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)

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