Sister with persecution complex. How to deal with it?
May 6, 2014 8:07 AM   Subscribe

Sister's behaviour since my father passed away is creating too much stress.

My sister is is 10 years older than me, we are both over 35 and lead very different lifestyles. Both female, UK. However, since childhood we have got along just fine, accepting of our differences, and have generally never had issues with each other.

Until my dad died last April.
Prior to this, we rarely saw each other, yet when we did we got along ok. I knew that she had a horrific temper and was prone to shouting and screaming in public whenever she was in a confrontational situation, but I never had much opportunity to witness it first hand. But since my dad died, and for the few weeks of his illness beforehand, I had to frequently see her and experience these behaviors. Her issue appears (to my untrained eye) to be one of control and anger management, mostly focused upon her relationship with her partner and my mother. Since my mother became a widow, she has taken a keen interest in her affairs and has developed a pretty odd relationship with her that seems to revolve around control and possessiveness - although she is accepting of my role in my mother's life, we both sense a sort of resentment of me, although it is mostly kept in check.

She leads a rather tightly controlled lifestyle (anxiety driven), and does not spend much time actually with my mother, mostly just helping her out, driving her to appointments, etc. She dominates many of these areas of my mother's life, yet will not allow my mother to stay at her house or even visit because her partner is partially disabled and they have a sick pet, which she says becomes worse when people visit. So they live in a kind of self inflicted prison....I don't know a better way to describe it, but that's the general picture.

Now for the actual ask:

Recently, she drove my mother to my home for a visit. They parked outside and as my mother was about to get out of the car, they had a disagreement which resulted in my sister screaming and shouting at the top of her lungs at her, until I came out and asked what was going on. The entire street would have heard this, as my own partner was upstairs at the back of the house and heard every word. I was utterly mortified and embarrassed, went out to her and quietly asked her to please leave if she would not calm down. This was a truly awful experience for me, as I hope you'll understand? Her response was to yell even mostly at my mother, but she made it quite clear that she was deeply offended by me having asked her to not shout.

Since then, she has somehow managed to develop a real issue with me, personally.
I am not sure how to negotiate this, as although I can avoid her most of the time, we are unwittingly connected via our mother.
OK, my mother herself does nothing to help matters; she will invariably pretend nothing is the matter, and often puts herself in situations which make the problem with my sister worse. I have explained, calmly to my mother that I would prefer not to get involved with my sister's issue at present (or in the future), hence I will consciously seek to avoid her or any similar situations, and my mother has agreed that I should do what I have to do and says she fully understands. Still, when my sister kicks off, my mother has a tendency to 'side' with her for the sake of peace, even to the extent of painting an unpleasant picture of me- I guess this is her effort to keep peace, although it's a pretty irritating way to go about it. I feel that my mother envisions this perfect sibling relationship between my sister and myself, which is entirely unrealistic, but she will overlook the damage it does me (and herself) in the process.

A few examples of my sister's mindset:

* I calmly ask her not to shout in front of my home again. She explodes, denying it happened, and tells me I am trying to impinge on her human rights to express her anger. When this occurred I decided not to argue the point and just to walk away, yet she persisted in following me, screaming again, that I am trying to blacklist her, that I hate her, and that I am trying to ruin her life (WTF?).

*When you attempt to talk reasonably without shouting, it seems to annoy her more, and she kicks off in an unhinged fashion saying she is being persecuted, as if my calmness is an insult to her. This really confuses me, psychologically. It is as if she would prefer me to become as explosive as herself.

*She has a history of creating hysterical situations both at home and in public. Her neighbors have complained about her many times. She always sees this as their problem, that they are persecuting her. The very slightest thing sets her off, and it only has to be something simple, like saying you don't want a lift somewhere: so the slightest insignificant thing affects her as a personal offence and the bomb goes off. She tends to not do this with me, usually, as I think that she knows I would not take it, if that makes sense, so if she is upset with me, she raves at my mother instead.

