s hard.

Your brother will always be your brother but you’ve lived apart for years; of course his heart is local now. Your job now is to figure out where, locally, you want to invest your heart. That starts with investing it in yourself first, and in what you care about most.

These moves alone can make a rewarding life. They also position you to add to it in the most fulfilling ways.

I think we sometimes mistake the internal feelings we are missing and craving for their external manifestations in others — for example, home doesn’t have to mean a house, connection doesn’t only come through marriage (so many letters here describe a disconnected marriage). It’s another form of judging our insides by other’s outsides. I agree your work here is internal, and the externalities will take care of themselves once you figure out what you really want.

And don’t discount the fact that you’re having a bit of a delayed grief reaction to the changes in your relationship with your brother. I cried and cried the day my brother got married, just because I knew things would be changing. Even good change can bring a sense of loss.

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