Reader Question #6: I’m worried about my sister. She is still very close to our abusive parents.

The Emperor
" have a twin sister..."

Dear Captain Awkward,

I currently have a kind of weird situation going on with my sister that I really don’t know how to deal with. My parents and I are estranged, and after many years of denial and telling myself that it was always my fault (when in fact, it never was, it was just abuse that I was chalking up to my “parents loving me”) and countless hours of very expensive therapy to get me to the mental Promised Land, I have realized the danger my sister is in.

She lives very close to my parents, both of which are very controlling and constantly manipulative and emotionally and mentally abusive. My father, especially, feels the need to meddle in everyone’s life, and always try to “one up” people with his resume of great accomplishments and how much money he makes. He recently decided that I wasn’t good enough to talk to anymore (almost verbatim said this) and the only thing I can deduce is he hates that he is not in control.

Additionally, this means that I have to have an issue with my sister. She’s constantly thrown in the middle, or feels the need to place herself in the middle and whenever there is an “issue” with my parents, there is seemingly a problem with her. I kind of want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to get the hell away from them and try to find her own place in life with her husband, but it’s seemingly impossible. I know I can’t tell her what to do, or offer her advice when she’s not seeking it, but things are getting very strained, and we were doing so well at starting an adult relationship.

I’ve noticed also that when she is not surrounded by our parents, that she behaves much differently. At my wedding last month, she kind of made a “joke” in front of everyone when I mentioned that one of my best friends is going to be the usher for a bigger ceremony my husband and I are doing this year, and she practically yelled in the restaurant, “Oh really? I didn’t know that. I just thought Usher was an R&B singer!” To which there was nothing but awkward silence and me really trying not to stab her in the face with a fork.

Could you by any chance offer some advice in how to handle the situation without stepping on her toes? She’s very protective of our parents and feels that a life without a close relationship with your parents isn’t a life at all. I’ve realized that this is just something that has been beaten into us since we were little, and I really don’t want to tell her that I *don’t* want a relationship with her.

Desperately Seeking Sister

Dear Desperately Seeking,

Oh man, your letter kept me up last night.

Let me address the small , easy stuff first:   Here at Captain Awkward Dot Com we can’t get behind getting all Stabby McForkInEye at your sister because she once blurted out something that sounded much funnier in her head.  When people are nervous or uncomfortable, they blurt.  They laugh at inappropriate times, and then they try to stifle that laughter, so it turns into more of a strangled bleat, and the strain of suppressing the laughter makes them fart. They pull a pen out of their purse to hand it to you, except it’s not a pen, it’s a tampon.  This is a safe space for blurts, farts, giggling in church, and inadvertent tampons.

When this happened, were you embarrassed FOR her (Oh man, my poor sister, she doesn’t know anyone here and was just too hip for the room) or BY her (Oh man, now all my friends will see what a n00b my sister is)?  Be honest with yourself about this, and then cut your sister some slack.  Of course in my family, “cutting slack” might involve staged retellings of the joke for the next 20 years and also calling into the local radio station to dedicate Usher songs to each other on birthdays and anniversaries, but do what feels right to you.

Now, the hard stuff.  It’s below the cut because it is full of stuff like photos of Bret Michaels and descriptions of abuse.  This has been your trigger warning.

I need you to accept the possibility that you and your sister could grow up in the same house, experience exactly the same events and abusive parenting style, but have completely different memories and interpretations of your childhoods, and come to totally different conclusions about how to handle that.  Recommended reading:  House Rules, by Rachel Sontag.

Here is a chilling example:  I once read a story about a family where the father was sexually abusing both of his daughters.  He told the older daughter:  “If you don’t go along with this, I’ll start doing it to your little sister, too.”  Of course, he was already doing it to the little sister, and when she threatened to tell the older sister, he said “What makes you think she doesn’t already know?  When I’m in here with you that means that she’s off the hook.  She sent me in here.”

Same family, same abuse, but the sisters had completely different stories to explain what was happening to them.  “I had to save my little sister!” vs. “My older sister sacrificed and abandoned me to this.”  Divided we fall.

You found your Promised Land by seeking therapy and putting a healthy distance between you and your family.  It’s possible that she is in her Promised Land by forgiving her parents for the past and trying to build a good relationship with them in the present.  Or it could be deep, deep denial.  You don’t know.  You can’t know.

This man is more competent than the former governor of my state.
Why? Stockholm Syndrome. That's why.

We sort of touched on this in the Darth Vader boyfriend thread, but one of the ways that people handle dysfunctional relationships is to further invest in them.  If we can finagle a good result, we can pretend the bad things never happened or tell ourselves a story where it was all worth it, because, see, it worked out in the end!  Have you ever watched something like Rock Of Love or More To Love or The Bachelor or any other Self-involved Boring People Trapped In a House, Might As Well Try to Find Love show  and wondered “Why is that poor lady crying over that creepy dude in the bandana?  She just dodged many social diseases that start with the letter H!”

