THE BLOG
01/12/2012 12:38 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

The Power of the Anonymous Letter

More times than I can count, true zingers are relayed to me after someone asks what I do for a living and I say I'm a therapist with a specialty in divorce and co-parenting. This morning was no exception.

A law student in his mid-twenties, call him Dusty, and I were side-by-side on the elliptical trainer at the gym. On the other side was a gentleman with earphones on making rather loud and frequent grunting sounds. Both Dusty and I found ourselves exchanging glances of disbelief and laughing while staring at this man, who did nothing to change his behavior. We weren't wearing ear-gear so we struck up a conversation.

A few minutes in, Dusty began to pour his heart out and told me his sister's husband, let's call him Bill, asked him to put up a photo of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem as the background on his mobile telephone. In complying with Bill's request, Dusty stumbled upon incriminating sex-texting with someone clearly not Sis.

"That jerk," Dusty exclaimed infuriated. What should he do in my professional opinion? Tell Sis and possibly jump-start a separation or divorce? Reluctant to pass judgment or give advice, I did anyway and said that in my opinion, Bill was feeling guilty and inadvertently reaching out for help, unconsciously perhaps, as to be caught and stopped. Look at his choice of background photo. The Wailing Wall is a place to lament loss. Unconvinced, Dusty clearly felt he needed to do something. Rather than confronting his brother-in-law straight forwardly, what did I think about Dusty sending an anonymous letter?

Double-Edged Sword

Let's put ourselves in Bill's shoes -- you're on the receiving end of an anonymous letter. Such a letter might cause introspective grief, be a wake up call to stop acting out and reach for help -- an opportunity to grow from missteps. Or, Bill can see Dusty as an antagonist and feed the accusations by blowing up and becoming defensive. In any scenario, Bill would likely piece to together it was Dusty who sent the anonymous letter.

After all, Dusty mentioned that Bill quickly snatched the phone from him even before he could get the Wailing Wall up. If nothing else, Bill might suspect his flirting or secret about cheating was starting to leak out. The problem with an anonymous letter, as I see it, is the disruption can be enormous without much effort on the part of Dusty except to ease his feeling of protectiveness towards Sis and the children. Undoubtedly Dusty is angry but doesn't want anyone in his family to ever know or just yet.

Heard it through the Grapevine

Perhaps Dusty could approach Bill and ask him if there was something he misunderstood about the sex-texts he stumbled across? This way he'd give Bill a chance to clear up any confusion or come clean. Who knows, though it's unlikely, maybe Sis has an open marriage?

I might also suggest Dusty tell Bill that he was hurt by what he saw, separate from the harm to Sis and the kids, and see what Bill does. If Dusty decided to write, I'd suggest he describe the issues which he perceives as too personal, damaging and/or incredulous to say out loud in a rational manner. Before sending it, Dusty could take the letter into his own therapy or share its contents with someone he trusts. If necessary, Dusty might reconsider how to word what is weighing so heavily on him.

Doing Nothing Evades Responsibility

By maintaining a code of silence, arguably Dusty becomes a betraying brother (son and uncle too) and an unwitting accomplice to Bill. It's completely understandable that Dusty wants to safely get Bill's attention. Clearly Dusty would prefer that Sis's marital relationship heal but he's not in charge of this outcome. Dusty is in crisis -- frustrated and stressed by this unwanted knowledge and his confusing feelings.

Information Has a Life of its Own

Anonymous letters, like direct confrontations, can set in motion unpredictable changes. In some ways, the damage is already done and arguably Dusty isn't the guilty party or the one who needs to feel remorse. He is challenged and forced to come up with an agenda -- one isn't to be subversive, vengeful or hostile.

The Masquerade is Over

If Bill slips and reveals his secret once, it's likely to happen again. Next time the recipient may not be as caring as Dusty. Dusty could also buy time, wait a bit and see how events unfold -- but not too long. In a sense, Dusty has no good options. He neither wants to be so disengaged or beset by analysis paralysis and do nothing or do too much and see himself as a knight on a white horse heroically saving Sis by swooping into a power vacuum. Dusty also seems to think that if there is substance to the sex-texting, his parents will want to chime in, further disrupting generational boundaries by trying to come to the rescue of their daughter and grandchildren.

Dusty seems like a strategic thinker. He knows there is a potential for creating false moves and that the chance for faux pax increases dramatically with whatever action he takes. Dusty doesn't want his contribution to lead to unproductive growth and a no-win situation to develop. What else is Bill hiding he wonders out loud?

To write or receive an anonymous letter or to do nothing and remain silent is to have a volatile bomb in hand -- an explosion waiting to happen. A simple request reveals all too clearly how messy life can be. Look at the gentleman next to us who was oblivious to those around him. What should Dusty do to sooth the tumult inside him? Can Dusty forget what he read? Please reflect and then chime in. I'm curious to know what you think.

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