My sister is the meanest person alive!

I don't want to shut her out of my life, but her behavior is beyond the pale.



Cary Tennis
September 30, 2005 1:23AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

My sister may be the meanest, most selfish person in the world. This sounds like a teenage taunt, but it's not.

When my mother was dying of cancer six years ago, my sister lived near my folks and never helped. She just walked into the house and complained about her husband, whom she divorced, messily and loudly, right as my mother was suffering the most.

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She has an Ivy League master's degree, yet she gets fired constantly from jobs and hits my father up for money when she does. He bails her out, despite the fact that she isn't kind to him either. He recently has had a hip replaced, and she barely visited him or called him. I live out of state, and I flew in to help and I call all the time.

She walks into my father's house for family holidays and asks him what he has that she might sell for cash. At family events, she never cooks (despite being asked), can't wash any dishes due to what she calls a water allergy, and she talks incessantly about herself, never asking questions about others. Last year she gave us all Christmas presents with price tags still on them, telling me in particular that she'd "bought my earrings for herself, but didn't like them so she passed them on to me." Oh, and last Christmas, she had a meltdown in a restaurant, accusing me, my father, her boyfriend and my husband of being against her. It resulted in a family fight so bad that I haven't spoken to her since.

I think of myself as a pretty balanced person. I have a solid marriage, good friends, a nice relationship with my father and most of my in-laws. But this situation with my sister bedevils me -- I just don't know how to relate to her! Even when we are in touch, it seems to be me calling her, her mooching meals or trips off me, and her complaining about how bad our childhoods were and how our parents were -- fill in the blanks -- control freaks, ADD, manic depressive ...

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I remember a nice childhood with nice food, trips to Europe, good parents.

My question is, do I try to have a relationship with her at all, or do I cut my losses because she's incredibly toxic to be around? It feels terrible to say, but I feel like I'd like to divorce my own sister. Yet the thought of never having a decent relationship with her makes me sad.

Twisted Sister

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Dear Twisted,

You can probably have some kind of tolerable relationship with your sister, though not necessarily the kind you'd consider ideal. The key is to understand her behavior well enough to set reasonable expectations.

If you knew, for instance, that she had a classic case of narcissistic personality disorder, then you could make some realistic predictions about her behavior.

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So if I were you, I'd make an appointment with a psychologist who can consult with you about your sister's behavior. I would state that you want to get an understanding of your sister's personality so that you can better handle the upsetting family situations you are likely to encounter. A good psychologist could explain what various personality disorders are and how they affect family members, and also suggest kinds of behavior your sister is likely to engage in. That would help you prepare for whatever objectionable things she might do. It would also help you set limits on the kinds of interactions you're willing to have with her.

It is of course sad to contemplate never having a decent relationship with your own sister. But if you know what to expect, you can at least try to maintain some kind of relationship. Perhaps it would consist of regular, brief, highly structured interactions, held at a considerable distance. You might, for instance, decide to only send her greeting cards on holidays, and call her once or twice a year. That, at least, would be a relationship of sorts. It would not expose you to the kind of painful episodes you have described, but it would maintain contact.

It's very hard to set such limits with a family member, of course. One's expectations are often much higher; one really, really want things to be a certain way; moreover one really believes, and justifiably so, that things ought to be a certain way in a family: Everyone ought to be loving and looking out for each other; everyone ought to show respect for the parents and try to give back some of what they've been given. It ought to be, you know, family-like!

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If only it were so.

While her self-centeredness does sound like a kind of narcissism, her breakdown in the restaurant sounds a distinct note of paranoia. Now, wouldn't you think that the self-involvement and grandiosity of a narcissist would work against paranoia, making her feel invulnerable to plots against her? But perhaps a psychologist would say that these two conditions, paranoia and narcissism, work together at times, or alternate in a personality, one feeding the other. Or if one's narcissism is weak, for instance, then perhaps rather than being insulated by grandiosity against paranoia, one does indeed see oneself as the focus of the world but only in a weak, vulnerable, threatened way.

Anyway, while it's good to be realistic, sometimes letting go of a hope for something better can feel like a distinct letdown. To compensate for what you might feel as the loss of your sister, consider the many, many people with whom you can have much better relationships. It might be most profitable to concentrate on them -- your chosen family, as it were, rather than your given family. You can also work to strengthen the relationships you do have with other family members -- your father, for instance, who may be victimized by his daughter in ways he scarcely understands or could admit to. He could maybe use some extra support, having also lost his wife only a few years ago. In this way, you can be a good sister and daughter, but also protect yourself.

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