My sister is an emotionally unsafe person for me to be around. (Artwork: Tess Emily Rodriguez)
She’s made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to… Ask Erin is a weekly advice column, in which Erin answers your burning questions about anything at all.
My sister is 33. I'm 30, and I'm still terrified of her.
My sister is an emotionally unsafe person for me to be around. When we were children, she would bite and scratch herself and run to my mother and say I did it. I can still hear her laughing about it while my parents screamed at me. It wasn't until she got braces that my mother noticed the bite pattern and believed me. When that no longer worked for her, she'd throw out my homework, corrupt files and delete papers I wrote for school on the family shared computer.
I could literally just describe years of manipulative, vindictive, emotionally unstable behavior on her part that was always my fault. She threatened to kill my dog because it was "in her way.” I wasn't "trying hard enough" to get better when I was diagnosed with cancer, and I was "making shit up.”
She lived with my mother until she was 31, rent-free and with no bills until she was met a man on a dating site and moved in with him. My mother is in a dire financial situation now because of my sister's spending and manipulation.
I understand that my parents enabled her and that they have to own that but they won't because my sister just had a baby. This adds extra weight to the fact that my parents flip-flop between believing her when she lies about me and calling out her behavior. They just want to be around their grandson, and tolerating her behavior is the price they pay for a ticket to bragging baby pictures on Facebook.
When my nephew was born, my husband and I were living across the country, and my sister was immediately offended that we didn't put ourselves in debt to fly out and see her. She has this Norman Rockwell vision of our family that never existed.
Emotional and verbal abuse were the only normal I ever had as a child and young adult.
My sister has this narrative that our idyllic family life is being ruined because of my successful life choices — because I relocated for a better job, because I went to college and "abandoned" her, because I'm succeeding in my field. She stopped speaking to me last month, and it was fucking great. She's just recently started speaking to me again, just sending me pictures of my nephew. I feel like she's putting her son in the middle and using him to get me to start speaking to her again. I don't even know why she stopped speaking to me this time; she's that erratic.
I feel like I live in a minefield where any step I take is going to be wrong. It's taken a lot of therapy to realize I identify my sister more as an abuser during my childhood than I do my parents.
We've had to cut a lot of people out of our lives recently. My husband's parents struggle with extreme mental health and addiction issues, and after a fucking terrifying incident with his parents that involved the police, we decided to stop putting ourselves in the path of people who just want to be traumatic and shitty.
Even after an intense five years of therapy, I still feel like it's my responsibility to fix what my sister thinks I broke.
I'm afraid of her. I'm a successful, educated woman with a wonderful marriage and a great career. And I'm afraid of my big sister. We've lost a lot of people in our lives. My husband and I both recognize that as children of abuse that this was bound to happen the healthier we got.
I just can't shake the feeling that I'm the bad guy, that I'm responsible for ruining everything. Am I in the wrong here? It really feels like no matter what I say, I'll be the villain for it.
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Oh, my dear, you have had to deal with a lot. I am thrilled to know that you’ve been in therapy and that you and your husband have been setting healthy boundaries for your family. That is the right way to handle toxic family members. It can feel harder to set boundaries with siblings, parents, and children than with anyone else.
She doesn’t get a free pass for abusive behavior just because she is your sister.
And truly no one should — not partners, parents, friends, family members, even children.
It can feel scary to set those boundaries with the family in which we grew up. Sometimes the abusive behavior feels so normal that even when it is damaging us, we minimize it, think it’s all in our heads. It sounds like that’s what has been happening here. You know the situation is toxic, but you feel guilty for setting boundaries. Years ago, a therapist told me something that would come to be a key to understanding so much about childhood trauma.
All that guilt is unexpressed anger.
You have a right to be angry. You have a right to be angry at your sister, at your parents for enabling it, and with the situation in general. It sucks. It is not fair. But you have to look at it with clarity.
I hope you do set that boundary once and for all. You can eliminate yourself from the line of fire and still love her. You can have as little or as much as a relationship with your sister and parents as you want or need. And whatever you decide is best for you and your family unit is okay. It does not make you a bad person.
Boundary setting makes you a healthy person.
Lastly, you have no control over how your parents handle their relationship with your sister. They are also probably not who to go to with your frustrations about your sister. Talk to your therapist, husband, and friends. Process this with them, lean on them for support. You have made a healthier family for yourself than the one you grew up in, and that is a significant step forward.
Likewise, you have no control over whether or not your sister paints you as the villain. It’s not your business nor your problem. Let it go.
Don’t doubt yourself when it comes to this boundary setting. Your instincts to extricate yourself from the madness are accurate and healthy.
The information within Ask Erin should in no way be interpreted as medical advice because I’m not a medical professional. But I am here to help — to share with you the wisdom I’ve gained after years of making mistakes. If you have a question for me about relationships, addiction, dating, friendships, depression, parenting, sex, consent, what I’m watching, what I’m reading, Rhodochrosite, or anything at all, use the contact form below or email me at email@example.com. As always, your anonymity is golden. Lastly, I’m so excited to share with you my Ask Erin Self-Care Guide, free when you sign up for my weekly newsletter. xoxo