Join 3,375 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Please enable me further
July 11, 2010 8:54 PM   Subscribe

Toxic relatives and forgiveness games ... how do I handle this?

My sister is married to a severely problematic man. He has a drinking problem (one drink and he'll proceed to get completely wasted), has gambled away most of their life savings away in the past, has attempted blackmail for money, and will attack others verbally if corrected or feels there is an attack on his authority or beliefs. He is not a complete mess and can be very cunning and charming for a few days at a time.

We thought he was a different but decent enough person for the first few years of their marriage. A few years ago, his gambling problems blew up in his face, as well as a boatload of other lies and scams, and I advised my sister to dump him. My parents think he is a scumbag and don't want anything to do with him but would like to maintain some semblance of a relationship with my sister.

Lately, we have gotten letters of apology claiming that he was bipolar, is now medicated, and is sorry for everything that has happened and would like to mend this rift in our family. He has a history of making "surprise" grand gestures (buying cars on credit to apologize after a fight). My sister maintains a purely perfunctory relationship with my parents via Hallmark cards and facebook messages, but has stopped conversing with them and me via phone for the last year. My sister is passive-aggressive and loves to be maneuver others to be "the bad guy" so she can be nasty but still feel good about it, rather than having an actual discussion or confrontation. If undeniable evidence of her husband's activities confront her (picking him up after a bender, notices of unpaid child support show up), she sits staring blankly and perhaps muttering a yes or no if questions are asked.

My guess is that the conditions behind any further contact will be unconditional acceptance of her husband, which is unlikely from my parents, so then we will be the bad guys.

I am planning on calling her and asking what her version of reconciliation would entail. Have any of you succeeded in setting boundaries with a sibling who is married to somebody toxic? I am nearing the DTMFSA point but the situation stresses out my parents.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total)
 
Honestly? Everything you've said about him--including rashly buying big-ticket items and the gambling problem and all of it--sounds consistent with his being bipolar.

Your sister needs you. She needs your support. You can tell her to leave him all you want, but, as you've seen, all that will do is drive a wedge in your relationship. Please, be there for her. If he's verbally abusive and an alcoholic, she needs your support. If he's bipolar, she needs your support. Being there for her, as a shoulder to cry on and an nonjudgmental source of strength, is far more important than being right here.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:04 PM on July 11, 2010


(Also, I have no idea why it's automatically assumed that if your parents reject her, you're rejecting her. You're a grown-up, right? A separate entity? Then it's completely within your power to be the bigger person.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:06 PM on July 11, 2010


To me "some semblance of a relationship with my sister" would, at most, involve occasionally doing stuff with her, taking her shopping or whatever you want to do together etc., but NOT asking her what "reconciliation would entail" or any of that kind of toxic crap.

I was a bit confused because you mentioned this "semblance of a relationship" but later in your post it appears she has cut off contact with your family because your family has been critical of the husband.

I know it's hard to not have contact with your sister, but a healthy relationship, even (especially) with a relative should never entail "negotiating terms," especially not when she's been the one with problems and she wants to set 'conditions for further contact."

My own "conditions for further contact" would be "call me when you want to do something together that doesn't involve your crazy husband." You may or may not have overdone it in the past when getting involved between your sister and her husband, but given her and her husband's history, you don't really owe her an elaborate explanation or to fall on your sword about it.

And I know it's got to be even harder for your parents, but the situation does sound like you're heading into DTMFSA territory, and you can neither process that for them nor shield them from it.

Life really does get simpler when you figure out you can't control other people.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:15 PM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would be tempted to reply to the apology with something like, "We're very happy to hear you getting treated. As far as your prior wrongdoings go, you have the rest of your life to prove what a kind of human being you are."
posted by wobh at 9:17 PM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't start by making a phone call asking her what her "version of reconciliation would entail." I'd start by thinking about whether there are baby steps you're willing to take at this time. You've gotten an apology letter; that's a start. Sure, you're probably not ready to jump right back in with both feet. But are you willing to meet for coffee in a public place? Have lunch? Go for a walk in the park? Or none of the above? Call or write her and say that.