*Due to feeling some guilt over not allowing my mother to visit her home, she often makes issue over this indirectly - never admitting the guilt, but constantly complains to us that she is overworked, never sleeps, can't cope with her pet's illness, partner's disability, etc.

*She appears to see everyone as the enemy out to get her. Although I have never been a definite target in the past, I am now experiencing it first hand. She is telling a certain amount of lies about me to my mother, which is stressful for us both. All that I have been able to do is shake my head in disbelief. I honestly don't want this in my life.

*She often insists upon sticking her nose into my personal affairs (house move, vet appointments, etc). Instead of hassling me, she does it directly through my mother, so creating a dynamic where my mother is a go-between. For example, I went to view a new property a few weeks ago and my mother came with me. She later complained to my mother that she was being 'excluded', and that we were deliberately shutting her out. This was a shock to me as before my dad died she never showed any interest in my personal affairs.

So how do I continue to have a healthy relationship with my grieving mother, whilst this insanity is permanently brewing around her via my sister? I am happy to remain civil, but somewhere along the line, they both tend to 'gang up' on me if I don't play the scapegoat for this or that problem.
Before my dad's death, I never had to experience this, so I'm not sure how to navigate. She was similar then, of course, but had no opportunity to control my mother's life like she does now. She also never used to concern herself about my personal affairs, which she often does now.

How do I stop this without creating a worse dynamic or upsetting my mother? I adore my mother more than the world and do not wish to distance myself from her. What can I do???
posted by noella to Human Relations (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You can't control what upsets your mother or your sister and you can't stop their behavior. You can limit its effects on your life by setting firm boundaries. I'm sorry, but that's really all you can do. There is no perfect solution in which everyone's happy, when one person is determined to make the rest of you unhappy.

Personally, I have zero tolerance for angry shouting and I would continue to walk away and not engage. You risk alienating your mother, but if she's not going to stand up to your sister, you have to do it. Your mother has been complicit in this behavior probably for decades and you're not going to change that.
posted by desjardins at 8:18 AM on May 6, 2014 [9 favorites]

It sounds to me like your sister needs mental health services as much as she does anything else. This is not well-adjusted behavior for adults.

I had to deal with a similar sort of thing a few years back with a close family member. Enormous persecution complex. She'd shift from one theory of how the rest of the family was mistreating her to another as quickly as it became apparent that no one was buying it. It had gotten to the point that when I would try to bring up an issue I was having with her, she would say that I was a hateful person for even thinking that she was anything but entirely without fault, let alone actually saying anything to her, no matter how civilly. Really, if you'd confront her with something, she wanted you to apologize. Her "apologies" all took the form of "I'm sorry you feel that way, but you brought this on yourself by treating me badly, and I hope you're satisfied." Which, I mean, come on.

Eventually, I basically said "I'm not dealing with this anymore. When you're willing to relate like a mature adult, you know how to get in touch with me. Bye." I then got in my car and drove about 600 miles. The trip was pre-planned, but the timing made it a rather significant gesture. Just about sent her to an inpatient psych facility, which made me feel pretty shitty at the time, but I wasn't sorry then and I'm not sorry now.

But see, when I said what I did, I wasn't kidding. If she hadn't turned things around, that was going to be the effective end of our relationship. Indeed, it basically was for a period of a few years. We had previously been really close, but that all came to a screeching halt and only slowly got better. In hindsight I think that interaction was one of the things that served as a wake up call for her. Things got worse before they got better--I managed to escape some of the worst of it by leaving the state for law school--but within about three or four years she head really turned things around. We're basically okay now.

So unless you're actually willing to basically cut her off. . . there's probably not much to be done here. You can't make her change. She has to do the hard work of that on her own. If she's not interested in doing that, then your only real option is to take steps to protect yourself from this, and let's not mince words here, complete and utter bullshit.

Talk to your mother without your sister being present. Bring your partner if you can. See if she has the same impression of the situation as you do. If she doesn't, see if you can bring her around. Barring that. . . she's as much a part of the problem as your sister is.
posted by valkyryn at 8:21 AM on May 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

She later complained to my mother that she was being 'excluded', and that we were deliberately shutting her out.

