I’m in my 20s, and the child of two people who had previous marriages and children. Growing up, both my parents shared custody with their former partners; at weekends, the house would be full. I believed as a child that this was a blissfully happy family. I was very close with all of my half-siblings and particularly close to one of them.
When I was of primary school age, my parents told me that this sister wouldn’t be coming over because she had decided she didn’t want anything more to do with us. After that I only saw her once. I was devastated.
When I was a teenager, my sister reached out to me and we had a casual virtual relationship over a few years. I stopped when I found out she’d said something negative about my parents. She believes she was the victim of emotional abuse. I would never want to say that wasn’t true as it obviously is for her, but it still makes me unbelievably upset. Although I was younger, I know how much love there was in our family. I feel as if she has constructed a narrative for herself that makes her past seem worse than it was.
When I was at university, I wrote her a long letter; I felt as if she had abandoned me. I was very angry with her, told her my feelings and that, while I understood her pain, I felt as if she had placed all the blame on my father. Her reply was short, and it was clear she wasn’t happy with the way I felt about it and doesn’t want anything to change.
I feel that I’ll never really get over it until I have answers, but I also feel very scared to have answers because it may taint the perspective I have of my childhood.
Should I try to forget and move on, or have a discussion with my parents about it?
As you are seeing, each sibling in a family will have their own perspective on their upbringing. It’s good you acknowledge that, because her truth is no less valid than yours.
I understand you felt abandoned, but she was rejecting your parents, not you. She made some effort to get in touch with you. I wonder how she reacted to a letter that was basically telling her (from the sound of it) that what she did was wrong and how she could put things right? I wonder if a more inquiring letter might have opened the conversation more, but I also understand that you fear tainting your own memories. What do your other siblings say? Might they paint a fuller picture for you?
I contacted Hilda Burke, a psychotherapist (psychotherapy.org.uk), and she acknowledged that you have a “core belief of a blissfully happy childhood and your half-sister’s perspective really shakes that belief”. Burke also felt that, for whatever reason, you instinctively understood – even as a child – that to talk about your own “feelings of confusion and loss would upset your dad/parents further”. So you suppressed your own feelings. There was a strand throughout your longer letter that somehow you felt, or still feel, your parents’ feelings were more important than yours.
And yet, to have a sibling disappear out of your life, with no real explanation or space for you to ask questions, is no small thing. No wonder you were devastated. I wonder if being angry at your sister is easier than being angry at your folks?
Burke also talked to me about the drama triangle. In this there’s a perpetrator, a victim and a rescuer, and you seem to have given yourself the role of rescuer. Whatever happened, happened between your half-sister and the adults, “and you’ve inserted yourself into it and want to rescue it and make it all right,” Burke suggests. But it’s not your job to make it OK.
You clearly can’t forget about it. What I have done with highly complex family situations is, over time, listened to as many people’s versions of their truth as possible and eventually formed my own edit. When you feel stronger, perhaps you can do this and apply some critical thinking to the situation – always a good skill to learn in life, because things are rarely black and white.
You and your sister seem at the opposite ends of the memory spectrum: hers dark, yours all bright, “and you may need to live with the greyness of things,” Burke says.
I would also consider a less contentious approach to your sister; she clearly means a lot to you. Childhoods are rarely totally idyllic or awful but made up of a patchwork of real-life incidents.
• Send your problem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
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