She’s crying because every reality dating show is ultimately based on Stockholm Syndrome:

“Let’s take you away from everything that makes you a whole and interesting person – family, friends, your job, your dog – and isolate you in a weird house with nine hot tubs but no books.  Then let’s break you down by making you engage in a bizarre series of humiliating challenges.  Let’s surround you with backstabbing, untrustworthy competitive people.  In the middle of all of that, one person is nice to you.”

This is right out of Prison Interrogation Techniques 101 – Isolate the prisoner, show him cruelty and indifference, let the rats run across his face at night, and then offer him a tiny shred of his humanity back in the form of a cigarette and watch him burst into grateful tears. That lady in the bikini and too much mascara is crying on the beach because she went through all this for nothing.  But if she could be the chosen one, the time she sat in a restaurant and intoned “I’m not wearing any underwear” at Bret Michaels on national television could totally mean something.  If consenting adults who have presumably seen these shows and know how they work and signed consent forms and everything can be broken down like this in a few weeks, imagine what happens to a child who is not able to consent over the course of a lifetime?

I’m paraphrasing another blogger here, pretty sure it’s Harriet J. but I can’t find the exact quote again.  Sorry if I’m murdering your thoughts, Harriet!

Abusers are experts at convincing you that your own experiences are not real and that your own instincts can’t be trusted. If you could trust your own instincts and experiences, then you might have to do something, like, move across the country, get a bunch of therapy, and tell your family to suck your balls.  So the abuser is very invested in making sure you don’t find out or name what’s happening to you. “That wasn’t abuse!  If that was abuse, then I would be an abuser, and since we both know that I’m a good person and not an abuser, you can’t have really been abused, so you better work on some other explanation for what just happened.  Let me suggest some:

  • You were overreacting
  • You are exaggerating
  • You are being a drama queen
  • You are making that up for attention
  • That’s not what happened
  • You’re just crying wolf
  • You’re playing the victim
  • You’re too sensitive
  • I’m strict because I care about you.
  • You better not be airing our family’s dirty laundry in public.
  • If you would just ____, I wouldn’t have to ______.”

Here endeth the insights of Harriet J.

And our society is so cruel and condescending toward victims that you can’t blame a person for wanting to do anything not to be one.  Before you went to therapy I bet you told stories about abusive things that happened in your childhood as if they were totally normal, and it took friends or whoever you told to say “Hey, that’s really not normal, and in fact, is kind of abusive.”  And I’ll bet you an American dollar that the first thing you said back the first time someone said the a-word was something like “No way, that’s just how my dad is.  It’s not like he’s a child abuser, or anything.  He just wanted me to learn how to be responsible.”

Seriously, let me know, and I will send you that dollar in the mail.

Therapy is cutting through your scar tissue down to the open wounds and saying “Yeah, this happened to me, and it was not my fault.”

It’s saying “I couldn’t save myself from it at the time, because I was small and a child and had nowhere to go.  I forgive myself for not being an 8-year-old superhero.”

Then the next step is saying “And I might never get an apology or justice for what happened, so I need to let go of what should have been or what’s fair and learn to be okay with what is.”

Therapy is storytelling.  You tell your story over and over again, and each time it’s a new story, and each time it’s a little bit more true, and at some point you create the version of the story that you can live with.

So now you have this incredible gift you could give your sister, right?  “Sister, I figured out all that shit about our childhood. What happened was real.  It was not my fault or your fault.”

And your sister could give you an incredible gift in return.  “Sister, I know.  I remember, and I believe you.”

Sadly, therapy is not transitive. “Let me tell you about this realization that I had in therapy” comes right after “Let me tell you about my NaNoWriMo Novel” on the list of Things You Can Assume People Don’t Want To Hear About.

If your sister would just validate your experience, then you wouldn’t feel so much like a refugee from your entire family.  And if she validated your experience, how could she possibly continue to have Sunday dinner with your abusers like nothing happened?

I feel like your dad (who emerges as the chief villain in your letter) is thinking some similar stuff, like “Thank god I at least have one daughter left!” If she stays close to your parents it validates their own experience, where they are the heroes of the story and totally not abusers and anyway wasn’t that all in the past and shouldn’t we forget about it and move on?  “We did the best we could.  It’s not our fault we have an ungrateful child who blames us for everything.” The most sickening possibility is that growing up you bore the brunt of the abuse but also got more of the attention, and now that you’re out of the picture your sister’s relationship with your parents is better because she’s finally the center of attention.  Furthermore, because she’s an adult and married and out of the house and living her life according to their approved script and they’ve mellowed out hanging with them is just…not that bad.

So I guess we should get down to advice:

You can choose not to put your sister in the middle. Even if your dad tries to put her in the middle, even if she puts herself in the middle, you can choose not to put her in the middle.  I mean, how does she get in the middle in the first place?

