Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas

 

Before she died I promised my mother I'd look after my younger sister. She is now 40 and I'm 45. The problem is that she rings me sometimes four times a day, always complaining about her life, her husband, what a neighbour said to her... I feel I'm being used as a kind of free therapist! Her husband has been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, so she does have problems, but he has a good job and is perfectly nice to meet. Is there a syndrome that my sister's suffering from – unhealthy wallowing in impossible situations? She just seems hard-wired to be anxious. Yours sincerely, Jemima

Virginia says... It's quite clear that this promise you made to your mother lies heavily upon you. I could, of course, argue that were your mother able to witness what's going on now, she'd be horrified how much damage your interpretation of her advice is doing you, a daughter I'm sure she was equally as concerned about as her sister. She would want you to stop.

But another way of looking at it would be that, in fact, by listening to her moans, you're not actually carrying out your mother's wishes at all. Instead of helping your sister by listening to her four-times-a-day whining, you're actually feeding her misery. Just by saying, "Oh poor you," again and again and again, you're reinforcing her view of herself as the most wretched person alive. Without you to endorse her sad view of herself, offering endless advice and support, where would she and her misery be?

I'm not suggesting that from the off you should have been more brusque. But I think a year of offering kindness, advice and support is quite enough, and this has clearly been going on for much longer. Okay, her husband's schizophrenic. If he's able to hold down a job and be nice to talk to, his illness is obviously mild, and to be honest most of us are completely barmy in some way or another, though we don't have a diagnosis. But it sounds as if your sister is has more troubles than you can deal with. You say you're her "free therapist" but actually you're not a therapist. You're a complete amateur and your relationship is full of baggage and history that I'm sure gets in the way of your being able to give objective advice, anyway.

The kindest thing you can do is, next time she rings, say: "Look, I'm really worried about you. I've done my best, but your anxieties are getting beyond my ability to help. I think you should see a cognitive behavioural therapist, who you can talk to about all this. I wish you'd go, because I often feel your problems are getting in the way of us having the lovely relationship that we used to have..." or something on those lines.

If you repeat this often enough, and, instead of being sympathetic and helpful when she moans, endlessly advise her to see a professional, she may well stop. If a stray cat comes begging at your door for scraps and you give it food, it'll return again and again. If you refuse to feed it, and, even better, guide to a better source of food, it'll stop pestering you.

 

Readers say...

Swap places

Some people only tell you the bad stuff. When you two talk it is probably an instinct with you to tell the good stuff and conceal the unhappy, the annoying, the disappointing things that happen in your life. Your sister has the opposite instinct.

Try asking her to tell you about something that is brighter, more cheerful. And tell her some of your bad stuff. Whinge a little. Explode the myth of your serenely happy life, which I think she envies anyway.

Helen Bobuk By email

 

Be less available

Tell her you sympathise with her problems, but that you think she would benefit from professional help. If she claims she simply calls to chat, tell her you can't continue as her sounding-board. Make yourself less available, and take control of the conversation when you do talk with her. Suggest it would be more fun to get together with her for "face time", to do something you both enjoy, because family relationships, like friendships, are a two-way street.

Elinor Forbes By email

 

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, I'm 18 and after a few drinks with my mates, I ended up in bed with a girl whose name I didn't know. We were both pretty drunk. We exchanged numbers in the morning, but never got in touch. Now she's rung to say she's pregnant. I don't remember much about the night, but do distinctly remember her telling me she was on the Pill. I feel my life's ruined because of one night. I haven't told my parents as I'm sure they'd be furious. I suggested I pay for an abortion – I'd find the money somehow – and she put the phone down on me. What can I do? Yours sincerely, Jack

What would you advise Jack to do? Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas @independent. co.uk, or go to independent. co.uk/dilemmas. Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucher from the wine website Fine Wine Sellers (finewinesellers.co.uk)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk