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Nov 25, 2004
My sister just asked me what she should do, and I really need to get some advice.

I am 22 years old -- my sister (the relevant one) is 18. Family total is six children two parents. Our family life growing up was ... well, dysfunctional. For one thing, my father severely resents being married to my mother and blames her for all the things he didn't achieve in life. He also subconsciously blames his kids for getting in the way. The reason my parents didn't get divorced was that that's just not something we do in my culture. Besides, they were worried about what it would do to the children. I also suspect that my father really does love my mother, but that because he never thought of divorce as an option, he doesn't realize that even if it were an option for him he'd probably not want it.

Anyway, so my parents were always fighting, but I guess that wasn't really the biggest problem. The main problem is that my father is somewhat abusive. Until I was about 12 or 14 he would hit us regularly, sometimes with hangers, brooms, or his belt buckle. He could fly into a rage and throw one of the children across the room, run over and kick him, pick him up and slap him across the face, and throw him down again. Now that didn't happen often, and it never happened to my 18 year old sister because she was in many ways a favorite, but it happened often enough to be a very real threat in the house. Around the time I was becoming a teenager something brought it to his attention that his behavior was completely unacceptable (probably the school authorities when my brother showed up with a hand-shaped bruise across his face) and he made a sincere effort to shape up. Since then he really has gotten much better. Physical punishment in my house is much more limited, and when he flies into a rage he shuts himself up in his room until he calms down. My youngest brother (now 14) is a problem child in many senses of the word, and my father's relationship with him is especially strained, but otherwise he manages to control himself well.

But in addition to the physical violence, which really was never too severe, my father can be extremely emotionally abusive. He doesn't seem to get the concept that people are terribly hurt by what he says or does. He really does love us all dearly, but he seems incapable of controlling himself when he gets upset. That might be due in part to the fact that he was raised by a father much more abusive than he, but no matter -- it's the reality. For example, my father needs absolute silence when he's talking -- if someone interrupts him, he starts talking about "diarrhea of the mouth." Most of us in my family are overweight, and my father constantly makes derogatory remarks about it and us. My youngest sister has recently begun gaining weight, and is very upset about it, but it undoubtedly makes things much worse when he criticizes every bite she eats and talks about how disgusting she is, how little self-control she has, etc. The one sister who was never overweight became anorexic as a teenager, and she explained to me once that because she was always praised for being the one skinny one, and because of all the terrible associations she had with weight, as soon as she put one a few pounds she became obsessed with losing them. Although she has come a very long way in the years since getting help, she is still plagued by the disorder. The worst part of it for all of us, I believe, is having to listen to the things he says about our mother, both in front of her and alone with us. Until recently I was afraid to stand up for her. Although he hasn't hit me since I was 16, I still flinch away when he gets upset. Recently I've begun standing up for my mother, at least when she's around, which doesn't solve anything except that it makes my mother feel a little better...

So... to my 18 year old sister. She went through a period of depression, a brief bout with an eating disorder, some rebellion, and then suddenly decided that she was going to be happy. Since then (it's been a couple of years) she has completely blocked off all of the unpleasantness of her childhood and focusses on the little things in life that are happy. She is remarkably successful at bringing a smile to everyone around her, including my father, but she is also succeeding at blocking off a large part of her emotions. When my father directs some of his abuse at her, we can see her breaking down and then building her walls up again. I've never discussed this with her before because as long as she was living at home, I knew she needed her defense mechanisms. But now that she's gone away to college, it's an issue I've waited for her to raise.

Here's the issue as she framed it to me: She's aware that she has cut herself off emotionally from a good deal of pain she has never dealt with. Of the six children, she has the best relationship with my father, but she knows that deep down she bears a lot of resentment and bitterness toward him -- she's just good at forcing it down. She generally tries to view the world through rose-colored glasses, but subconsciously she's always looking for the thorn -- because she can't believe that anything can really be good or that if it is it will last. None of her friends or mentors know anything about her home life and she can't imagine sharing it with anyone. She wants to know whether it's okay to just go on repressing it.

The truth is that two of our siblings (the two which, with the possible exception of myself, were arguably the most messed-up at one time) have gone on to develop warm, loving, healthy relationships. And it is also true that talking things over sometimes makes them worse rather than better when people have made their peace with the issues. But I am far from convinced that my sister has made her peace with our father and I am very worried that she is at risk for her future relationships because she does not really have a paradigm of what a healthy relationship is. So she wants to know what she should do, and I want to recommend that she seek therapy, but she is a little wary of the idea. Before I discuss all my concerns with her, I want to reality-check them, because I don't want to plant ideas of dysfunction into her mind.

Am I right to worry that she is at risk to enter into an unhealthy relationship as a result of her relationship with my father? Basically, he abuses her emotionally and she responds by hugging him and convincing herself that he really didn't do anything wrong. I am concerned the attitude of smoothing things over when they're really not smooth-over-able might carry into future relationships. I am also concerned about her lack of trusting relationships and the fact that she has never talked to anyone about her emotions related to her parents, which she acknowledges is a huge part of her life. Am I over-reacting?

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