How did you find out about this? If your mother told you, you may need to set boundaries with your mother that you don't want to hear anything your sister says about you. It might be helpful to read about triangulation in families.
posted by jaguar at 8:34 AM on May 6, 2014 [11 favorites]

Sounds like your sister has a lot of resentment toward your other, and perhaps your father passing away has exacerbated her feelings of built up frustration. Resentment can stem from a number of things, I believe, but this statement caught my attention:

my mother herself does nothing to help matters; she will invariably pretend nothing is the matte

Having a mother myself who often pretends nothing is the matter caused me a lot of frustration and resentment later on when I realized that my frustration as a child was in large part caused by her rather than me. An uncommunicative parent can make a child feel irrelevent. It is likely your mother intended no harm and loves your sister with all of her heart, but if she failed to demonstrate interest in important matters, including the death of her husband, this may be more than your sister can bear.

Not excusing your sister but thinking that the reasons for her behavior are not likely isolated. She needs therapy, your mother too. If I were you I would try to gently keep them apart or encourage light visitation until the recent events have passed by a bit longer so feelings aren't so raw.
posted by waving at 8:36 AM on May 6, 2014

You've described a person with: a home where guests are forbidden; whose spouse is disabled; whose pet is ill; and who claims: being overworked, trouble sleeping, and can't cope with the stress.

The death of a parent, as you well know, is a profound and terrible impact. And it sounds to me like your sister is still in denial and anger. I know for me after the death of my own mother a few years ago (untimely, cancer) caused a renegotiation of our social interactions. I feel much more kinship and love from and for him than I did before. Out of necessity in some ways. I can very easily understand a person who is not coping with their life situation well recalibrating in the fashion you describe. Parents are a source of stability. Even if things are hard, at least *my parents* are there as backup. I think your sister fears what happens if she loses your mother or you, and the way that's expressed is to clutch and grasp at you with desperation and fear. The added dynamic of not allowing people over is magnifying, people need social interaction. I find myself wondering what it is your sister fears will happen if she has you and your mother over? What is the risk there? If it were my sister I would be trying to figure out what that root is, and if there's a way to mitigate that. If nobody ever goes to your sister's house, she's right, nobody can help her at home. Not being able to ask for help is a terrible situation to be in.

I think the lot of you could benefit from grief counseling. That was useful to me and my family and was a lens to help accept what was unfathomable and to accept the crazymaking feelings that often come with grief. I think that seeing a professional one on one is also likely helpful, but broaching that with your sister when she's generally not in a good place to hear it will likely not go well. On the other hand, a grief counselor or support group is likely to be very useful *to you* in getting clarity on techniques you can use to talk, interact and love a person who has lost it due to grief. The key word "boundaries" keeps coming to my mind. There is a lot of good writing on that topic in self help. Here's one.

This sounds all so hard, and I'm sorry this has all happened.
posted by artlung at 8:49 AM on May 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

How did you find out about this? If your mother told you, you may need to set boundaries with your mother that you don't want to hear anything your sister says about you.

I have asked, countless times, but to no avail.

I am currently in therapy for another issue, and able to deal with my grief this way. My sister refuses help and says she does not need any. You can not move her on this.
Also, just to be clear, she was exactly this way before my dad died, it has just become more claustrophobic as i can't avoid her as much.

I find myself wondering what it is your sister fears will happen if she has you and your mother over?
She says the dog, which has slipped discs will 'put his back out' jumping up to her. Oddly she will invite me over if she needs help with anything, but keeps dog in another room.

*will make huge effort not to threadsit!*
posted by noella at 9:03 AM on May 6, 2014

I have asked, countless times, but to no avail.

Asking over and over again but not changing your behavior is not effectively setting a boundary; it's demonstrating that you will let your boundaries be violated.

If it were me, I'd get up and walk away from the conversation, or hang up the phone, or do whatever I needed to do (politely) to make sure I was not participating in those conversations. Ear plugs. Driving away. Blasting music.

