Writer and broadcaster

One flat, three sisters and an explosive situation. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

Some years ago, my dad bought a flat with his inheritance from my grandmother to give us, his three childen, a place to live as well as an investment – his intention was to sell the flat later and share any profit. He put the flat in my older sister’s name but we all took equal turns living in it.

My parents subsequently went through a vicious divorce that tore our family apart. After drinking too much, my permanently angry father had a violent row with my sister that ended with him attacking her. Understandably, she didn’t speak to him for years and decided he would never have his flat back.

A few years later, she moved back to the flat – evicting our younger sister and her flatmates.

Last year, the flat appeared on the market and years of underlying resentment erupted. My mum and younger sister threatened to sue (though they have no legal grounds – no contract was in place) and now no longer speak to her or her children, and have cut me out too. My dad is too afraid to confront it. My sister is hurt, saying she had every intention of splitting the proceeds. Though I have defended her for years, she has always had an inflated sense of entitlement.

I accepted years ago that we would never see any of the money and that life isn’t always fair but I fought hard to be independent. However, my husband and I have been scrimping for years to pay our mortgage and are now desperately struggling to save up for IVF after a previous attempt failed. So when my sister recently complained that she hadn’t had a foreign holiday since her last child was born (only a few months ago!), something snapped. As well as giving my dad money to buy his own house, a fraction of the money could have paid for several rounds of IVF. Instead, I must accept that we will probably never have children and feel beyond devastated.

I can’t tell if years of failed fertility treatment has made me unreasonable or if these people are just destructive. I’ve had years of counselling but I am still torn between anger and despair. My older sister was the only one I was close to so should I just tolerate her behaviour, knowing nothing will change? Or should I walk away from them all for good?

Do neither. I’ll explain in a minute. I contacted the psychologist Sherilyn Thompson (itsgoodtotalk.org.uk) about your letter. She thinks the “nugget – the whole issue – is in the last paragraph”, and that you felt, very possibly unconsciously, a great sense of injustice, of things not being fair. Not directed at your sister as such (although, who could blame you) but at life. “I think you’re dealing with a lot of injustice and loss – your grandmother who died, losing the flat, not being able to have children.” And now, your wider family with whom you have no contact.

Also, I get a sense from you that you shouldn’t really feel like this. I wonder if you’ve traditionally been seen as the least “high maintenance” in the family, the one who just got on with things. Your letter was almost apologetic, yet you have much to be, rightly, angry about. “Have you been allowed to feel as you do?” asks Thompson. “There’s a lot in your letter about other people and their feelings, but you only talk about yourself at the end.”

As I’ve said before, you can’t change other people. I know you said you’ve had a lot of therapy, but sometimes you need a top up. Thompson wonders if any of your therapy was about “bereavement, grief and loss and possibly not being able to have a family yourself?”

Those are big emotions and you are allowed to feel them. “You talk of anger and despair – which is basically fight or flight,” says Thompson. “By presenting things in black and white, you are avoiding your feelings instead of asking ‘What is actually going on? What reasonable measured action should I take?'”

There is no glory in the sensible decision. When cornered, or when we’ve had enough, it’s tempting to make a big gesture, but it rarely gives us the result we want. There’s nothing wrong with pressing the pause button occasionally on friends or family.

Thompson feels you should deal with your grief before you try to deal with your sister, but given that you and she had strong bonds before, you may be able to pick these up. We also wonder if you have ever told your sister how you felt. “Have you ever communicated to your sister your sense of loss and vulnerability? She may not be able to help with it, but she could be able to hear and support you.”

I wonder if you’ve all put your feelings about each other into this flat. How might your family landscape look if the flat didn’t exist? Sometimes it’s easier to get angry about a “thing” rather than a person.


This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 25 April 2014.