Dear Margo: When Something Is Not Yours To Tell

Margo Howard’s advice

When Something Is Not Yours To Tell

Dear Margo: This is a tough one. My BFF, “Vera,” recently found out that her hubby of 12 years was having an affair with her own sister, who is married with two kids. Vera has no kids and was never really close to her sis. Hubby begged for forgiveness, but she is divorcing him anyway.

Now comes the hard part: Sis begged her not to disclose the reason she is divorcing to their family because that would mean divorce for her, too, and great suffering for her lovely, well-mannered little boys. Vera says sis has always been a loving, caring mother who now says she is deeply sorry and that she must have been mad during the whole mess. I am wary of giving my friend advice, but she clearly hopes for some. I have no sympathy for sis, whose behavior is responsible for the boys’ happiness being in jeopardy, but I think she may have a point. What is the right thing to do? — On the Fence

Dear On: I believe Vera should say nothing if she can control herself and her anger. People being people, you are not the only one who knows, so my hunch is that someone will blow the whistle on the husband-snatching sister. Encourage Vera to take the high road — and let someone else fall into the ditch. Considering the little boys is a valid — and admirable — guideline. I feel certain that, down the line, Vera will feel better about herself, and if the duplicitous sister behaves herself, maybe it will prove to be a one-time transgression. — Margo, decently

Relatives and Money

Dear Margo: My 23-year-old stepsister (10 years younger) recently married a 37-year-old man who is unemployed. As far as I know, he has never held a “real” job but takes temporary work. Since they eloped last year, she has been paying the bills. I am not sure when or how much money he has brought in since they married.

They recently wanted to move into a new house and asked me to be their guarantor because neither of them has a stable job. (Sister is a part-time waitress and sells stuff on eBay. She insists she earns enough to pay rent.) Conferring with my husband, I told her that she could use a paid service that will guarantee her payment.

When I first moved out of my parents’ house for college, they had just declared bankruptcy. I had no older sibling to call, and it never occurred to me to ask someone else to become liable should I fall back on payments. It meant I didn’t have the range of apartments to choose from, and I had to pay about 1 percent of my rent to the service. I paid my way through college and built a professional career, so now I have a comfortable life.

I believe that since they are adults and neither one has a steady job or an education (their choice), they should live within their means and within the range of choices available. Now my stepsister is not talking to me. — Elder Sister

Dear El: A silent sister is a small price to pay for not becoming financially responsible for a couple who, let us say, do not have their act together. I think you did the prudent thing and dodged a bullet. Alas, there are people who would not be overly upset if someone else got stuck. Carry on. — Margo, cautiously

* * *

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


Every Thursday and Friday, you can find “Dear Margo” and her latest words of wisdom on wowOwow

Click here to follow Margo on Twitter

26 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Constance Plank says:


    Ouch! but do take the high-road.


    Be glad she’s not talking to you! Co-signing can destroy your credit, and leave you holding the bag. Let them be responsible for their own expenses. Oh, and if a 37 year old man is not being a responsible husband for your sister, why should you be responsible for them both?


    Constance in the Sierra Foothills of CA where we’ve had too many fires this summer.

  2. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1:  This is a tough call for Vera because I think it requires saintly virtue for her to keep quiet about her sister’s betrayal or to forgive her sister.  It probably is the high road not to disclose to the rest of the family how badly her sister behaved and taking the high road usually works out best.  If I were Vera, I would find it difficult to attend family events if the sister were present so I hope taking the high road doesn’t result in distancing herself from the rest of her family when she could probably use some closeness and kindness and support in this process.   I think the truth will eventually surface, as Margo says, and Vera will end up looking better for not being the person who divulges it…and probably feeling better about herself too. 

