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Note: this question may have a strong Indian context, but I am looking for inputs from members all over the world.


Eight years ago a close friend of mine, aged 30 at the time, met an 18-year-old girl who later became his sister. This is India, remember, and it happens here. [In India, this is a rather common practice, especially in North India and among students: when somebody feels sisterly towards someone, they may formally tell the person that they will become siblings. It means that a sibling bond can occur between non-related individuals by mutual agreement. However, the people in this question belong to South India, where this is much less common and not really a tradition.]

They were very emotionally attached to each other for nearly five years – just like real siblings – although communication was mainly through text messages. Eventually, she got married at 23 to somebody aged probably 26, and she and her husband are apparently happily married with a 2-year-old infant child.

My friend allowed his communication with her to taper off after her marriage, for fear that her husband might mistrust the unofficial sibling relationship – he wants to do nothing to potentially disrupt her married life. However, he is conflicted because he misses her terribly and feels she might think that he no longer cares for her.

Complicating factors:

  1. The siblings belong to different religions, which is still a barrier to social acceptance of any relationship here. Moreover, the sibling relationship between unrelated individuals, which carries significant validity in North India, is nearly unrecognized in South India and carries no automatic social validity.

  2. Due to innate mistrust of social attitudes, both instinctively concealed this unconventional friendship from their respective families, and the girl has never introduced her unofficial brother to her husband. It is a fact that husbands tend to be jealous and possessive.

  3. My friend has always felt helpless due to his unofficial sibling status, in terms of being able to be a presence in her life, and he constantly worries that the husband or some other relative will refuse to accept the basis of this sibling connection, which could have serious complications in a conservative-minded society.

Since I knew the girl in question a few years back (but no communication for years), my friend has asked my advice. Should he try to resume e-mail contact with her? My response was weak: "If she were my sister, I too would worry about the husband's mistrust..., but let me think a bit about it." So, I need some good inputs within a few days from the relationship gurus at Interpersonal.SE!

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    What exactly does it mean she became his sister? Is this an indian term for "they became close friends"? I first thought, their parents married, but then they wouldn't be "unoffical silblings, or not? Could you explain this for non-Indians? – Arsak Aug 15 '17 at 13:25
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    @EnglishStudent Not everyone is qualified to answer every question (but they'll certainly try <grin>). But that does not make this a discussion forum. Telling people, "If you cannot answer my question, we'll just discuss it in comments" is not how this site works. If you welcome alternative-culture answers, that's fine, but as a (presumably) Q&A site we CANNOT have the "real answers" posted below and a 2nd-class of answers in comments. – Robert Cartaino Aug 16 '17 at 13:24
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    @curiousdannii In North India there is the term 'Rakhi sister' which is related to the traditional festival [Raksha Bandhan] (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raksha_Bandhan) -- Rakhi sister is a girl or woman, not necessarily Indian, who has accepted an unrelated person as her brother, formally by tying a 'rakhi' on his hand, see the Wikipedia article I linked in this comment. In fact, the rakhi sister is actually a 'socially official stepsister' unrelated by parental marriage in the Western sense. There is no equivalent term in South India but 'Rakhi sister' is used here when required. – English Student Aug 17 '17 at 17:17
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    @Witan ap Danu Wikipedia says: "among women and men who are not blood relatives, there is also a transformed tradition of voluntary kin relations, achieved through the tying of rakhi amulets" and links to this separate Wikipedia article: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fictive_kinship The difference is that this fictive kinship which the term 'rakhi sister' describes is socially valid in the North but carries no validity in the South. – English Student Aug 18 '17 at 2:15
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    I am sure this is more common in certain cultures but it does happen elsewhere. I am in the USA and have a much younger close male friend that he tells everyone I am his sister. It is easier to gain social acceptance of our relationship that way than explain why we are so close when it appears we have nothing in common. My husband knows him well though and is fully accepting of this and also sees him like a brother to me. It happens enough though that there are terms like "A brother from another mother" or "A sister from another mister" and that means "like a sibling to me". – threetimes Aug 19 '17 at 1:04
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+100

People from different cultures have different customs and values. That is a reality. In India, many women are second-class citizens, and that's also a reality that must be dealt with in any answer given.

My major concern is for the young woman's safety and happiness.

