Writer and broadcaster

My safe haven feels at risk now that my sister has moved in. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

My parents’ relationship was difficult: there was adultery and violence. They divorced when I was 10 and my sister 12. It was a long, acrimonious period. My dad fought to have us live with him – which we did not agree with; he exposed us to pornographic photographs of my mother and other women, and there was general neglect when he had contact with us. We have had little contact with him since.

I was protected from a lot of what was happening. I got on well with my dad on the whole; he liked and favoured me. This isn’t to say he didn’t terrify and hurt me sometimes, but he was really awful to my sister.

My mum and sister have a strange relationship: my sister is very dependent on my mum, but is often awful to her and seems to punish her for the events of our childhood. My mum now has another relationship and although I adore my stepdad, my sister does not. The relationship between my mum and stepdad is often fraught, with me mediating. I also become engaged in conversations with my mum and sister separately bitching about the other. I hate it and wish not to become embroiled any more.

This is now complicated by the fact that my sister is temporarily living with my boyfriend and me.

My boyfriend and I have a calm, loving, relationship and that’s how I want my home to be. It feels as if my safe haven has been compromised, but I would never ask her to leave before she is ready to do so.

I have worked hard to create a life that is stable and calm and I feel better than ever before. Yet I feel terribly guilty having these thoughts about my beloved family. Sometimes I wonder if it would be good to have some kind of therapy, but fear the things I might recall and feel happier that they remain repressed.

The big thing here is guilt, which is binding you to certain behaviour: guilt because you are relatively OK compared with your sister, or perhaps because your father favoured you. You say you were protected growing up, but it doesn’t sound as if you were, and you need to acknowledge how divisive and destructive your childhood was. It wasn’t up to you to make your childhood (or your sister’s) OK – that was your parents’ job. But now you are all adults and in charge of your own lives and happiness, not anyone else’s.

I consulted family psychotherapist Dr Dorothy Judd (aft.org.uk). She thinks this is a very complex situation with “lots of insecure and anxious attachments” and “one of your parents giving very mixed messages”. Judd points out there are many triangles in your life: “You, your mother and sister”, “you, your sister and your boyfriend” and “you, your mother and your stepdad”.

She wonders why you get caught up in these “high-drama triangles” and what stops you letting people be just a couple – why you step in to analyse/mediate? That isn’t meant to be accusatory, but to help you think about your place in things. I wonder if you grew up feeling that if you weren’t there as intermediary, something bad would happen?

I asked Judd about guilt and she explained that there was “healthy guilt” and “persecutory guilt” and the latter, if allowed to become extreme, could become masochistic. She wondered if you were dealing with other people’s problems to your own detriment, almost as a form of self-sabotage?

You really need, now, to protect the relationship with your boyfriend – something that brings you calm and happiness. Never mind about when your sister is ready to move out – think about when you want her to move out.

You can’t sort out your mum or sister – that’s up to them. All you can really do is change your attitude, and your place in that triangle. Judd thought it might be worth looking carefully at the part you play. She said: “When we get overly caught up [in a situation], we have to say: how much is this them and how much is this about me?”

What do you think would happen if you didn’t get involved in these drama triangles. Do you think you could try it next time? Make non-committal noises/change the subject/walk away? You may be surprised.

Therapy can be daunting, but you are “psychologically held” in therapy – it’s not like talking to a friend/family member, and you don’t have to take any responsibility for the therapist. And as Judd pointed out, your feelings aren’t “repressed” – you are simply keeping a lid on them and that’s not healthy in the long term.

You need to ringfence your own life. Care up to a point, then realise that too much caring isn’t helping, yet it has the potential to damage you. Think of it like a lifeboat – if you invite too many people on, you risk sinking your own boat.


This article first appeare in the Guardian Family section on 30 May 2014.