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Hostility Escalating with my Mother & Sister

QUESTION: I am having difficulty with my Mother and my sister. I am 31 years old, happily married and we have a 5 year old daughter who we love very much.

The problem that I am having is that my sister and I have never gotten along. Throughout my life she has repeatedly hurt me and caused me much embarrassment. She is very dysfunctional, getting into trouble with the law, stealing and lying from family and friends, using drugs, and generally creating havoc wherever she goes. I have forgiven her many, many times over the last 10 years but she continues to go out of her way to hurt me. To protect myself from further harm, and my child, I have had to eliminate her from my life as she refuses to change her ways.

My Mother has spent the last 10 years "rescuing" my sister from the messes she gets herself into. About a year ago she allowed my sister to move in with her. Ever since my sister moved in with my Mother, she has continued on her destructive path and my Mother has complained in great detail to me about the problems my sister has created for her and her partner. I have tried to by supportive and sympathetic, but I am very tired of hearing about the situation. To me, the answer is simple - if my sister can't respect my Mom, her home and her rules, then she should find alternate accommodations. However, when I suggest such a thing, I am personally attacked and accused of "turning my back on my family".

Since my sister has moved in with my Mother, it has made visiting with my daughter very difficult for me. I can't even stand to be in the same room as her. I do not leave my daughter at my Mom's house unsupervised ever since there was an incident where my sister's boyfriend flicked a lighter in her face and my Mother allowed my daughter to sleep with my sister, even though she knew that I would never tolerate such a thing. In addition, I don't seem to be able to get my Mom to clue into the safety precautions required to keep children safe. i.e. wearing of seatbelts in the car, not smoking when she and my daughter are in a confined area without ventilation such as the car, not leaving my daughter unsupervised in her driveway since her house is on a busy street, etc. My mother seems to feel that she can ignore our requests because she feels we are overprotective and paranoid. We have caught her several times completely disregarding our wishes.

The situation recently came to a head and my Mother exploded at me. It is clear that she is upset that I won't forgive my sister and give her another chance and she also upset that I do not allow her unsupervised access to my daughter. I tried to explain my position but my Mother just became hysterical and impossible to talk to. This confrontation really upset me and since I am unable to get my Mom to sit down and talk about the situation reasonably, I wrote her a letter outlining my feelings and limits and citing specific instances where I felt I had been treated unfairly. It was my hope that the letter would clear the air and open the lines of communication so that we could arrive at some sort of reasonable resolution.

What I got back was two letters, one from my Mother and another from my sister which were horrible and abusive to say the least. I was accused of being the cause of everyone's problems since the beginning of time. My Mother was particularly hurtful, accusing me of being ungrateful for the sacrifices she had made for me. She brought up everything that she had ever done for me, including "working long hours to put food in your mouth and clothes on your back". She completely ignored my original concerns and turned the whole situation into a mudslinging contest. In addition, it is obvious that the letter was shared with a co-worker of mine who has chosen to involve herself in our family woes by helping my Mom and sister compose a particularly vicious reply to my letter.

I am very distressed by their response and now I am at a loss what to do. I have written another letter where I have attempted to defend myself and again outline my concerns and limits but I am afraid that this letter will not be received any better than the last one and may be shared with people who have no business being involved in our family problems. My husband believes that I have been more than fair and that I should "write them both off" since they have been so cruel to me. I am not ready to do this with my Mom and want to send the letter and hope that she will eventually hear what I am trying to say. I also do not want to deprive my daughter of a relationship with her Grandmother, since it is apparent that she loves her Nana.

Can you help me with this problem or offer any advice?

You are not the one who is depriving your mother of a relationship with her granddaughter. Your mother is not acting responsibly and it is your job to maintain your daughter's safety and well-being. It is unfortunate that you do not have a mother who respects your parental authority. It is your mother's disrespect for your authority that curtails her access to her granddaughter, not your overprotection.

You are entrenched in the role of "scapegoat" in your family. No amount of "explaining" your views of the situation will work to extricate you from this role. Family research shows that any attempts to explain yourself will only result in further discounting and attack on you to maintain the status quo.

It is not your job to save your mother from your sister's exploitation. Nor is it healthy for you to shoulder the responsibility for bringing "truth" "sanity" or "fairness" to the situation. You are not your family's savior. Focus instead on setting boundaries behaviorally. Your loyalty must lie with your daughter and husband. This does not mean you are "writing your mother and sister off". Their inclusion in your life will depend on their abilities to respect your needs over time.

These are circumstances in which your actions will speak louder than words. Start by setting limits on your mother's discussion of your sister with you. When you spend time with her, tell her that you do not want to discuss your sister with her. Let her know you are interested in talking about other things that interest her outside of this topic. Continued discussions on this subject are toxic and serve only to entwine you deeper in your scapegoat/savior role.

