My sister the narcissist blows up another marriage

It's her third divorce and it looks like the Big One

Cary Tennis
September 16, 2011 4:20AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I have an enchanting and charismatic sister who is, among other wonderful things, involved in the process of her third divorce. It is not pretty. (The first two were not pretty either, but this one is volcanic.) Now the word "narcissism" comes up frequently. It is likely they have both met their own worst/best opponent, and who can bring down whom first?


I really try/want to be there for my sister, and we have a rich history together. I, too, was involved for a time with a "narcissistic" personality, a man I shared many wonderful experiences with, and then it was clear I needed to get out, and I did, and eventually the threads broke and it was over.

She seems to be having a different experience. She sends me insights -- long reports, not well-written usually -- about "this condition" that her husband is suffering through (described in the DSM-IV -- whatever, so that makes it real, right?). She tries valiantly to distinguish herself from all of that stuff that HE is.

I feel she is also describing herself and doesn't even know it.


I get antsy about projection -- seeing things in someone else; how can we see them in ourselves? I think there is value in identifying things, and I have a suspicion, too, that there is something weak in this description. I feel confused, emotionally, intellectually, maybe intuitively as well.

My advice question is this: I feel an urge to tell my sister that she is also what she is describing her husband to be, and that is where they remain connected and how the battle rages. That seems kind of brutal and I know she would disengage at that point.

I want to be there for her and reflect -- wondering where I am over-helping/freeing, etc. And, I wonder if I have maybe not seen myself clearly in the relationship I too had with a charismatic narcissist.


Thanks for your consideration.


Dear PHEW!

It's tempting to get involved, to try to help your sister, but I don't think that's a good idea. I think there's a better way to respond. In fact, this is a great time to consciously not engage, to do the opposite, and see what you can learn.


Stand back. Take note of your impulses and use this event as an opportunity for reflection. Learn about yourself by watching your sister. What she is doing is probably a repetition of some family pattern. You may not have been conscious of this pattern in the family before. But look for it. Get out some photographs of your family and look at them. Contemplate. Ready yourself for new knowledge. Pay attention to the thoughts that arise. Write about this. Remember stories. Write the story of your sister.

Look for repetition and mirroring. You also were involved with a narcissistic man. Who else in your life now seems to be a narcissist? Has your involvement with narcissists been a way of putting aside your own projects and living through others? What does this say about feminism, about your role as a woman?

Don't try to figure it out too much, or theorize. Just provide yourself with some simple answers: What have you avoided? What do you fear? How do you feel about your sister? Is it sad that she is doing this? Does it make you angry?


What other, older patterns are repeating here? Was a parent narcissistic? Which one? Your father? Was there a connection between your father's narcissism and the narcissistic man you became involved with? What about your sister? What patterns does she seem to be repeating?  And what does it mean that she is sending you these detailed reports on him? How does that fit in? Could it be she is avoiding certain feelings by "figuring it out"? Is that a family pattern, too? The intellectualizing of emotional things? If so, what kinds of things is she avoiding?

Our personal responses to narcissism in others and in ourselves have broader implications as well. There is a danger that, surrounded by the tactics and sensibility of reality television, we may substitute the cold, voyeuristic eye of the TV viewer for the intimate and personal view of a family member. We are in a fast-moving, confusing and perhaps deteriorating cultural period.  Things are falling apart all over. Narcissism may be a response to the atomizing of culture: By enlarging the self and making it the center, we may avoid that vertiginous feeling that there really is no center, or if there is, it cannot hold.

That is another reason I suggest you take the time to detach and sort it out.


All this thinking and reflection may make you anxious and uncomfortable. It's not the kind of thing you figure out in an afternoon. It's more the kind of thing that forms a theme for your life, that may take years to unfold.

It's hard to think about this stuff alone. If it gets hard, seek help. You may reflect on these things alone but you will probably find at some point you need the help of somebody. It is hard -- it is very hard and often messy -- to face the naked truth about ourselves and our family members, and what we have wanted and what we have lost, the ways we have shied away from the truth, how we continue hiding parts of ourselves that we consider shameful or failed; it is not pretty or glamorous to face these things, but it is heroic. It is the way to find our true selves. It is a way to honor our common humanity. Sometimes the truth we find about ourselves is disappointingly banal. If we find, for instance, as I have on occasion, that a complicated and interesting explanation was simply an evasion, that is very hard to take. At least we'd like our craziness to be complicated and interesting, no?! Whatever truth we find, by accepting ourselves as flawed beings we are softened a bit and reawakened to our place in the human family; we then can share in the great human story.

We're all bozos on this bus is sort of what I'm saying.

That has been my experience, anyway.


So I urge you to be careful and protect yourself. Stay back 50 feet; strive to know yourself and make connections between what is going on with your sister and what has gone on in your family and what is going on now in your life. Watch the burn at a distance.

And don't put too much stock in my high-falutin' theorizing, either. I'm a writer first off, and we like to complicate things, don't we? The bottom line is fairly simple, so simple it may sound like a cliché: Your sister is going through something she has to go through, and you can't save her. You're going to have to let her go through this her way.

Meanwhile, you have a rich life of your own.

Creative Getaway


Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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