Monday, September 18, 2006

Dismaying Story #55: My Sister's Boyfriend

Dear Andrew,

My adult sister has a history of being with sponge men - they take all she has in money and emotions and give nothing in return. Her daughter is five years old and hasn't seen her father in four years, and in that time, he hasn't contributed anything. He only worked some of the time, was a pothead and cheated on her. Her most recent man is exactly the same. They have been together off and on for over two years. He keeps going back and forth with the same woman. He and this other woman have an eight year old and a one year old, obviously conceived while he was with my sister. He also gave my sister an STD. She found naked pictures of this other woman on his camera phone and broke up with him but two weeks later they were back together.

Whenever he does something wrong she calls and cries and rants to me. Finally I got fed up with it. I told her I didn't want to see this man and I'd leave if he showed up at her house if I was there. She respected that and didn't put me in that situation, although both he and I attended my niece's preschool graduation and mutually ignored each other. My mother feels the same way about this man and has made it quite clear to my sister for over a year.

My sister came into about $24,000 a few months ago. She gave half to my mother for a credit card debt she ran up, and we have no idea what happened to the rest of it except she bought a second car she doesn't need. My niece says it was for this man. Six weeks after she got this money, my sister in the same week got evicted, had some furniture repossessed, had her phone turned off and lost her job.

My sister's birthday was two weeks ago and she had the audacity to bring this man to my mother's house and a huge fight ensued. There was some talk about my sister not letting my mother see my niece. I have sent her several long emails letting her know how furious I am with her.

She and my mother are no longer speaking. I have avoided her phone calls. I am tired of being her emotional support in this when she goes right back into the same area. I'd rather lose my sister than deal with all this. I am, however, extremely concerned about my niece, who isn't even in school all the time.

I have also had behavioral issues in the past, which were helped tremendously when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and received medication. I see some classic bipolar symptoms in my sister and have urged her to get an evaluation.

Signed, Exasperated Sister

Dear Exasperated,

Your sister's boyfriend is not the problem. He is a symptom of her deeper underlying issues, whatever they may be. You suspect bipolar disorder but there is no way to know until she is properly evaluated.

You and your mother are understandably frustrated by her behavior. She is clearly challenged by life and makes choices for herself and her daughter that are far from ideal. Part of your collective response is to fight with her, put restrictions on how she can be with you (no boyfriend) and avoid speaking with her. From her point of view, these actions make life more difficult and put distance between you.

It is easy to convince yourself that these actions are for her own good. If you do nothing, if you simply act as her sounding board and act as if everything she is doing is okay, then you feel like you are enabling the destructive behavior. Not only that, it is emotionally exhausting to care so much for her and to see her continue to make what in your view are bad decisions. Your reactions are completely understandable.

They are not, however, necessarily in your sister's best interest. For example, let's take the issue of the boyfriend. You are afraid that if you have a normal relationship with him, you will be telling your sister you approve of him. You want her to dump him for good so you refuse to have anything to do with him.

Okay, what would happen if she did dump him for good? Her history provides the answer; she would find another guy you would probably dislike just as much. Like it or not, she is an adult who will make her own decisions. You can't save her from herself because she will be with herself for the rest of her life. While it makes you feel somewhat better to not see the boyfriend, you have also introduced a major strain between you and your sister, and a major headache for her. Now she has to deal with a boyfriend whose feelings are hurt because her family doesn't like him. She is under pressure not to be nice to you because that would send a clear message to him that she approves of how you are treating him. I doubt these are the outcomes you are shooting for.

All this not speaking and refusing to see her boyfriend is designed to reduce the strain on you and your mother, not to help your sister. While this is an understandable defense mechanism on your part, I believe you would really rather help her.

You are on the right track when you say she should be evaluated by a health professional, probably a physician or psychiatrist. The strategy you and your mother should adopt is one that has the best chance of convincing her to seek this evaluation. In other words, you want to be able to influence her. Unfortunately, the strategies you mentioned -- fighting, placing restrictions, not speaking -- all put distance between you and diminish your ability to influence her.

While you want to be firm and not admit that you approve of her choices, you also want to show her that you support her and have her best interests at heart. Reach out and be welcoming rather than pushing her away.

She has resisted taking your advice, so maybe you can enlist the aid of a third party. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, have you considered asking the boyfriend for help? He is obviously giving her something (e.g. companionship, validation) or she wouldn't stay with him. Maybe he would be delighted if she got help for her behavior. Remember, he is directly in the firing line. Perhaps he could convince her to see a doctor.

When deciding how to deal with your sister, try to make choices that increase (rather than damage) your closeness and ability to influence. If you are able to do that, you should have a better chance of moving her situation in a good direction.

All the best,


  1. I don't know if we're related but we do have the same sister, well, you'd have to throw some crystal meth in the mix actually. The other difference? I'm now raising her 9 and 11 year old children (mine are 27 and 30). But seriously, the rest of it? Like the back of my hand! PS As a funny "girl" Dismaying Story # 22 is right. Lots of interesting relationship information here. On to read more...

  2. The sister obvioulsy has low self esteem for being with someone who treats her like this. I think you gave good advice. My reaction would not be nice....I would be asking her "Why is it ok for this guy to treat you this way? What would you do if I came to you with someone who cause me nothing but pain....what would you say to me?"

    Asking the boyfriend for help? It would surprise me if he obliged, I am thinking he would tell her to mind her own business because he is getting everything he wants out of the trelationship and does not want it to be messed with.

    Just my opinion....good luck with this!

  3. I dont have any advice about this womans sister.....I just worry about her child. They should stay close to her because of the child, she has no security and Im sure she needs her grandmother and aunt in her life.

  4. Hi Andrew: just discovered your blogg via the apprentice. I'll be back!

  5. Hey- Thanks for your comment on my blog! Wow- a real live "propeller head" commenting on MY blog!!! I think I'm a new fan. I will read with interest...and maybe even write in sometime.

  6. If you met this girl (your sister) in a social circle, you would saunter away and never return to her toxic area. As long as she is involved with him, you can offer no advice or help --- so stay away and stay sane. AA says you have to hit bottom before you can climb back up --- you also have to recognize that you have a problem before you can rcover.