    LW#2:  You absolutely did the right thing in refusing to guarantee the rent for your sister and her husband.  I have always taken the position that I would not loan money to a family member I wasn’t prepared to lose and I have been fortunate that nearly every time I did lend money, it was repaid in a relatively timely manner. With one relative (an in law) I simply said don’t ask us because we won’t lend it and my husband supported my stance entirely…this person now owes another relative six figures which will not ever be repaid.       You are putting your credit at risk as well as your money here.  You did the right thing.   I see nothing but trouble ahead when the rent isn’t paid, you have to pay it, your sister and her husband refuse to leave the house because you are paying for it etc etc.  The lease is up, they squat, they get evicted.  You can only get the money back if you sue them and probably not then because if they have no money you cannot collect your judgment  and then they take bankruptcy to discharge the judgment and whatever else they owe.  As Margo says, carry on!     

  3. avatar blue tooth says:

    To LW1, aka On The Fence, I would say stay out of it, as there’s no good advice to give. I would only tell your friend, “do what you think is best,” without further comment.

    However, to Vera, I would say, if the family (i.e. brothers, sisters, parents) ask what happened, and you feel like discussing it at all, by all means tell them. And don’t leave out the sister. I say this for two simple reasons: first, that you should be able to rely on your family members for emotional support during a divorce, and the only way to be able to do that is to be as open and honest with them as you want to be.

    For the sister to go to you and beg you not to tell anyone so as not to hurt her is the greatest cheek, and an insult to you and what was done to you. She is already trying to paint you into the role of the transgressor, when you are the injured party. I can also guarantee you that, if you remain quiet, she will fill in the blanks as best she can to make you look as bad as possible, and to protect herself against the day when you might tell someone. And this brings me to the second reason why you should talk, which is that you will be protecting yourself from this sister, who absolutely does not have your best interests at heart. I guarantee you that this sister will use the time you give her to try to alienate you from your family, and to turn the others against you.

    Finally, feeling bad about the sister and “Giving her another chance.” It’s a pretty safe bet that this sister had had affairs before your husband, and she will have affairs after him, no matter what she says today. This lovely family she has is a hollow shell, and if her house of cards comes down because of what she did, it’ll be her doing, not yours. And in the long run, even her children will probably come out better, despite the upheaval, because they will no longer have to live in a house full of lies and secrets. Despite the popular myth about staying together “for the sake of the children,” study after study has shown that, in the case where there’s marital discord, the children do better when the parents separate, and not when the parents stay together and fight, or stay together and freeze each other out, and live their separate lives. Kids do know what’s going on. They do know when the parents aren’t happy. They do know when the parents don’t have a loving relationship. And many times, even when the parents aren’t at each other’s throats behind closed doors, they internalize it, and they blame themselves.

  4. avatar toni says:

    Lw2: not just carry on, but BRAVO!! You did the right thing a hundred times over!
    Lw1: at first I thought – tell your family your husband cheated (oops! I mean Vera should!) w someone you trusted deeply, and just not reveal with whom. But after reading blue tooth’s answer I think I agree. For the sister to ask Vera to cover for her after she betrayed her is another way of horribly victimizing her sister. Like a rapist (and make no mistake, this was an emotional rape) persuading the survivor that she has to cover for him. Vera should tell her sister she is not lying for her or anyone – but tell her family first. Obviously Vera is NOT afraid of lies and will manipulate. The old saying – you made your bed now you must lie in it. Well sister laid in the bed and now she must make in it.

  5. avatar Robert S says:

    LW1:  “must have been mad”  Ah, the old temporary insanity defense.  Comes on temporarily once a person gets caught.

  6. avatar martina says:

    Before my husband and I got married he said that when he would buy a house he would put 1/2 in his sister’s name.  I told him he was crazy because you never know who the sister is going to marry and what they may want to do with their 1/2 of the property.  Well he never had his sister’s name on any of his properties and thank goodness because his sister went nuts and disappeared from the family.

    My sister’s MIL was executor of a large estate and my sister let her MIL use her house as guarantee for the bond the MIL needed to be executor.  MIL’s other son got a hold of the checks and blew through over $300,000 that was not theirs.  My sister lost her house. 

    I think this says it all – do NOT co-sign anything unless you are willing to lose the money.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Martina, YES. People should be very, very wary about safeguarding their finances.

