Help! My Parents Treat Me Like a Princess and My Sister Like Dirt.

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 30 2012 6:00 AM

Confessions of a Favorite Daughter

My parents’ blatant favoritism made me a narcissist and my sister depressed. Is it too late for me to stop it?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie,
I am a 23-year-old woman, and I have a sister three years younger who has always been treated as a second-class daughter by our parents. I was always "the smart one," "the slim one," "the determined one," while my sister was constantly told that she was dumb, fat, and lazy. This has created massive psychological problems for my sister: She is unemployed and barely got through high school. (My mother did almost all of her homework.) She lives with our mother, suffers from eating disorders, depression, and, in the past, substance abuse and cutting. I dealt with my own effects from the favoritism, which included narcissism and difficulty empathizing until I was in my teens. But I have been successful at school and work. My sister and I have spoken candidly about this blatant favoritism and have managed to piece together a fairly healthy relationship. I thought that there is not much point in risking estranging myself from my parents over this issue. But recently I was out with my mother and she made a comment to me about how when I was a baby, she and my dad would spend hours just gazing at me, how she never did that with my sister, and how I was “just easier to love.” That made me think it may be necessary to confront my parents about their favoritism. I just don’t know how to go about this, especially since I want to be a responsible advocate for my sister and not make things worse for her.

—Golden Child

Dear Golden,
Let’s go back to Psychology 101. Perhaps your mother, upon your birth, felt you fulfilled her ideal vision of herself. Here was a perfect, beautiful being that she created, a manifestation of everything she wanted to be. Then your your sister came along, and your mother projected onto her all her own worst qualities. As long as your mother’s own negative traits were embodied by your sister, you and your mother could mutually reflect only golden things back to each other. This is all armchair speculation, of course (my métier), but what’s indisputable is that your parents were grossly destructive and both their children have paid a price. I applaud you for recognizing the continuing damage your parents are doing to your sister, for having the desire to help her, and for recognizing there was a cost to being the perfect one. It’s also admirable that you have forged an honest and supportive relationship with your sister. How sad for her that she is so emotionally disabled that she’s now trapped with the abuser who shredded her sense of self. For advice on how you approach trying to change things, I spoke to Washington D.C. psychologist Ellen Weber Libby, author of The Favorite Child. Libby advises that you should use your privileged position with your parents to say there’s something you would like them to do for you to make you a happier person.

Say that your relationship with your sister is very important to you, and you want it to be improved. You can say you feel the family is not functioning as well as it could, and you would like all of you to go to family therapy together. It’s unclear whether your parents are divorced, but even if they are, if they are on reasonable terms they could attend together. Libby’s hunch is that your mother will refuse, so in that case say it would be a great gift to you if your parents could pay for you and your sister to go to therapy together. (She suggests looking for referrals at the the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy website.) Whether or not you are successful in recruiting your parents, once in therapy you and your sister can explore the burdens of one child being all good, the other all bad, and the psychic distortions imposed on you by your parents. But the ultimate goal is helping your sister forge a healthier identity and personal independence. Your sister is still a young woman and as terrible as things have been, Libby says that with the right help she can begin the process of creating a completely different life. She’s lucky she has you on her side.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My husband "Jack" was raised in poverty by a single teenage mother, and she refuses to tell him, or anyone, who his father is. The last time he asked her was more than a decade ago. She told him it was none of his business and never to ask again or she would stop speaking to him. His siblings know who their fathers are; only Jack has been left in the dark. The lack of family history caused him a tremendous amount of embarrassment and condescension growing up. Even now it’s awkward in social situations. As a result, he is highly self-conscious about his background. I'm proud that he was able to pull himself out of poverty and become successful. However, he still feels a strong sense of loss and wants to know who the man is, even if he never meets him. Now that we are considering children, we are also concerned about potential health issues on his father's side. Should we bring up the subject of Jack’s father again to my mother-in-law? Are there any options if she continues to refuse to tell?

—Looking To Open Pandora's Box

Dear Pandora,
Indeed there may be things that fly out of the box that your husband should be prepared to contemplate. It could be that your mother simply doesn’t know who Jack’s father is because there are too many candidates. It could be that she doesn’t know because she was raped. It could be that she knows, but she has kept her mouth shut about the father, uncle, or cousin who sexually assaulted her, and she’s determined to keep that horror a secret. Her dismissive behavior toward Jack is indefensible, but I doubt she’ll change. You two could approach her and say whatever the truth is, however painful, you hope she can understand how much Jack wants to know. Be prepared to be rebuffed. Hiring a private investigator is a next step, but that could be costly, and without Jack’s mother’s cooperation an investigation might not produce an answer. I understand there’s a hole in Jack’s life, but maybe it would help him be at more peace to realize he’s not alone. Many people never knew their fathers. Jack Nicholson is one. Bill Clinton is another. Clinton was told his was a traveling salesman who died before Clinton was born. But research by Clinton biographer David Maraniss raised some doubts and Clinton’s paternity remains unclear. You two shouldn’t worry about what might be lurking in Jack’s unknown father’s gene pool—usually there’s nothing dramatic, and Jack’s good health should reassure you both. As for social awkwardness, you husband needs to practice saying with confidence and equanimity, “My father was not a part of my life.”

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
After five years together, my partner and I have decided to get married. I've been starting the wedding planning and drawing up the guest list. My problem is whether to invite my uncle. He served as a state elected official and during that time he voted in favor of our state's constitutional ban on gay marriage. A part of me thinks that I should send the invite in the hope that he attends and changes his mind. However, another part of me doesn't want him present at this event if he isn't supportive. I don't want to offend my parents or any other family by not inviting him, and his absence would indeed be notable. At this point I'm leaning toward not inviting him.

—Gay Wedding Invitation Blues

Dear Blues,
Invite him. I agree with you that the world is changing and often it is one wedding at a time. Ever since the emergence of homo sapiens, every family has had homosexuals. But until recently many of them were closeted, in heterosexual marriages, or were the confirmed bachelor cousin or spinster aunt. But now gay and lesbian family members are living openly and entering same-sex marriages, and people who oppose marriage equality for gays are having to address it on the most personal level. (Here’s an article about politicians whose minds have been changed by loved ones.) Perhaps your uncle believed in his stance, or maybe it was political expediency. But even if he was a true opponent, give him the opportunity to show that he’s open to considering that he was wrong. If he declines your invitation, so be it. But if he comes, your graciousness and happiness will be your most potent argument.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I am a 19-year-old girl who is an identical triplet. All of us are tall, thin, and have curly red hair. We all attend the same state university because it’s cheapest for our parents. Both of my sisters met their boyfriends within the first month of school and are in committed relationships. I don’t have a boyfriend, although I’ve dated a few guys. The problem is that people don't know we're identical triplets, so they think they see one red-haired girl holding hands with one guy, then a few days later they see her kissing another guy, and a few days after that they see her with the first guy. Then they see me with different guys. People have started treating us nastily because of this. I’ve had people come up to me and threaten to tell my “boyfriend” I’m cheating on him. I'm considering transferring because of this even though it would be a lot more expensive. What should we do?

—Seeing Triple

Dear Triple,
The first week of school the three of you should march to your college newspaper and tell them you have a story for them. Your picture together and your funny anecdotes should soon be splashed all over the front page. Within a few days, instead of being called the scarlet woman, expect to hear, “Hey Red, which one are you?”

—Prudie

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