You describe her behavior but it sounds like you haven't seen or talked to her in a year or more. Things might really have changed. It's up to you whether you're willing to talk to them or visit with them and see. You do a thing like this in tiny stages; you make one little move and see how it feels before you take another. It can take a long time.
posted by not that girl at 9:18 PM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


A lot of your sister's credibility and ego is tied up in the guy she chose to marry, so it's not surprising that she would defend him. Just make it clear to her that you're there to help her. A confrontation is not necessarily the best way to do this, as it sort of calls her out (which will make her feel dumb and thus defensive).
You can be compassionate without enabling her choices, but make sure you draw that line. Perhaps you'll be tapped-out when she needs a loan, or unavailable to pick up someone from jail.
Don't think that you won't get hell for either of those answers. This is a decision that she's going to have to make, though, and there's not really a way to speed her through it without alienating her. Patience and kindness is the only way I see through this. Good luck.
posted by Gilbert at 9:24 PM on July 11, 2010


I'm sorry to say this, but I don't think you are going to be able to enter any healthy space with your sister until she takes responsibility for her part in this, and what it has meant to you and your relationship with her. Calling and asking her what her version of reconciliation will entail is a form of bargaining - and it seems like she has a very bad track record of how to do that (her ways of 'reconciliation' or 'cleaning up' after her husband are good examples of this).

I think the best thing you can do is model healthy independence and create an unobtrusive, welcoming space if she ever decides to approach you honestly and openly and start acknowledging the vicious cycle of victim-rescuer-persecutor she's trapped in. This might also entail you separating yourself from your parents (in your communications with her), insomuch as letting them address their communication problems with their daughter independently of you addressing yours with your sister. Breaking these into separate relationships, rather than a tangled front, is important because it doesn't allow for all of you to get sucked into this trap of being persecuted by her/him/them together. Everybody gets to own and take responsibility for what's theirs.

Aside from all of this, one thing you might do is learn as much as you can about the dynamic that your sister is stuck in. Understand what alcoholism is about, how co-dependence works, what havoc it reaks on those close to alcoholics. Not for the purpose of arming yourself with psychology terms, but rather to be able to approach this situation from an empathetic and educated understanding of the difficulties and suffering that you, your sister, her husband, and your parents may have been experiencing for the last several years. And to learn from others' experiences about the safe way out.

Good luck. It's a really hard road you're walking down, and there may be some tough decisions ahead. The boundaries you will be forced to set may seem harsh or heartless, but the safe haven and support network you will build for yourself will sustain you...and your family, should they decide to follow your lead, in whatever way works best for them. I hope they do.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:30 PM on July 11, 2010


I'm a bit confused about what the question is, what your goal is, and a few of the details. Did he send the apology note or her? If her, say "wow, that's great to hear," and go from there...

Being in a relationship with someone alcoholic and bipolar is like being in a relationship with someone abusive, more or less, so threads like this one should be useful to you. In general, you need to make it a priority to keep communication with your sister, and accept that they might never break up. Don't make breaking up with him a condition of being able to have a peaceful/non-argumentative phone call with you.

Have any of you succeeded in setting boundaries with a sibling who is married to somebody toxic?

If he has done anything to hurt you, those are the boundaries you need to set. "Sorry, we can't loan you money." "Bob can come to Thanksgiving only as long as he has not been drinking." A good book on setting boundaries with loved ones is Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner. Co-anon would have helpful material as well.
posted by salvia at 9:39 PM on July 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


You really just need to really clearly define what your relationship will be. Does that mean dinners together as a family on major holidays? Then everyone agrees that the topic of conversation will revolve entirely around pets, the weather, and dancing with the stars. And I'm only kind of kidding. But really that's how well defined I'm talking.

Think about what you what you can handle and what you want from a relationship with your sister. Occasional phone calls? Monthly family dinners? Holidays? Emails? Figure that out and then just initiate it. "Sis I would really like it if you and me could go for lunch once a month and just enjoy talking without going into anything unpleasant or anything that might start a fight. I don't want to place blame, I just want us to see each other and have a relationship."

Without going into too much detail I've been in similar circumstances. The family member and I would go to brunch alone on a day when the significant other was at work or was out of town. I refused to discuss the significant other, ever. I was no longer going to hear how *wonderful* they were now or on the bad days what they were doing. It was well established that I would be there 100% if they chose to leave the significant other, but they had said they would and then changed their mind too many times and the emotional rollercoaster was too much for me to handle. The rest of my family had a similar stance, but would see the significant other in very limited circumstances. He understood he was not to talk about the past and everyone spoke about neutral topics and kept time together brief. Dinner was over, everyone excused themselves and there was no sitting around with coffee talking for hours like we normally would. He would say mildly passive aggressive assholeish things and everyone would just laugh and smile because obviously he is joking. haha. It's not fun. It's a cease fire and an uneasy peace, but you do it so you don't entirely loose a loved one.
posted by whoaali at 11:51 PM on July 11, 2010




I'm curious whether these letters were written and/or signed by your sister or by her husband. If they came from him directly I'd be inclined to allow myself at least a little contact with him. If they came from her then I'd assume he's still having serious problems but that your sister is reaching out because she wants her family back.

