Dear Dr. Michelle:
I'm the oldest of three adult siblings. My youngest sister, “Sue” was diagnosed with chronic depression, bipolar disorder, and within the past year, narcissistic personality disorder. Since the narcissistic diagnosis, my sister stopped seeing her psychiatrist and she stopped taking her medication.
She's always had issues with pathological lying but I recently found out she has been lying to my other sister and parents about me for years - hurtful, relationship-damaging lies my family believed and she continues to tell to this day. My heart is extremely heavy because I'm contemplating severing ties with her.
Sue and I (as adults) have always been very close. We've traveled internationally together, gone on retreats and vacations. I've been a continual source of emotional support. She told my family not to confront me about the horrible lies she told them because “we're so close and she doesn't want me to feel like I can't confide in her”.
One of her lies was so egregious that our other sister did confront me. It opened Pandora's Box, causing her and my mother to admit to years of resentment, hurt, and negative feelings brought on by years of lies from Sue. The lies are horrendous and caused a decade-long chasm between the other members of my family and me. For example, Sue used my family's initial reaction to my queerness and lack of understanding to create a bigger wedge between us. She has also lied about what I've said about our dying father, my parents and their relationship, our other sister, my wife's family, and others.
My family has begged me not to confront Sue yet because of how trying a time this is for everyone. My dad is terminally ill and we're all focused on making him as comfortable as possible while we also work to help my mom with clearing out their house, preparing for a sale, and handling many other issues that take up a large amount of emotional bandwidth for everyone.
I'm hurt. I know her behavior is largely because of her mental illness but I feel I need to emotionally protect myself from her. I'm at a loss for what to do. My heart is broken.
When we are hurt by those we love and once trusted, the pain, sadness and disappointment can feel overwhelming. I commend you for recognizing that your sister’s mental health has an influence on her behavior. However, her mental health should not stop you from having expectations for your relationship with her. Based on what you learned, it is justified for you to want to take a break from your sister while you sort out your own feelings.
When dealing with a lot of overwhelming family dynamics it is easy to feel paralyzed and unsure of what to do as the first step. Try to identify the different areas that need to be addressed and outline what needs to take place under each area.
What To Address First
From what you have described, there seem to three primary areas that need your attention going forward:
- Talking to your sister about what you have learned and your future relationship with her
- Rebuilding your relationships with your other family members to make up for lost time
- Grieving the past relationship that you thought you had with your sister.
You mentioned that your family does not want you to confront your sister at this time. One of the first things you could do is to carefully consider their request. Find out more about their expectations - how long do they want you to wait? Is there something specific they want to have happen before you talk to her? Do they want you to pretend you don’t know anything? Based on answers to these questions, you need to decide if you can honor their request. Even if it is short-term, accommodating their request could give you the break you need in dealing with your sister. At some point, you will want to confront your sister. Waiting too long could lead to resentment and further estrangement. If you find that you cannot accommodate their time frame, tell them before you communicate with your sister, so they are prepared for any potential family confrontation.
How To Start the Conversation
If you do wait to talk to your sister, take advantage of the time to begin rebuilding your relationship with your other family members. A good way to start is to write a personal letter to each family member expressing your sadness and dismay at the untruths you have heard. Show empathy for how they must have felt believing those untruths. Avoid talking about or blaming your sister. You want your communication to be about how much you would like to start over with them. After this communication, reach out and try to find things to do with each family member to rebuild the relationship. Avoid forcing your family to choose between you and your sister. Even if such a request is justified, it will not help you make a fresh start and could further drive family members away.
If you decided to take a break from Sue, communicate your intentions with your sister rather than just ignoring her. Inform her of your need for space. You could consider writing her and letting her know that you have found out that she has been misrepresenting you to the family and that you need time away to sort out your feelings. Be sure to include your rules for engagement - for instance, is she allowed to call you, meet up with you, write to you? And how will you handle family gatherings where you might be together?
If you decide to talk to your sister directly about what you have learned, come prepared with what you are hoping to get out of the conversation and your expectations for moving forward. Communicate what you are and are not willing to allow for you to have a relationship with her. Be prepared to be clear about what you need from her to forgive her and what it will take to start rebuilding trust.
Remember To Be Kind to Yourself
Lastly, recognize that you are going through grief and be kind to yourself. You are grieving the loss of what you thought your relationship was with your sister and recognizing you may never have the type of relationship you want.
Based on what you have shared, there are a lot of dynamics to consider in moving forward. You have been deeply hurt and what has occurred appears to be affecting everybody in your family. You may want to consider finding a therapist to help you sort through your feelings, needs, and decisions and help you navigate rebuilding your relationships with other family members.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.