      A friend’s widowed father owned his own home, paid for. Late in life he thought he had found love again and got married. Against his son’s advice, he put his property half in his beloved’s name. Beloved divorced him less than two years later and walked away with EVERYTHING. I have no idea how she did this but he did not put up much fight. I think partly because he was embarrassed and heartbroken. Now he lives in the spare bedroom of his son’s house, and that damned tart has everything he ever worked for. It just makes me livid.

  7. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: I totally agree with Margo, for every reason she gives.

    L #2: You are in the right and are being wise. I can’t imagine a *step*-sister trying to make you feel obligated and then punishing you for saying no. My own *biological* sister wouldn’t pull such a stunt. It’s their problem; don’t let them make it yours, because you will get stuck/screwed.

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      How is their biology important here? Not picking, just curious why you highlighted it.
      Was it because she did? It seems the only time people use step- as a qualifier is when they are discrediting the person (with the exception of step-parents & that seems to have to do with not discrediting their own parent).
      Family is what you make of it. We did family trees for a school project recently & my adopted twins, 9, filled theirs out without it ever even dawning on them to put their bio family on there. I hope that throughout their lives they continue to feel this way in regards to their parents & siblings (“adoptive” since you prefer clarification)

  8. avatar LuckySeven says:

    LW#2: Smart move. We had a family friend whose financial life was ruined by this same type of situation. Let her give you the silent treatment all she wants, but don’t sign anything for her.

  9. avatar Sita says:

    Today’s title is : When something is not yours to tell.

    It’s not the letter writter’s to tell, true. But it sure is Vera’s to tell. Vera might not want to divulge the whole gory experience but in order to find support from her family she might need to say the reason why she’s divorcing her husband. She needs all the support she can get. She doesn’t have to say whom he was cheating with. The evil part of me would like to say that Vera has the upper hand where her sister is concern. So before a family gathering if Vera doesn’t feel like seeing her sister there just tell her not to come (“Seeing you will cause too much inner turmoil, dear sis. And I don’t want to accidentally spill the beans”)  :O

    LW#2 : like somebody already said, be happy your stepsister is not talking to you. And be wary when she starts talking to you again.

  10. avatar Davina Wolf says:

    Vera shouldn’t help to keep any secrets–she should tell her whole family including the cheated-on brother in law what happened.  Don’t protect the ratty sister for the supposed sake of her kids.  The kids will be fine.   

  11. avatar Lila says:

    For the Elder Sister, count yourself lucky. So your younger sister is acting like a petulant brat because you won’t finance her life, and that of her unemployed husband? Good! They both sound like failure-to-launch cases.

  12. avatar Artemesia says:

    Never ever co-sign or act as guarantor unless you are willing and expect to pay the bill. People who need guarantors are the irresponsible people who will stiff the guarantor — and with your sister it is obvious she has no sense or financial responsibility.

    We guarantored our daughter’s first apartment in DC — but my husband worked with the landlord to only guarantee her part of the rent not her housemates (in a lease everyone is responsible for the whole thing and so if a wealthy parent guarantors for one and they all walk guess who gets stuck with the bill? We negotiated a fourth guarantee for her part only.

    We had confidence in our daughter who had a job and also were willing to step in if needed –it is difficult to get a first apartment without a guarantor sometimes. This never cost us a dime because we were right about our daughter.

    I would never guarantee for an irresponsible person like this sister or for someone who can’t get an apartment because of bad credit.

    When asked by relatives the response should be ‘Oh we never co-sign — that is just our policy’

    if you have the money to toss in the air, GIVE it to them but never put yourself on the hook for someone else’s contract.

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      Artemesia – I agree. Never! I had my Dad co-sign for me for car loans twice. The first time I was 18, just started a job and needed a car to get to work and I had the job to pay for the car. I paid it off as quickly as possible. He never said anything about the payments, never nagging or anything. And he never had to make a payment.
      Fast forward about 7 years and I needed a new(er) car. I was willing to walk away from a car because I couldn’t afford it – but he stopped and said why not? I’ll loan you the money. First I asked what he was drinking 🙂 then said ok. He never had to make a payment on that car either!
      However, now he has a relative asking him to co-sign for a house and a vehicle. He hasn’t seen this relative in YEARS and he’s asking for things we know he can not afford and doesn’t plan on paying off. No one knows my Dad cosigned for me and I’m keeping it that way. He’s taken the same stance you have – he never co-signs for anyone.
      And I have a new rule now – I will for my son but not for anyone else.