Say your friend reaches out to her, and her husband finds out. Would her husband believe her if she explained that the relationship was platonic? Would he accept this as an allowable relationship? Or would this lead to discord and potential abuse of any kind? Would a resumption of the relationship result in discord or abuse of any kind?

You stated that the relationship cooled 5 years ago, presumably when she got married. Why wasn't your friend invited to the wedding? Had the bride ever spoken of him to her fiancé? Was he OK with it, or did the relationship end at the fiancé's request? When and why did his little sister stop communicating with your friend? All these circumstances matter. If she did communicate after her marriage without any negativity from her husband, I'd say it's ok for him to tentatively reach out now. But if she did so only secretly, I'd say let sleeping dogs lie.

Until the person who misses his little sister can answer these questions, he should not try to rekindle the relationship. I am not familiar with your culture, but it sounds like maybe not so good an idea unless the questions I've asked are ridiculous (which I would be happy to know.)

Would an intermediary be an appropriate person to make contact with the bride on his behalf, say, the bride's mother or a sibling? (If the relationship was purposely hidden from these people, I'd say this is going to meet with disapproval. But one never knows for sure.)

If no one but the bride (on her side of the relationship) and your friend knew about the relationship, her safety and the quality of her marriage should be the first and foremost consideration. It's hard to miss someone who is loved, but it's preferable to causing hardship to them. And it sounds from your question that this is a distinct possibility.

It's a sad situation when such questions need to be asked, and friendships end because of jealousy, but these things do happen (and not only in India.)

I hope someone more familiar with your culture can offer a better answer.

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    +1 I'm an Indian. This answer is on the right track. I'm surprised that you know these things about India. (P.S. Welcome to IPS. Glad you're here.) – NVZ Aug 15 '17 at 15:45
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    And I'll be waiting to ask you where you're from when we meet in India. ;) – NVZ Aug 15 '17 at 16:01
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    Even in American culture, a male friend whose presence has been hidden from a husband would seem very suspicious suddenly appearing several years later. If he does decide to contact her, I would contact both husband and wife together to demonstrate that you're friends of their family unit and not a threat to it. – Jessica M Aug 16 '17 at 8:31
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    Not only friendships end over jealousy. My brother barely speaks to me now because of some very complicated issues where his wife was jealous of our closeness and inferred it was "unhealthy" for us to be this close. No one else ever thought so (even my husband) but she got jealous after finding out how much he talked to me when he was doing work travel. He tried to explain that it was only because talking to her (with the kids around in the back) made him sad & more lonely. She took it badly & I stepped aside to respect his marriage and now we seldom talk at all. – threetimes Aug 19 '17 at 1:09
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    That is so sad that it makes me sad, @threetimes -- my own 36 year old sister (not my friend's unofficial sister referenced in question) who is 2 years younger than me is very close to me and shares most of her issues while also being a pillar of emotional strength for me and so many others. Not surprisingly, she is a professional psychologist and counsellor. I do hope the misunderstandings you stated can be cleared in future. – – English Student Aug 19 '17 at 1:24
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Even in American culture, a male friend whose presence has been hidden from a husband would seem very suspicious suddenly appearing several years later. If he does decide to contact her, I would contact both husband and wife together to demonstrate that you're friends of their family unit and not a threat to it.

Whether the husband is the best guy in the world or deeply problematic, having hidden friends is not a good idea for either person in a marriage. It creates distrust and insecurity, which can destroy a marriage.

Part of a good romantic relationship (married or not) should be embracing friendships which are important to your partner. Part of a good friendship is supporting the marriage of your friend. There's only a conflict if one of those two relationships is not really good.

  • Many thanks for posting this pertinent answer as I requested. Now I have deleted my own answer that 'stored' your comment. – English Student Aug 18 '17 at 8:35
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    Your answer coming from a totally different cultural context establishes the universal logic of stressing extreme caution in this matter. Its value lies in strongly supporting the first answer which had originally strongly echoed my friend's essential reason for deliberately tapering off the communication: which is that no action can be taken which would have even the remotest chance of threatening his sister's married life. 3 random persons thinking alike carries huge validity in the absence of contradictory opinions and tells my friend that his line of reasoning was very sound indeed! – English Student Aug 18 '17 at 8:55
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    This type of situation where independent answers objectively support (or maybe in another case conclusively contradict) the originally subjective and maybe even emotional decisions of the first person clearly demonstrate the great value of Interpersonal.SE in helping constructively resolve many types of real world dilemma. – English Student Aug 18 '17 at 9:08
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Writing my comment as an answer on OP's request. Answer given by anongoodnurse is completely on the right track. Her last line reads "I hope someone more familiar with your culture can offer a better answer."

