Our resident agony aunt, Rhona McAuliffe, advises a reader who is dealing with an extremely difficult family member
I'm having big trouble with my family, and it never seems to end. I love them all, despite the way they treat me, and I can't help but thinking that I'm somehow in the wrong. I have two sisters, an older and a younger one, and used to be particularly close to my older sister, who now has a large family of her own.
The main time we are all together is for the various religious ceremonies of her kids. Over the past few years I missed a lot of these events as I was with an abusive partner who emotionally manipulated and gaslit me. He didn’t like my sister or travelling down the country and this no doubt put a strain on things. Since I broke with my ex, I came out (I don’t want to go into details here as I will be identified) to my mum and younger sister and am much happier now.
However, since then my older sister, who is extremely conservative, has stopped responding to my texts or calls. At a family celebration recently she was rude and bully-ish to me, encouraging her children to make fun of my weight too. Her eldest daughter also sent me abusive messages on social media, regarding my lifestyle choices, and then blocked me. To say I felt betrayed and devastated is putting it mildly. My mam and younger sister want to stay out of it and say that no-one needs more ‘stress and drama’. I feel ostracised, belittled and ignored and no-one seems to care. I have suffered with my mental health in the past and am aware that the negativity I now associate with my family is not constructive to feeling good. My sister is a bully at best, abusive at worst and despite loving my family I am at the point of just cutting contact with the lot of them. What do you advise?
First up, huge congratulations on extricating yourself from an abusive relationship. Having endured the consistent pummelling of your self-esteem and sanity, finding your way back to a truer version of yourself is a massive achievement. Protecting your mental health should be your number one priority from here, bar nothing.
Mary Karr, the American poet and memoirist, famously said that: “A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it,” which sounds about right to me. Yet, despite this, we are all gunning for the Gilmore Girls experience, or a variation thereof; easy banter and laughs underpinned by a toasty warmth, the bang of unconditional love and a sense of pure safety. There’s so often an expectation versus reality disconnect in the family realm, and herein lies the problem.
Much as we hope that by revealing ourselves to others we will not be judged, this is rarely the case, especially if we are relying on the support and approval of our families. This does not mean that your mum and younger sister don’t support you absolutely but it may mean that they took a while to process your news or can’t quite get their heads around it yet. That’s okay. It sounds like they’ll get there in time, with a reminder that you are not defined by your sexuality, that you are still exactly the same person, if a much happier version.
What’s not okay is that your older sister was told. This was an obvious breach of trust that has had a huge emotional impact on you. We are constantly setting ourselves up for rejection, from a simple swipe left on Tinder, to a work pitch or an updated social status. But none of our routine rebuffs compare to being rejected by your own ‘flesh and blood.’
Your sister, entrenched as she is in the mores of demon-child rearing, appears to have misplaced her sense of compassion and common decency. Despite your mental health struggles and problematic ex, she still went in on you. Not only that, she encouraged her kids to get involved. All of this indicates that this is very much her problem and not yours. Even though as a society we are becoming more open to the concept of sexual fluidity, your sister seems to be wrangling with an abject fear of the unknown. It’s worth noting here that she may never change her views, especially if she’s refusing to even speak to you. And that’s the crux, really. The only way to progress your relationship is if she’s willing to listen to you so that she can understand, not judge.
It sounds like you’ve been very patient to date so, in that vein, I would reach out to her one final time. Either write her a letter, email or send her a text calmly outlining how her and her children’s behaviour made you feel. Write it with all the love you can muster, keeping it short and to the point, seeking to understand how she feels and why she might be reacting so resolutely. If she doesn’t respond, I would follow her lead and stand down. Again, this is her problem, not yours, so standing down is part of detoxifying your life.
Know that you have done everything to salvage the relationship and set boundaries for yourself moving forward. Don’t discuss your sister, or her kids with the rest of your family; drop in to big family events for minimal time; consider reducing contact with your mum and younger sister in the short-term while the fall-out settles etc.
Your mum is in a very tough position and although she seems to be clinging to the fence here, try not to judge her inaction and focus instead on looking after yourself and your emotional wellbeing. Finding a good therapist would be a great start; as would continuing to nurture the positive relationships in your life by building your own harmonious tribe around you.
And when you’re having a tough day, draw strength from the sapient words of Liam Gallagher, who when asked if his rift with his brother, Noel, made him sad, replied: “I suppose I do get sad, but not for too long. I just look in the mirror and go, ‘what a good-looking f*ck you are’.” Best of luck banishing the negativity and welcoming a fresh start.
Rhona McAuliffe might not be a trained therapist but she does have very big ears, quite a long nose and a gaping heart. If you have a problem that won’t just go away, she’d love to hear it. Write to Rhona at [email protected]