  13. avatar JCF4612 says:

    As nearly always, a pair of five-star responses from Margo.

    LW1) By all means, Vera (and you) should take the high road, keeping in mind that sooner or later someone else will sniff out the sister’s extracurricular activities with a mate not her own … and blab it all to high heaven. Few can keep the lid on fermenting juice like that forever. Ideally, the sweet nephews will be much older.

    LW2) Wow … I do admire the diligent way you’ve worked to create stability in your life, both financial and emotional. Don’t let this pair of apparent losers jeopardize your achievements. In this instance, silence can be golden.

    And P.S.: You didn’t ask, but the silence won’t last forever. Don’t let them move in with you after they get evicted from wherever they are now.     

  14. avatar BeanCounter says:

    Wow.   two days in a row I completely disagree with margo.   Is the husband of the sister not to be warned about someone who is cheating on him?   if only for the sake of STD’s????   wow!   Unbelievable.   The two kids will be okay, trust me.

    • avatar blue tooth says:

      Good call. I completely forgot about the STDs issue. And while she’s at it, if she hasn’t done so yet, Vera should get herself checked out as well.

  15. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Letter 2. I was the sucker who “saved” my sister’s home from being auctioned off on the steps of the courthouse because she didn’t make the payments or tell her husband they were in arrears. She signed for the money as a loan. It was never repaid but she and her husband were able to afford a trip to the Caymans the following years because of her money management skills. This sibling wonders why I do not have a close relationship with her anymore.

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      IT’s funny how people forget stuff like that. Next trip, I think I would say, “In lieu of you paying me back, how about you treat our family to a trip with you.” 🙂

  16. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #2 – I disagree with Margo. Money far too often comes between people. But it doesn’t have to. This letter writer doesn’t say how close they are. I would have a heart to heart with her and explain her own streak of independence and how it has worked for her and admit that she wishes the same for her.  Be honest and say that her choice in a man is not what she wants for her and that even though she disagrees with how she is living her life, she still loves her and “emotionaly” supports her.

    I do believe there are relationships in life that we must walk away from, and this may be one. However, the end of any relationship is tantemount to a death, and the person being left aside does have a right to know what they did to deserve the cold shoulder. Far too often we don’t want to have the hard conversations in life so we take the easy way out by having silent treatments or cutting people from our lives. Out of sight out of mind.  That’s the chicken way of handling things. My vote is to stand your ground and not give her any money, but have a honest conversation and be open to her (understandable) defensive response.

    Letter #1 – This must be my day to disagree with Margo.  Vera SHOULD DEFINITELY be honest with her family when asked why she is getting a divorce.  So let me get this straight…..Vera should afford her cheating sister the courtesy of sparing her feelings and embarassment by way of judgement of her family? I don’t think so! If asked….she should say she is divorcing because she found out her sister cheated with her ex. She need not go into any details or other explanations, but she definitely shouldn’t lie.

    Her sister lied, her husband lied and now the common opinion is that she herself should lie – by omission? No indeed…..she should stand in her truth and let the chips fall where they may. As for these wonderful kids and not wanting to hurt their opinion of their mom….Vera is giving them a gift, because now their mother will be forced to admit to a life flaw. How she handles it will speak volumes about her character. Because of all the men in the world….millions and millions of men…. the fact that she CHOSE to have sex with her own sister’s husband says something truly disgusting about who she is to her core.     

    I understand and accept that we all make mistakes and sometimes the mistakes hurt those closest to us. But that doesn’t mean people that do the wrong things should not be called out on it.   

  17. avatar Maggie Richardson says:

    Shakespeare covered this succinctly in ‘Hamlet’:

    “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”. Follow this advice and Margo would not have to answer so many letters from those who ignored it.