You have entirely more power here than you are admitting, or using.
posted by jaguar at 9:08 AM on May 6, 2014 [18 favorites]

OK, I have to admit that I feel so much guilt when all of this happens, that if i am firm with my boundaries I will somehow upset my mother or look cruel.
posted by noella at 9:15 AM on May 6, 2014

Your sister is abusing your mother, and your mother needs an advocate. Is there an elder abuse resource/social service in the UK? Perhaps they can help you by providing information, resources, tips, and more if this isn't brought under control.
posted by Houstonian at 9:16 AM on May 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

I am so sorry about all this. I think your sister has some mental illness needs of her own that are going unaddressed, and your mom is enabling a good deal of this drama, but sadly you are not the right person to manage either one of their needs.

For you, I'd suggest the following. First, tell your mom and sister that you simply can't tolerate this behavior and until your sister can commit to remaining calm and civil, she is not welcome at your home, nor will you be able to participate in any event where she is.

Secondly, tell your mom you not only don't want to hear another word from her about your sister, but that if she talks about her again you will leave the room or hang up the phone. Then do it.

Once there is peace, wait patiently. It is up to your sister and mom to take the steps they need to address their own disruptive behaviors. Take your anxieties about the family situation to your therapy. I also think meditation might help you. You need some distance from the noise and some inner peace.
posted by bearwife at 9:30 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

When you attempt to talk reasonably without shouting, it seems to annoy her if my calmness is an insult to her. This really confuses me, psychologically. It is as if she would prefer me to become as explosive as herself.

Have you ever had a strong emotional reaction to something while someone else didn't get it? For example, you find something really hilarious and you're laughing very hard at it, while someone else sternly says they don't see what's funny. Or how do you feel if you are hurt and crying and someone coldly tells you not to cry?

When your sister explodes, even though she is overreacting and being very rude and there is no excuse for her acting that way, there are real emotions behind it. When she's angry and shouting while you calmly tell her not to shout, it comes across like you don't understand how she feels, and feeling misunderstood makes her angrier.

Instead of calmly telling her how to act, just silently leave. Don't plan things at your house. Visit your mother either at your mother's house or a public space: somewhere you can leave.

if i am firm with my boundaries I will somehow upset my mother or look cruel

When your sister is acting out, your mother is already upset. Your sister is upsetting her, not you.

If you know you are doing the right thing by setting boundaries and holding firm, try to stop caring about how it might look to others who don't understand the context. You have a thread full of people reassuring you that being firm with your boundaries doesn't look cruel to us at all.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 9:38 AM on May 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

OK, I have to admit that I feel so much guilt when all of this happens, that if i am firm with my boundaries I will somehow upset my mother or look cruel.

It probably will upset your mother short-term, and it's hard, I know. But the goal is to get more functional relationships in place, which will make everything much easier long-term.

Do you want this exact relationship with your mother and sister for the rest of your/their lives? If not, you have to make changes, and those changes are going to feel uncomfortable for a while, and your mom and sister will probably push back against them, hard, because right now you're the scapegoat which means neither of them need to deal with their own grief/anger/issues, they just foist them on you.

Dance of Anger is an excellent book dealing with these issues. It gets a little flowery, but there's some solid advice in there, too.
posted by jaguar at 9:45 AM on May 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

So they live in a kind of self inflicted prison

I think you need to stop viewing it that way. Due to my health issues, I was mostly bedridden for about 3.5 months and this was followed by years of being largely housebound. In part for reasons of germ control, I basically never had anyone over. With a disabled partner, mental health issues of her own and an ill dog, I think you need to just view this as "shit happens" and "it sucks to be her" and try to be a little more compassionate and patient. (Yes, I know, "logically" the ill dog could go as a means to make things a bit better but think about that -- she is not whole, her partner is not whole, asking her to get rid of the dog is like saying "You and your spouse are not good enough for anyone to put up with." That's not a suggestion you can make without having her go psycho on you.)