While this may not be a better answer, I am a person more familiar with the Indian culture. I am from India, and I have some such "siblings" of my own. I don't use such a term though. It's just some friends who are girls who have more freedom around me than other girls. And I treat them like sisters, and I have no other sort of attraction towards them.

As per the centuries-old Indian traditions, once a woman is married, she is supposed to dedicate her time and attention more to her own husband and husband's family than to her friends or her own family.

I have heard of stories of family disputes occurring because of husbands doubting their wives' faithfulness when such "siblings" show up years later. While a husband himself may have had such "siblings" of his own, he wouldn't want his wife's showing up after marriage.

Such "siblings" are not acceptable after marriage, whether it be siblings of husband or of the wife.

It would be relatively fine though if the "sibling" brings along with him his own wife once he's married, or if the "sibling" contacts the husband first.

I have reduced my contacts with my such "siblings". It usually starts from their side. The girl starts avoiding the boys in her life. And then the boys either respect that and maintain an "unspoken friendship" (I don't know the right word) or they feel upset about it.

To those who feel upset about missing that "sibling" so much, I have to say this:

Please don't be a potential cause for family disputes. If you like and respect your "sibling", please respect her need to stay away from her previous life.

  • Would "fond memories" fit for the "unspoken friendship"? – Witan ap Danu Aug 19 '17 at 6:58
  • It's a sort of unspoken understanding between these siblings that they understand the need to stay away from each other while not necessarily breaking off the friendship. – NVZ Aug 19 '17 at 6:59
  • This is a very perceptive answer within the Indian context. Many thanks for writing an answer, @NVZ. This is entirely in line with the other 2 answers in cautioning my friend not to take any risk of disturbing his sister's marriage, but your explanation of Indian husbands' expectations is highly appreciated. You are absolutely right when you write: It's a sort of unspoken understanding between these siblings that they understand the need to stay away from each other while not necessarily breaking off the friendship. I casts the first upvote! – English Student Aug 19 '17 at 7:19
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    Note 2: you write While a husband himself may have had such "siblings" of his own, he wouldn't want his wife's showing up after marriage. -- that's the irony. – English Student Aug 19 '17 at 7:29
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    Yes, that's probably safest—she can get in touch if she wants. I wasn't thinking of a blunt "I'm your wife's secret brother", though, more along the lines of "I used to know your wife in school—I heard you'd gotten married, and wanted to offer my congratulations." Something really low-key, just to open up lines of communication, without contradicting anything the wife may have said or omitted. I don't have any feel for how risky that would be for her, though. – 1006a Aug 20 '17 at 22:21
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"Is it possible for my friend to resume communication with his unofficial sister without earning her husband's mistrust?"

Well, anything is possible, but there will very likely be negative consequences. Indeed, given the information you've provided...

  1. the sibling relationship between unrelated individuals ... is nearly unrecognized in South India;
  2. my friend has always felt helpless due to his unofficial sibling status;
  3. [their unofficial sibling connection] could have serious complications in a conservative-minded society;
  4. he constantly worries that the husband ... will refuse to accept the basis of [the] sibling connection;
  5. he wants to do nothing to potentially disrupt her married life ... (she and her husband are ... happily married with a 2-year-old infant child);
  6. [he] tapered off communication with her after [she married, out of] fear that her husband might mistrust the unofficial sibling relationship;
  7. both instinctively concealed this unconventional friendship;
  8. the girl has never introduced her unofficial brother to her husband;
  9. it is a fact that husbands tend to be jealous and possessive; and
  10. I too would worry about the husband's mistrust...

...I find it difficult to imagine that anyone would advise, "Yes, I think he should reach out to her!"

Your friend needs to consider what he truly wants. Is his primary concern that he "misses her terribly," or is it that he "feels she might think that he no longer cares for her"?