Either way, it sounds like part of this is that YOU are pretty damned angry with your sister. You're painting her as malicious, as if she takes pleasure in hurting people (My sister is passive-aggressive and loves to be maneuver others to be "the bad guy" so she can be nasty but still feel good about it) when it's much more likely that she feels cornered in a bad situation and has resorted to this behavior out of desperation. Your anger is a legitimate but separate issue, and will have to be dealt with before you can have any sort of decent relationship with her. If you can take responsibility for dealing with YOUR anger, you might find yourself able to feel some compassion for your sister. After all, as sucky as this situation has been for you and your parents, it's much worse for her. You don't have to like it, but you'll need to reconcile yourself to an imperfect relationship if you want any relationship at all.

posted by jon1270 at 4:31 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I believe in second chances.

I also believe, burn me twice, shame on me.

Give him a chance, but watch your back.
posted by Flood at 4:52 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just this once I'd give them the benefit of the doubt. From what you describe of his behavior the bipolar diagnosis is spot on. If he is facing this and doing what he needs to get well, they both need and deserve your support. It's humiliating in the extreme to deal with the messes you get yourself into when sick.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:54 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Have any of you succeeded in setting boundaries with a sibling who is married to somebody toxic?

I have a beloved aunt who is married to a raging abusive asshole. They met when she was 12 and he was 17 and they are now in their 70's. The family loves her and continues to keep her in their life with calls, presents, invitations to visit, however the husband is unwelcome at any time. Two years ago we got a phone call from her daughter telling us that once again the husband had used his wife as a punching bag. There were family powwows where heated discussions about kidnapping aunt, calling police, finding a new home for aunt, etc were bandied about. After many, many phone calls nothing was done. She doesn't want to leave him. We still love her. She frustrates us, but she still gets included in family reunions. We offer her tickets and sometimes she comes without him, sometimes she stays home.

Your sister may never leave her husband. She may be addicted to the drama, or whatever, but at some point you and your parents will have to decide how to handle the situation. Love her, ignore him is my best advice. Phone her, write her, take her out to lunch but be firm in your resolve to have as little to do with him as possible.

One final point. When I talk to my druggie brother, I have a rule: If he starts raging at me, I just hang up. No drama, no defending myself, no grudges. Just cut the connection. When he calls back, I let the answering machine pick up for a few days, then we try again. This way I don't have to get mad at him. Your sister may spend a lot of time defending her husband and telling you how bad you are. Let it go. Disengage, change the subject, let her know that her husband is not up for discussion, but you are happy to talk to her about other things.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:08 AM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Please don't decide to take the high moral ground here and 'show' your sister how very wrong she was and how she should have listened to you. Because all it will do is isolate your sister more. I know, I have been the sister who has been isolated in 'punishment' because I "didn't listen" or any one of a long number of perceived grievances I committed against my family. I am hearing that kind of tone - which now that it is 20+ years later for me, I understand, but still need to tell you is not going to help your sister or your relationship with her.

Don't ask her what reconciliation looks like. I would hang up on you. Ask me if I'd like to go to lunch. Ask me if I'd like to go shopping. Ask me if I'd like to come over and see the baby, play with the kids, go to my niece's dance recital. Give me things to do that aren't big huge family events that require attendance by both spouses. Make sure she knows that you love her and you are still there for her. You can gently set rules once she's around about conversation topics: "Sis, we're so glad you're here, but let's not talk about [husband] right now. Let's just enjoy the day." She may feel that she 'needs' to defend him or that you expect her to talk about it and there may be a certain sense of relief that she doesn't have to.

You'll be able to suss out eventually if the husband is getting treatment and if he's serious. You can decide when you want to try inviting him to a family event. You don't even need to warn them - just invite him to something small, not a grand gala at the Waldorf Astoria, and see how it goes. If it goes well, then you try another event. If it doesn't, then you can say something about it.

Please don't push your sister away. She needs you more than you can ever know.
posted by micawber at 7:51 AM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Life is way too short to hold grudges, resentment, or any ill will feelings towards family.

