Abusive Sister, Enabling Family

QUESTION

My older sister has been emotionally abusive to me, two younger sisters, and (when they tried to step in and help) my parents.  She has manipulated others in the family to believe that we have mistreated her, even though they will admit that she overreacts to things, and gets upset and lashes out when things do not go her way.  Three siblings said things, in front of the entire family, that were derogatory and very hurtful, even abusive to me (one likened me to the anti Christ, Zeezrom).

The rest of the family has decided to “set boundaries” with her which basically means that there are certain topics they don’t talk about with her, and they let her think they agree with her on other things to avoid confrontation.  My parents had told me they felt it was best if I had nothing to do with her for a long time and said they wouldn’t be part of any gatherings where she was.  Then, a month later they decided to plan a family reunion and invite her.  They set up the stipulation that the current family problems could not be discussed- we were to set aside differences for the two days.  Everyone else felt they could do it and went.  I feel betrayed and hurt.

I confronted my abusive sister, she continued the abusive behavior.  I sought help from my family (who I thought I was safe with) only to be further attacked.  The rest of the family has decided to put it aside and go on as if nothing were wrong, for the sake of the grandchildren.  I think this is dishonest, for one, and extremely dangerous.  They claim they have “set up boundaries” and are safe.  It seems to me that she has abused others, torn the family apart, and yet, is being welcomed to family gatherings.  I feel like I am being pushed out of the family. Of course, nobody is telling me I can’t be part of the family- they say they wanted me to come and hoped that I would feel safe. But I don’t feel safe and when I express this I am told that I am being unforgiving, demanding justice, acting like a child, and expecting the family to shun my sister.

What can I do?

ANSWER

This is a nasty and tricky situation. I wish I could say it was rare but I hear of more and more situations like this.

My response:

1 – There is a HUGE tendency for Christians to confuse forgiveness with accepting a victim role. This is a real misunderstanding of what the love of Christ really means. Christ’s love included both manna in the wilderness (generous) and famine, plague, and flood (loving enough to draw a line in the sand when the people He loved were sinful and thus on a path of self-destruction).

2 – It sounds like your parents have made that mistake. They would rather maintain a “peaceful” relationship with your sister, at almost any cost. You, apparently, are the cost.  Because you appear to be more civilized and reasonable than your sister, your parents figure they can guilt you into cooperating with their choice to negotiate with the family terrorist.

3 – That said, we can’t change other people. We know this, right? You obviously can’t change your sister. You can’t change your other siblings who have sometimes joined in the abusive behavior toward you. And you can’t change your parents who have this distorted view of the Christian Life, seeing it chiefly in “Early Christian Martyr” terms.

4 – What does that leave? As usual, it means we can only address our own beliefs and behaviors. A few suggestions follow.

5 – Honestly examine your own behavior to make sure you are not allowing inappropriate behavior, even abuse on the part of others, to goad you into behaviors that you know are unacceptable and un-Christian. (If you need to, repent.)

6 – Take steps to be personally safe from situations that routinely result in your being hurt. Yes, that means you may need to withdraw from any activity where your sister is present. The same would apply to other chronically hurtful family members.

7 – Don’t waste time feeling resentful that your family seems to be picking your sister’s company over your own. (Therapy can help with that.) If your family chooses to do that, they aren’t healthy enough, at least for now, to risk hanging out with at an extended family event. That doesn’t mean you can never spend time with your parents or other, safe, non-abusive siblings. Just set up times to visit when it is safe or invite them to meet you for lunch or dinner occasionally on safe turf.

8 – Being safe, however, includes that you draw a clear boundary in the area of tolerating recriminations or “guilt trips” that your “safe” family might try to make the subject of your visits. If they can’t restrain themselves, politely but firmly say good-bye and leave.

9 – Once you are consistently safe, you can healthily forgive. You may need to get some therapy to help with that. Some, excellent books can help. Be careful. Not all books on forgiveness are healthy. One terrific book on forgiveness is The Art of Forgiving by Lewis Smedes. He makes a clear delineation between forgiving and reconciliation.

10 – Again, don’t waste time hoping for reconciliation with your abusive sister, other abusive siblings, or even non-protecting, guilt-mongering parents. You will love them more—perhaps it will need to be from a distance—when you don’t let them have the power to hurt you.

11 – There is a phrase that I almost like; “Living well is the best revenge.” Of course, revenge should never be our goal. Let’s say rather, “Living well is the best response.” Be proactive in creating a good life for yourself with healthy, non-abusive friends. Be happy. Live well.

I don’t mean to imply that this is an easy path but it beats the alternatives, hands down. God wants you to be a non-victim. Again, if you need help, talk to a professional who believes the above.

Good luck and best wishes.

P.S. Becoming a non-victim Christian will be the topic of my next book.