Unhealthy family dynamics revolve around the expectations they place on their children to compensate for their own inadequacies and failures. This results in destroyed sibling relationships, and continuous estrangement over years that is rarely, if ever, understood.
When these social dynamics cause a person nothing but pain, do you sometimes wonder what you should do? Should you struggle to maintain connections and “do the right thing” by staying in touch with abusive or domineering siblings, or simply do what is best for you and walk away? Sometimes the answer is just that simple. Walk away. Save yourself. Create happiness for yourself and don’t look back.
I was born the 7th of 9 children, Irish Catholic. I came of age in the early 1970s and 1980s in Portland, Oregon, on the NW side of town when it was a lower income haven for drunks and struggling families. In my family, there were definitive roles that we kids were to fulfill.
I acted as my younger sister’s protector, a role my father handed me, whether I wanted it or not. He explained it was my job to make sure she was safe and to look after her. My younger sister was almost two years younger than me and was encouraged by our father to be all the things I could apparently not be: adventuresome, playful, a risk taker and, ultimately, lovable. I was not encouraged to be any of those things.
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My sister was given the license to do well by my father, who seemed far more interested in her success than in any of his other children. And it seemed to me that during our life, my younger sister held the belief that she was the holder of a particular flame. The flame of success, of achievement and of the accolades that would rightly be hers, bestowed on her by our father’s attention, love and approval and her own hard work.
She pursued that flame and did well in high school while writing for the school paper. She studied the violin and became a musician of some skill and went on to do well with her music as an adult.
It always seemed to me that my younger sister had been given a treasure trove of my father’s love and approval, but for some reason, I could not inspire that same response in him. I knew this from the time my little sister was an infant. I was often ignored, for days at a time, and my attempts to gain his attention were met with indifference and rejection. Particularly, when I was a small child. I was annoying; she was amusing. I was tentative; she was a risk taker and fun. I would be punished for the same misbehavior that would get her smiles and amusement.
I learned early that our roles were as different as night and day and while she got so much, I received virtually nothing from my father during those early years. As a result of these dynamics, I had little self-confidence and typical life lessons came to me late. My path would be different.
After high school, with what I was given from both of my exhausted parents, I simply did the best I could. I married a man I thought was decent only to discover he was an abusive, power-hungry misogynist who would never be a satisfactory mate. I kept his emotional and physical abuse to myself and told no one. To deal with my loneliness and social isolation, I began writing in a journal and reading voraciously, studying poetry, cinematic history and psychology and dreaming of one day attending college. I tried to create a life for myself that was uniquely my own and separate from my younger sister.
But I found that the older we got, the more our lives became polarized and completely dissimilar. She traveled the world, while I stayed at home and tried to create a foundation for something. She was a party girl and had numerous lovers; I was tentative and introspective in my relationships with others and the way that I lived. We had less and less in common as our personalities formed and solidified.
And all during this time, though we both proclaimed to care for and love each other, we could not transcend the limiting strictures of the family dynamics our father had given us. She seemed to be the most supportive and sympathetic towards me when I was not happy or doing well, which always perplexed me. If I was happy or doing well, she would find reasons to tell me how I was not living up to my potential or that I was “afraid of life.” If I was excited about a potential job interview or a home improvement project I was involved in, there would be a plethora of reasons why my choices were wrong or my activity a waste of time. Because I was an obvious introvert and she an extrovert, my way of living was inferior and wrong, according to her, while her way of living was what I should aspire to. “Life has the potential to be a blast Theresa! You should do what I do and travel, go to parties and have fun. Stop being afraid of life!”
I preferred to stay at home and read and study (as a classic introvert), often reflecting on things that never crossed her mind. This preference was unthinkable to her. I was simply wrong, in her estimation, as I’d apparently been wrong so many times in the past, when my father expressed his constant disapproval at my behavior or attitudes of tentative shyness and restraint. His disapproval was something she had often witnessed and it became apparent to me, that this was something she felt she should continue. Passing judgment on me and presuming she has the authority to dictate to me how my life should be lived.
I dealt with years of her callous judgments and years of her interference in my life, all during my 20s and 30s. During these times we had numerous, loud, angry, arguments about our differences which we could never seem to resolve.
**End of Part One. Tune in December 21 for Part Two.**