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July 16, 2012

David asks…

Dysfunctional family advice – what do you do when the other adults in your life act like children?

This is long, but it’s really more of a rant than anything, so even if I get no answers, at least I was able to blah it out without passing on the stress to someone else in my family. LOL.

I’m 28 and come from a family of six siblings (girls = 34, 32, me, 18 and almost 17, boy = 12), all from the same mom. We didn’t have the greatest childhood…poor, mom was always working, sometimes she’s been a little crazy, but usually well-meaning and tries to do right by us. For some reason, my oldest sister (34) and my mom (54) have just never been able to get along. Since I was a teenager, they have been shouting at each other, throwing things at each other, calling the cops on each other, my mom kicking her out, my sister threatening a restraining order, etc.

They keep getting into financial relationships with each other (living together, my mom helping my sister get auto financing and cheap insurance, my sister renting a house from my mom) when they don’t even get along personally. Whenever something goes sour, they have a blow-up, bring up every wrong from the past and I have to hear them both bashing each other and trying to get me on their side. The same thing happens to the 32-year-old, who is full sisters with my oldest sister. Our younger siblings and my 13-year-old niece either witness these fights or are put in the middle by these two. They live a block from each other, but I moved 20 minutes away to have some space.

Today they got in a fight over my sister not paying rent, a Jerry Springer-esque shouting match in the street, my mom called the cops, etc. and the 18-year-old called me crying because she happened to be at my sister’s on the way home. So, I comforted her and invited all the kids to stay here if they wanted to get some distance. Then, my mom comes over to see my six-month-old and unloads her side of the story. After that my sister calls and tells her side…both obviously trying to get me to agree with them.

I just tell them it’s best to keep business and personal stuff separate and try to let them know the other one actually does love her and my sister moving a couple of hours away will probably be good for both of them. I try not to “agree” with either, but express “understanding” for their feelings. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope and it makes me nauseous. The 32-year-old feels the same way. And while none of the kids are in danger, I hate that the older teenagers are getting drawn in. They both have the same type of resentful personality, so even hinting at them being in the wrong draws very defensive feelings. I’ve written letters in the past, had a pastor at church help me edit them, etc. to try to get my point across nicely…and ended up being ignored for months or trash-talked to other relatives for it.

They just seem caught in this dysfunctional relationship that will never heal because neither of them will pause in the heat of the moment and say, “Is this fight really worth it?” My mom won’t admit how much she hurt my sister as a teen/young adult and my sister won’t stop blaming my mom and really start fresh. When calm, they both admit the other has done a lot for them, but they are like opposing forces when together. I got kicked out by my mom at 18, the week I found out I got into Stanford, for refusing to get in the middle of one of their fights. Since then, every time they do this, it brings up frustration and stress I thought I had let go of and as a new mom, I really don’t want any part of it.

How do I deal with a situation like this? My husband and I both come from “troubled” families, but are trying to raise our new daughter in a stable environment. How can I “be there” for my loved ones without getting pulled in and getting so stressed? How can I help my siblings and niece out without making it “my job” to fix my family?

Any advice from other adults who have crazy families?

Administrator answers:

Sounds like you care and have tried all the right avenues to help them. Although they hurt each other, the fact that they keep coming back for more and behaving in the same way indicates that they both get something from this destructive behavior.
Remember: you are only responsible for your behavior. It is important for you not to become inbroiled in these disputes. SO refuse to discuss the fights because they upset you. It may take a year or more of being consistent but if you refuse to let them dump an acid bath or left over anger and “guess what she did?” information on you, you can make them stop pulling you in. If you give in even once though, its back to square one. They will resist and other family may not support your position because no matter how bad it is, everyone is used to people playing their roles. If you step out of your role in the drama, you bad girl, you will be corrected and directed back to your place so that everything goes on like it always did.

About fixing. You can be an example and teach the younger ones that your mother’s and sisters’ behavior is immature and destructive. You know (YOU MUST know or you wouldn’t be trying to change them) that you don’t just learn from good examples. Sometimes our best lessons from our elders are the “that looks stupid or miserable and I’m never gonna be like that” examples. You can offer the positive example, their is the negative.

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