Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My sister was dating a guy who we thought was an okay guy. They are both in their late 30s. Two months into dating, my sister got pregnant. He is divorced and has a 3-year-old daughter. He makes $700 a week and is struggling to make ends meet, while my sister owns a home and a business. They had discussed his moving into her home so he could “get out of debt.”

After speaking with her therapist, she realized that moving in together was a horrible idea, and she retracted her offer. He completely lost it. As my sister told me more, the red flags were flying high. He has a temper, he’s a narcissist, and much more. So my sister made the most awful decision she has ever had to make and decided to terminate the pregnancy. He couldn’t even take her to the abortion appointment because he’d run out of sick time, nor could he help pay for it. Meanwhile, I’m three months pregnant myself, and the amount of stress and anger this has caused me (and my poor husband, who has had to listen to all this) is beyond words. But I’ve been 100 percent supportive of my sister throughout this whole terrible situation.

Now, two weeks after her abortion, she tells me that she is still with this guy. WHY?!? For the love of all that is holy, WHY?!? I’m so disgusted with her. I already told her I will never have anything to do with this man and he will never be a part of my family. I know that may seem harsh, but given what she told me, I want nothing to do with him. At this point I don’t really want anything to do with her either, because I’m just so disappointed.

My sister is beautiful, talented, funny, and successful, and she is wasting her time with this deadbeat. I know that she’s going to do what she’s going to do, but I don’t know how to handle it.

Stacey


Dear Stacey,

You obviously love your sister and care deeply about her well-being, so I can imagine the pain you are experiencing as you watch her stay in a relationship that you feel isn’t worthy of her. But the best thing you can do for your sister is accept that the choices she makes as an adult are hers and hers alone, and then continue to love and support her unconditionally. (One caveat: If you think the relationship has crossed the line and is abusive, not merely dysfunctional, that is something to seek professional help in resolving.)

Let me be clear that supporting her unconditionally doesn’t mean endorsing her choices. What it does mean is that instead of shunning her and her boyfriend and trying to persuade her to do what you’d like, you focus your energy on listening to her with an open mind. Not only will listening this way allow you to have more compassion for the dilemma she likely finds herself in, but it will also give her the space to hear herself better—no matter what she decides to do.

What you’ll discover when you listen is that inside your sister is a voice that sounds very much like yours. It might be quiet, a mere whisper amid the noise, but it’s there. This voice is what made her receptive to changing her mind about having her boyfriend move in with her. But since we can’t hear others’ inner voices, often when we see someone we care about doing something that seems harmful, we feel the need to say that this person is making a horrible mistake—as if she doesn’t already know this on some level.

Your sister is aware of her boyfriend’s negative qualities (after all, she told you about them), but she also feels some positive connection with him, and on top of that, she’s in her late 30s and she may want to have children. So along with that quiet voice is a louder, panicky one that’s hogging all the attention. Shhh! this voice insists whenever the quieter voice tries to assert itself. This louder voice then convinces your sister that she’ll have an easier time dealing with what’s in front of her—the good and the bad qualities of this man she’s attracted to—than with the loneliness and uncertainty that would result if she let her boyfriend go.

We all have these dueling voices within us that represent a part of us that wants something and another part that goes against the thing we want. Whenever we experience ambivalence, there’s a voice that cheers us on (You deserve better!) and one that holds us back (But you’re almost 40!). You’ve become the representative of the quiet voice inside that she can’t always hear, but instead of amplifying the quiet voice, you’re making it go silent. If you’re doing the talking, that voice doesn’t have to say a word.

For your sister, this has serious consequences: The more you push your agenda—by distancing yourself from her, making threats that you’ll never have anything to do with her boyfriend, and telling her how wrong her decision is—the more your sister will try to defend her position. She’ll also be less likely to confide in you whenever she does see the negative aspects of the relationship but isn’t yet ready to leave, and she’ll move closer to her boyfriend in order to fill the emotional gap created by your disapproval and distance. If your sister is going to make a different decision, it won’t be because of your punitive actions. It will be because the most powerful truths are the ones we come to, little by little, on our own.

This doesn’t mean you should leave her literally on her own—and that’s where your love and support come in. When you shift from persuading to listening, you’ll be helping her get to her own place of knowing, even if what she knows scares her. Anxiety can either motivate us to change or prevent us from changing. If you provide a safety net for the scary truth, she’ll be more likely to acknowledge it and take action. Ask her about her loneliness, her desire to be in a relationship, whether she wants to have a child. Ask her what she likes most about her boyfriend and also what concerns her, even if she decides to stay in the relationship. Ask her what she wants in the person she spends her life with and perhaps raises children with and remember not to say, “But he’s not like that!”—instead, simply listen from a place of genuine curiosity.

What you’re doing by being her loving sounding board is allowing her to hear herself in all of her contradictions. It’s a relief to give voice to these contradictions, because once these two contradictory voices can talk to each other, she can begin to move forward. Keep in mind, though, that moving forward for her may mean creating a future with this boyfriend, so as you listen to her, try to see his good qualities through her eyes. And no matter what happens, bear in mind that consistently modeling a healthy relationship between the two of you will help her raise her expectations of what a caring, trusting, supportive relationship looks like, whether it’s with this boyfriend or someone new.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.