  • She passes on messages from your parents. “I was at the house yesterday, and Dad was talking about how they never see you.”  So what?  Your dad flaps his gums a lot, I bet.  “Hey, sister, I’m sure it’s hard for you to listen to stuff like that, but I don’t want to hear anything from Dad that he doesn’t say to me himself.  Please stop passing that stuff on to me.”
  • She tries too hard to be the peacemaker. “Mom and dad were really hurt that they couldn’t be at your wedding. Can’t you just forgive them and move on?”  “Hey, sister, I know you want us all to be together as a family again, but it’s healthier for me to keep my distance, and I need to take care of myself.”
  • When you tell her about painful stuff, she takes their side. “I don’t remember it like that at all.  Are you sure you aren’t exaggerating again?”  She’s not the audience for your painful stuff, then.
  • She tries to guilt you for abandoning her with them. This may grow as they get older and require more care.  I mean, the bright side of all of this is that by remaining close with them she’s pretty much volunteering to take care of them when they are old. But I think your sister is not allowed to use you to vent about your parents.  Your answer is clear:  “Yes, I know, they suck.  So why do you keep hanging around?”   Your actual answer that you to say to her could probably be more like “I’m sorry, I know they suck, but I can’t talk about this with you.  This right here is why I went to therapy.”
  • She doesn’t know how to have a relationship with you and is flailing and making Usher jokes.

And I guess this is the week for Star Wars references, but when you tell me your sister ends up in the middle between you and your parents, I think of Vader and the Emperor fighing for Luke’s allegiance at the end of Return of the Jedi.  You and your parents both need your sister to choose your version of events so that you can “win” the family war.  Even if you are totally right about everything and they are totally wrong about everything, this is unhealthy and unproductive because it keeps you engaged in conflict with them and makes your sister the battleground.

You  can choose to change the subject. A lot.  Every time she brings up your parents.  “I’m sorry, I really can’t talk about them anymore.  How are you?”

So what are you going to change the subject to?  I think the answer is similar to what Not Perfect, But Happy and her clingy friend need to do to reset their relationship, which is to accept that you might not get the validation you want and to find some way to bring the relationship into the present through shared interests and positive interactions.

  • What do you love about your sister?
  • What do you like about your sister?
  • What stuff do you both like doing?
  • What are you both good at?
  • What are you both terrible at?
  • What makes you both laugh?

Find something that brings you together (other than your parents), and learn to seek her company for her own sake, because you like her for herself.  That is the best way you can help each other and take care of yourself, with the extra special upside of driving your parents crazy that they can’t divide and conquer anymore.

9 thoughts on “Reader Question #6: I’m worried about my sister. She is still very close to our abusive parents.

  1. So very well written and touches on the core of some of my own experiences. Thanks for your insights (and gifts) which have helped me gain a bit more perspective on my own relationship with a sibling in a similar situation.

      1. I related a lot to this too, though I am the sibling that decided to have a relationship with her parents. It gives me more perspective on my brother, who cut off all ties to both them and me. Thanks Jen.

  2. I was going to email this to you, but I wanted to say that I really appreciated the advice that you gave in this. I was recommended this site by a friend, and on a whim I decided to actually contact someone about one part of my situation with my family, and it was someone who wasn’t a paid professional.

    Everything that you said is exactly how things are, and I really do feel a sense of calm, and further feel strengthened so that I can actually keep a relationship with my sister in a way that I never had the opportunity to do so before. I’ve been gaining a lot of help from friends and my husband, but at the same time I also feel that talking with someone who is completely removed from the situation and isn’t going to ask me opened ended therapyesque questions (while helpful, not exactly what I’m looking for at the moment) really gained a further understanding of how to deal with these issues.

    This is long been an ongoing battle, and you are right when I say that my father is probably the main “villan” of the situation, mainly because he’s the one that’s the controlling all of the shots. So, thank you again, thank you SO SO MUCH, for everything you said and for the help that you bring to people.

    1. So I don’t need to send you a dollar, then?

      Seriously, I’m very touched by your words and really glad you found something valuable here. I couldn’t write what I write if people like you weren’t honest and brave enough to be vulnerable.

      Child abusers don’t wake up in the morning and think “I’ve got to hit the hardware store, the post office, and destroy my child’s sense of self. Oh, and buy milk. Sweet, delicious milk.”

      They think “I am trying really hard to be a good person, and that’s what I would be, if (victim) would just do what I say and stay completely in my control like we discussed.”

      I’m speculating, obviously. But one more thing I can give you is that sometimes it helps to talk about specific abusive behaviors instead of referring to the person as an abuser. You can maybe short-circuit the part where they completely deny your experience in order to keep thinking of themselves as a good person by focusing on the behaviors, like, sure, I know you’re not an abuser, but that thing you did right then feels abusive, so I’d like you to stop now.

      Might help with your sister. “Mom and dad abused us” is harder to swallow than “Mom and Dad did their best, but (abusive thing) was really abusive to me and I am still recovering and can’t say when I’ll be done with that.” Be on the lookout for defensive language from her, like “Well, some of us just choose to get on with our lives and not be a victim.”

      That means: “One of the ways I survive is to avoid seeing myself as a victim, and if you keep telling me that you were a victim I might have to admit that I was a victim too and my whole carefully constructed coping mechanism might come apart with a Sproing!”

      Good luck, I hope you and your sister can build something new.

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