She is your sister. She needs someone to be there for HER. Yeah she chose to marry a man who shows soooo many signs of being Bipolar, however, love her in her decisions. Accept her for who she is. Don't judge. It is hard to watch our loved ones go through hard times, however, they are lessons that need to be learned. Some learn the easy way, others learn the hard way. If they sent a letter apologizing, take it at face value. Say, "okay, let's see if this has changed." Give it time. No one is perfect.

You might want to recommend family therapy. It is not only his set back. As a family you need to talk about it openly with a therapist. Find out what you and your parents can do to be the positive, loving, supportive family that they need.


I am bipolar. It has taken me years to get to the point where I feel like I am moving in a positive path. I am on medication. I go to therapy. I talk about it to my family. They don't know what it's like to be bipolar however they support me by listening and being there.


good luck!
posted by zombiehoohaa at 9:08 AM on July 12, 2010


So her life sucks because her husband sucks.

You want to cut her off because...her life sucks.

This will just make her life suck more.

Is it about loving her, or about you being "right"?

Is it about loving her, or is it about her doing what you say?

Love her, support her, protect yourself from her husband, and accept her as she is, not as you want her to be.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:20 AM on July 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


You are not responsible for your sister's happiness - even if you were, there is not a thing in the universe you can do to make her "happy".

Lots of folks are encouraging you to be there "for her". She's a grown woman, and sounds like a bit of a piece of work herself. You do not exist to be there for someone else, anymore - or less - than she exists to be there for you.

If she trashes her life with bad choices, that is not your problem, and you probably don't want to take on her problems. Do you?

As for your brother-in-law, the same goes. You don't need to take on his problems. If he really is getting treatment for being bipolar, that's great! There's not a thing you need to do about it. If and when he is ready, he will demonstrate it by his behavior.

Now, as callous as I sound, I am not saying cut them off. Maintain communications, keep the contact as broad and deep as you want, or as narrow and limited as you want.

Don't worry about the past. What's done is done. Be ready to forgive. But don't be foolish. Actions speak louder than words. Indicate to them, if you want, that you will be supportive, if that's what you want.

But don't accommodate her just because she is your sister. If she has conditions for a relationship, fine, then listen to them. Can you accept them? Fine. Can't accept them? Fine.

You have to establish your boundaries, and demand they be respected. That's your job. If you want to help your sister somehow, then do it without expecting anything at all from it, other than your own satisfaction. Otherwise, you will likely be disappointed.

Good luck.
posted by Xoebe at 11:29 AM on July 12, 2010


From the OP:
-- Don't ask her what reconciliation looks like. I would hang up on you. Ask me if I'd like to go to lunch. Ask me if I'd like to go shopping. Ask me if I'd like to come over and see the baby, play with the kids, go to my niece's dance recital. Give me things to do that aren't big huge family events that require attendance by both spouses. Make sure she knows that you love her and you are still there for her.

This has been my exact M.O. for the first several years after the blowup - I assured her that I still loved her and wished the best for her, but her husband wasn't welcome.
We would do low-key activities without large groups.
She moved out of the area several years ago so personal one-on-one visits are difficult without long distance travel. This also makes it difficult to tell if there has been any real improvement or not.

My sister had a big blowup a while ago with my parents about not supporting her husband, and has basically made it clear that one-on-one outings are not acceptable unless her husband is involved.
Initially after the blowup she wouldn't bring up her husband but now interjects his name into any discussion of visits or activities.

-- I'm curious whether these letters were written and/or signed by your sister or by her husband. If they came from him directly I'd be inclined to allow myself at least a little contact with him.

The letters came from her husband, signed only by him.

-- Please don't decide to take the high moral ground here and 'show' your sister how very wrong she was and how she should have listened to you.

I've recognized that's completely pointless and not helpful to anyone.

-- You describe her behavior but it sounds like you haven't seen or talked to her in a year or more.

We've only had phone communication for the last two years, and that stays on very safe subjects - her work, pets, hobbies, etc. Even this has recently trailed off (last six months).

-- Just this once I'd give them the benefit of the doubt. From what you describe of his behavior the bipolar diagnosis is spot on. If he is facing this and doing what he needs to get well, they both need and deserve your support.

I hope her husband is actually better for her sake, but will definitely watch my back around him.
posted by jessamyn at 11:55 AM on July 12, 2010


I think you should stop looking at this as him being "toxic" and instead look at it as him being "sick." You don't have to put yourself in a situation to be harmed by him (like, don't lend him money or give him booze) but have a little sympathy that he has a mental illness that was previously undiagnosed and that he has only recently begun the road to recovery from.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:18 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


« Older Looking for lost erotic photo ...   |  How to not dream so much when ... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.