Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I have a younger sister who is very talented and well-liked. She is now dating someone seriously. I know this guy personally and think he is an all-around incredible person. So I am very excited for her and hope this works out.

At the same time, I have reservations. As a family member, I know a side of my sister that outsiders don't see. She is very insecure to the point of paranoia, suspecting everyone close to her of trying to undermine her. She has alienated all of her family members to the point that we tiptoe around her emotionally for fear of either an explosion or the passive-aggressive silent treatment.

It is most likely that my sister's issues will play out in a marriage. Yet she insists that the “real her” is the one that everyone admires, and she claims that we underestimate her. I certainly don't want to stand in the way of her getting married. Yet, frankly, I feel very bad for this guy.

I would love her to get counseling, but she refuses to even entertain the suggestion.

My question is: What can I do to help ensure she has a happy marriage?

Monica

Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Rosie and Sherry's Answer:

Dear Monica,

We understand the dilemma you’re facing. You’re concerned about how your sister’s less-than-pleasant ways of relating to your family may affect the relationship with this man she may marry. She hasn’t been receptive to suggestions to get the help you feel she needs to cope better with life, and you’re afraid that without it, her marriage will suffer. You don’t want to stand by and watch a potential disaster unfold, but you don’t know how to reach her.

The first question is whether your concerns are valid. After all, outside of your family, your sister seems to be a lovely, well-adjusted young woman – in sharp contrast to the needy, distrustful, temperamental person she acts like in front of her family. Which is the “real” her? Can she continue to keep her unpleasant side “in check” when she’s not with her immediate family?

Most of us display different personas, or aspects of our personalities, depending on whom we are interacting with at a particular time. That’s why your sister can be the warm, personable, giving and cooperative young woman that her friends hold in high regard, and display less pleasant character traits when relating to her family.

Family members may have undermined her efforts or betrayed her trust.

What your sister doesn’t realize is that all these traits comprise who she is. She may think that she only acts in a less-than-pleasant manner with her family, and would never do the same with other people. To some degree, that’s probably true. Many of a person’s unpleasant ways can be unique to the family dynamic. For example, sisters who fight each other “like cats and dogs” quite possibly never act that way with others.

It’s also likely that your sister’s insecurity and the distrust she feels toward family members have some basis in your shared family history. There may have been times when she felt deprived of the love, attention or support that she needed or wanted, and developed an expectation that this would often be the case. In the past, some family members may have undermined her efforts or betrayed her trust. Or they may have given her inconsistent messages – such as a parent praising a grade your sister received, and in the next breath complaining that she doesn't have any common sense in other areas of life. She may have learned to protect herself from hurt feelings by telling herself that her family can’t be relied upon or trusted. She may be harboring feelings of anger or resentment – and easily lash out at family members – because she hasn’t worked through those feelings.

Emotional Triggers

You’ve told us that your sister doesn’t feel that she needs help in this area, because she genuinely believes that she only behaves in a certain way with her family. What she doesn’t realize is that these behaviors can spill over into other areas in the future – because these behaviors have become part of her arsenal of coping and reacting mechanisms. It’s easy to hold them in check if a friendship doesn’t get too intense, or when she’s dating someone a few times a week for a few hours at a time.

However, if she’s under stress, or someone she cares about innocently does something that triggers those unpleasant feelings of being betrayal and disappointment, she may react in a way most familiar to her. She may believe this will never happen, and she certainly doesn’t want to act this way. But unless she has learned a healthier way to react to these triggers, she may not have much control over her reactions when those buttons are pushed.

That's why it's important for your sister to speak to someone who can help her address the underlying feelings that contribute to her behavior and develop new tools to deal with them. This can be a cognitive behavioral therapist, or a psychotherapist who specializes in helping clients develop relationship skills. Your sister will learn healthier ways to react when someone disappoints or upsets her. This will unquestionably have a positive effect on her marriage and on her relationship with your family.

She needs to find healthy ways to process her negative emotional triggers.

However, we don’t think that you’re the right person to discuss this with your sister. She won’t “hear” what anyone in the family tells her – because she believes that you do not value who she “really” is. You’re better off thinking of someone she respects and who likewise holds her in high regard. It may be someone who is aware of your family dynamic and understands why she displays one persona with your family and another with outsiders. This person will be in the best position to influence her to find healthy ways to process her negative emotional triggers.

The person who speaks with her should also encourage her to see the man she is dating in different venues, so that they can see different sides of each other and how they react in different situations. They should also take a few “day-long dates,” where the factors of hunger and fatigue may bring some issues to the fore. This will give her added incentive to address her issues, because she will have a difficult time hiding them in all situations.

Perhaps most important, this person should strongly recommend that if she becomes engaged, she and her fiance attend any one of the fine marriage preparation workshops (such as the Shalom Workshop in New York, or Prepare and Enrich worldwide) that we anyway feel should be mandatory for every engaged or newly-married couple.

After your sister has been presented with the idea that learning healthier ways to interact will be good for her marriage and personal life, you have to step back. If she’s not receptive to the suggestions, understand that you can only intervene so much. (For example, in this particular situation, we don’t recommend that you tell the man she’s dating about her difficulties.) And if she agrees to get help, it’s she who will have to do the work. You can show her love and support, no matter what she chooses. But whatever the case, she and the man she is dating will need the clarity to figure out if they are right for each other, and then gain the tools to work together to build a flourishing relationship.

Rosie & Sherry