I would have been highly offended if anyone had framed my lifestyle as some kind of neurotic choice. It wasn't at all how I wanted to live and people who dismissed my very real limitations and acted like I was just neurotic were not people I wanted anything to do with. So I suspect your fundamental attitude about her problems is pretty upsetting, even if you think you hide your opinions. There are endless subtle ways to signal such opinions without ever directly stating them.

Your mother sides with her because, according to your description, your sister does a lot more for mom than you do. Your mother is very dependent upon the care and services your sister provides and she has to deal with this mentally unstable person alone much of the time. So you can pretty much bet that as long as that is true, your mom is going to side with your sister and scapegoat you any time there is friction -- for her own protection. That is unlikely to change. She needs your sister more than she needs you and she needs to mollify your sister as much as possible to limit how much crap she has to put up with.

So I suggest you view some of these things as unavoidable and try to tiptoe around this as much as possible. If you can do more for your mom, you might find mom will start handling things differently. If not, I would try like hell to not upset the applecart and try like hell to make sis feel respected. I would go out of my way to emphasize how much appreciate all that she does for our mother and I would go out of my way to be understanding of the fact that she lives with a lot of personal burdens yet still is generous in practical ways to our dear mother. And then I would seek to not engage The Crazy -- to not criticize the ways in which she is kind of nuts, to not focus on them, to not provoke her, etc. I would try to focus on the good and healthy parts and emphasize that as much possible.
posted by Michele in California at 11:29 AM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have been in a very similar situation, and I strongly agree with desjardins and valkyryn.
Disengage whenever you can. Avoid your sister, period. If your mother can't drive to your place, get her a cab. Why should your sister do it? If your mother needs help, help her, or get someone to help her for money or friendship.
Don't reply your sister's calls and block her text messages and mails.
Tell your mother that you don't want to hear about their disagreements, at all. Say goodbye politely and hang on the phone or leave the room if she then continues. (I would go out and clean the dishes or do the laundry, not leave the house). After very short time, this approach worked almost. There were slips, but not nearly the constant drama I'd been used to.
Do I miss my paranoid close relative? Yes I do, very much. But they are no longer the person I miss. And as what valkyryn has experienced, I sense that a change in attitude is beginning, and that things will end well. Not because of my actions, but because my relative is seeing a lot of the same reaction everywhere.
Like many have said, your mother is part of the problem, and as the mother of both of you, to a large degree responsible. I think it would be right and fair to have that conversation with your mother, and also helpful for her. But you can't have that now, before you have decided to set up some boundaries for yourself.

Adressing some of the points above: yes, we all grieve in different ways, and no one can judge how others grieve. But shouting and screaming in the street and abusing close relatives are not acceptable. At all. Just as you must accept others' and their emotions, you cannot impose your emotions on others. My relative has decided there is some sort of hierarchy of emotions, where loud people are more "sensitive" than quiet people, and thus we should accept their drama. For what I know, it might as well be entirely the opposite, but I don't know, since there is no way of measuring who is more emotionally sensitive.
posted by mumimor at 1:29 PM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

You might find this article interesting regarding "high conflict individuals." That label is considered by the author to not be a diagnosis but a "working theory," and that it can be used to plan for better outcomes.
posted by Skwirl at 1:47 PM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel really sorry for your mother. She's just lost her husband - it seems like everyone's forgotten that. Now she's stretched between one daughter who's controlling and loud and hostile (and who undoubtedly thinks it's now her responsibility to take over your mother's life) and another daughter who's mortified that her neighbors might have witnessed a loud argument that took place in her front yard - mortified, basically, because others might find out she has family members who don't know how to behave in public. Shocking.

I'd like to see someone get your mother into some grief counseling and some sort of social service assistance to get her launched into a life of her own, enabling her to set boundaries and hold to them in order to keep control of her own life; it would help if she also learned that she doesn't have to be a pawn between her two daughters - she doesn't even have to answer the door if she doesn't want to.

Where is the deep caring about your mother's pain?
posted by aryma at 10:36 PM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Our friend is grieving, and possibly getting...   |   I am looking for pictures of words, where can I... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.