If it is the former, I suggest he take the girl's lead. She's the one in the marriage and in the best position to know her husband's reaction if this all comes out. And even though she must miss your friend as well, if their emotional connection was as strong as you say, she has apparently not reached out to him. That fact and its importance should not be overlooked or underestimated. After all, it is she who would bear any backlash, so to speak, if communication is made, is found out, and goes badly. To reach out to her solely because he is missing her (however terribly), despite all this evidence that the risk is so high, and knowing that she would bear the entirety of any reprisal were it to turn out badly, would be quite selfish ... in my opinion.

If his greater concern is the latter (that she might think he no longer cares for her), then there are other options than "resuming communication". What I mean is that he could probably risk a single message, to tell her everything he needs to say. He should write it as though it will be his last chance in this life to speak to her. He could make it clear that if it's safe for her to do so, he'd be happy to resume communication, but he should advise her plainly to put her and her family's interests first.

He should take particular caution in the writing of this letter to say nothing that would be difficult for her to explain, should it be intercepted.

  • You have pinpointed my friend's central dilemma very well -- indeed it's the conflict between 'missing the sister' which is bad enough and 'fears she might think he no longer cares for her' which is worse.There was occasional communication by email for upto 14 months after her marriage, but no emails since February 2016. All your points are valid and reinforce the other answers, so as to 'carry the motion' proposed by the first answer by 5-0: take no risk is the verdict and I don't think he will take a chance by writing 'one final message.' I'll tell my friend, and thanks a lot @WeaselADAPT! – English Student Aug 21 '17 at 22:01
  • You're quite welcome, @EnglishStudent. I am hopeful I brought some new perspective. My target in that regard was to offer a way to satisfy both sides of the conflict: resolve to not plan on resuming (ongoing) communication, but do send one message. Then he knows that she knows that he cares, and he can then put her behind him. Alternative outcome: she requests more communication. – WeaselADAPT Aug 21 '17 at 22:04
  • It is a good compromise, @WeaselADAPT, but my friend is the zero risk type and would probably hesitate to ignore the strong 5 - 0 caution against not reaching out first after this 18 month interval. Moreover he is just not the sort to seek the sort of closure 'one last message' would imply. I shall convey to him the cautiously hopeful idea that 'she probably doesn't think you no longer care for her, and it's only the real need for caution which keeps both of you from resuming a regular communication. Wait and hope that she will eventually feel confident enough to introduce you to her husband.' – English Student Aug 21 '17 at 22:14
  • I suspect the 5 in that 5-0 would not be opposed to a single email of outreach, especially once they seriously consider the added info you provided that they did communicate for 14 months past the wedding and that he's the one who tapered things off. The question they answered, because of how you worded it, was whether he should RESUME communication, which implies it would be ongoing. There's a great deal less risk in a single message, and he'd not need to see it as a goodbye. Again, THAT difference is what I didn't see elsewhere and is why I thought it important for me to post my answer. – WeaselADAPT Aug 21 '17 at 22:50
  • Approved your suggested edits to the Q - thanks again @WeaselADAPT. – English Student Aug 22 '17 at 1:31
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What makes this question so hard to answer: The absence of the persons in question here. You offer us a helicopter view on the situation, but we don't know their history and relationship. We can try to give you a blunt answer, even with all the possible knowledge about India's culture.

My 'blunt' answer would be:

If there is any chance that he might wreck the relationship between his sibling and her husband, he should not interfere. Also consider the fact that communication works both ways. She apparently decided not to contact your friend, either. I think he will have to respect her choice too. The last thing you want to do to a loved one, is to cause them pain or start a difficult situation / relationship.

My advice is general, not specificly aimed at the Indian culture. It's humanitarian.

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Time to move on ... in any culture, we all have fond memories of good times when we were younger. Keep it a fond memory.

In any culture I've ever heard of, husbands do not like older men from the past to show up and linger...

I admit I do not understand the "sistering" in northern India. Knowing it is a patriarchy, it seems like having someone to advise and look after you until you get a husband.

There is a reason she hasn't contacted him at all ... if she wanted contact, there would already be contact. Most likely, if contact was made the woman would tell him to "stay away" because she is married now. It just isn't proper to have that relationship now.

Move on and enjoy the memories.

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