You must also be willing to give up any "strokes" you may have experienced from taking the role of "savior" in your family. An unrealistic sense of overresponsibility is a dangerous pattern which invites underresponsibility in other family members. By letting go of excess responsibility for your sister's and your mother's "bad behavior" you are better assured that such unhealthy extremes are not passed onto the next generation!

Keep in mind that it was your mother's and father's responsibility as parents to meet your needs and your sister's needs. Why didn't your father challenge your mother or step up to help de-escalate the destructive competition that was occurring between you and your sister in childhood? Why did your mother fail to protect you from "overresponsibility" and your sister from "underresponsibility"? It may be helpful to acknowledge that it was not your sister that was the "problem" originally, but your parents' failure to effectively take charge. This in no way excuses your sister's behavior towards you, but it may help to understand that the direction of your anger should have been directed at your mother and father in childhood but was deflected onto your sister, instead. Likewise, continued discussion of your sister with your mother serves to distract you from dealing with your mother's actions.

Do not use talking with your mother about her experiences with your sister as a way to feel close to your Mom. Although you may be vulnerable to becoming seduced into such a discussion, it will only backfire later. The intimacy and understanding you hope for are not attainable in this manner. Be clear about the boundaries, including on the phone. If your mother persists (which she will do!) repeat your statement that you do not wish to speak with her about this topic and politely say "good-bye" if she continues to disregard your request. After setting boundaries behaviorally on an average of three times, you will likely find that she internalizes your request. Do not respond to her hysteria. Expect it and calmly show her the door, or remove yourself from the situation.

Your boundaries should include not only issues about your child's safety, but abusive treatment of you as well. Do not tolerate verbal abuse or accusation. Tell your mother it is not acceptable for her to call you names or scream at you. Label this behavior abusive and remove yourself from her if she persists in it. Your mother's thinking process and behavior resembles that of a two year old to some extent, and so it will be your behavior in following through with limit setting that will be effective and not your words alone.

Because this situation has gone on for so long, change will not be easy. The retaliation you fear will likely occur for some period of time. You may feel guilt, sadness and rage. Your mother may even cut off communication with you. Should this occur, keep in mind that it is not you who are cutting off and maintain an attitude of openness to appropriate contact. For example, continue to invite your mother to your daughter's birthday parties and other family celebrations. Send cards on holidays. Sustain your attitude that you are willing to continue relating within appropriate boundaries.

One of my clients in a similar situation handled her daughter's sadness at missing her grandmother (during grandma's period of incommunicado) by encouraging her to continue to draw pictures to express her feelings (of love) which her daughter sent to her grandmother. After a period of time, my client's mother re-established contact and was able to respect her daughter's boundaries. Family relationships improved and my client used the hiatus of contact with her mother to teach her daughter the values of respect and consideration that became the foundation for future family interactions.

Do not be afraid to handle your daughter's confusion or sadness. Accept that she loves grandma, but that certain things need to change to keep her safe and secure. Clarity will help assure that your daughter is not dragged into the middle of your mother's problems. . Do not make the same mistake your mother made in not clarifying boundaries, even if it makes you unpopular in the short run. If you do not set clear limits regarding your authority now, it is likely that your daughter will suffer consequences similar in some way to the wounds that both you and your sister experienced!

You may also find that individual therapy aimed at helping you understand the role you have played in your family will be an essential part of your healing from the abuse you have endured in this role. It will also help if you become aware of your participation in continuing the dysfunction. You will need outside support to express your own rage and grieve the loss associated with the unresolved needs of childhood. If you do not confront the neglect you experienced in childhood (for example, your mother's lack of protecting you from your sister) you will continue to unsuccessfully attempt to gain love and approval from your mother, without dealing with your own feelings which need resolution. Like "getting blood from a turnip" this will only lead to further frustration and heartache.

If your mother was willing, it might also be possible to utilize family therapy for safe discussion of current issues regarding the safety of your daughter and your own boundaries. However, it has been my experience that in an entrenched system, it is sometimes more effective to focus on your own development which can gradually produce change in the larger family system, over time. If you do seek your own therapy, the timing of family sessions can be explored for maximum impact. It is also important that your individual therapist have training in family systems, and is capable of coaching you through difficult family situations as they arise.

Turn to your husband and friends for support through this process. But do not avoid dealing with your needs and requirements in this situation. Accept responsibility for taking care of yourself and your daughter, but do not accept guilt for your mother's or your sister's behavior. Seek the support of your husband in strategizing ways to handle family situations that arise. Let him help you set boundaries by being available to you to talk to at a family function if tension occurs. Use this as an opportunity for developing teamwork and creating the kind of family you want to have with him.

Do not allow your mother's behavior to undermine your own family relationships! You have a right to the love and bonding with your husband and daughter. Continuing a letter campaign that has been unsuccessful will only drain your energies and distract you from developing your own family. It is likely these destructive patterns have hailed for generations before. You may not be able to succeed at turning things around for the past generation. However, if you pour the same effort into your present family, you will be assured that change will take place for your daughter and generations to come.


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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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