By Esther Mann

Dear Esther,

My sister Freeda has always been high maintenance. As far back as I can remember, enough was never enough for her. We are three years apart and couldn’t be more different from one another. As Freeda is the youngest member of our family, I do believe my parents and even my siblings played in to her neediness or maybe they were part of the reason she became that way.

Anyway, when Freeda got married four years ago, we were all thrilled. She had dated various men for a long time but no one was ever good enough. When she started dating Ephie, she actually gave him a chance. Ephie seemed like a very nice guy who doted on her constantly, and, most important, he was very easygoing — nothing seemed to bother him or be a big deal for him. All their decisions were based on what Freeda wanted; he didn’t seem to care at all about getting his way. We were all thrilled for Freeda that she met the perfect man for herself, and, honestly, we were relieved that someone else would assume the burden of her constant demands.

When Freeda told us that she and Ephie were getting divorced, we were devastated in many ways, though not entirely shocked. We’ve heard her version of what went wrong but don’t totally believe her reasons. We saw how she treated Ephie and how his needs were never addressed. My guess is that Ephie finally couldn’t take it anymore. Ephie has never badmouthed her and so we don’t know anything for sure, but it would make a lot of sense that Ephie couldn’t put up with her selfishness, neediness, and bossiness anymore.

My problem is that Freeda has told us she is planning to move with her two-year-old daughter to my neighborhood. Though my parents live in Brooklyn and my other siblings don’t live that far away, I’m the only one who lives in the Five Towns. My parents have already told me they expect me to be there for Freeda and her daughter, even though they must know what a huge burden that will be on me. In a certain way, they have always cared more about Freeda than the rest of us, and now that Freeda’s a single mom, my mother is constantly telling me what I will have to do when Freeda moves in. My mother expects me to invite her every Shabbos for meals, introduce her to all my friends and include her in all of our get-togethers, check in with her if I’m going shopping to see if she needs anything, etc. And most of all, I’m to keep my eyes open for eligible young men to set her up with.

I want to be a good daughter (much more so than to be a good sister, since with Freeda it’s impossible to ever be good enough). I know my parents are worried about her and see me as her savior. However, I have a husband who also has his own needs and requirements, two children of my own, and a fine life that I’ve built that I don’t want to sacrifice. That’s what I see my life becoming when Freeda moves in — a total sacrifice. I’ve hinted to my parents that I will be nice to Freeda but that I can’t turn my life upside-down for her. My parents don’t want to hear anything negative from me and are in complete denial about how things will play out. They have huge expectations about how things should be, and I’m frightened that I’m about to step into a major storm once Freeda moves here in three months. By the way, my husband has never been Freeda’s fan; he sees her as selfish and has a hard time being around her.

What am I to do? I know I will inevitably be letting people down, but I just don’t know what I am required to do and when I have to just say no and accept the consequences.

Divided

Dear Divided,

From the way you describe Freeda’s personality, it sounds as though she is the type of high-maintenance individual who can never be fully satisfied. Some people are like bottomless pits. They never get filled up. You can try, and maybe even make a small impact, but ultimately one insufficient move and all bets are off.

I’m guessing your parents think highly of you and believe that you can save the day. Or at least they desperately want to believe that under your influence, Freeda will change her ways and find a happier life. That’s a tremendous responsibility they are putting on you, and, honestly, they are asking you to forfeit much of your present life in the hope that a miracle will happen. Like all parents, they want the best for Freeda and are worried about where she goes from here. Parents never stop hoping and dreaming for a miracle, because it is painful for parents to watch their children act badly, make bad choices, and fail to thrive. It seems that your parents see you as a success story and don’t spend much time or energy worrying about you. They probably believe that no matter what, you’ll be fine. You are realistic enough to recognize the potential danger that lies ahead for you.

It sounds as though the time for suggesting a different place for Freeda to live is long gone. The possible tsunami is on its way and you’re in its path. Now you’re wondering how to protect yourself. I’m thinking that you feel a certain level of love and concern that will keep you involved with Freeda to some degree, but the question is to what extent. What are you prepared to do for her, and what do you feel is too much and might threaten the harmony you’ve created within your own family?

My first suggestion is that you sit down with your husband and discuss boundaries that work for both of you. No doubt it will be a negotiation, but at the end of the day, your husband’s happiness must come first. For example, perhaps he never wants to see Freeda ever, while you feel comfortable having her for Shabbos every other weekend. So maybe you’ll have to settle on inviting her once a month. Whatever compromise both you and your husband feel that you can manage must be honored.

Next, think about yourself. You’re allowed to consider your own needs. In what ways can you be helpful to Freeda that will not impact you too negatively but still help her manage as a newly single mother? Helping her out with errands or suggesting that she drop off her daughter once a week so that she has more free time might be something that won’t cause you any heartache. But if you feel that including her with your friends would compromise those relationships, maybe that’s not something you’re able to do.

Finally, have an honest talk with your parents. Deep down, they know the real deal. Give them a heads-up regarding what they can and cannot expect from you so that you can hopefully avoid constant clashes over this and that. They probably won’t be happy to learn that you are not planning on making Freeda the center of your life right now, because it’s easier for them to dream of happy endings. Eventually, they will have to swallow the hard truth that it’s not OK to sacrifice one life for another.

Unless Freeda suddenly had an epiphany and has changed her ways, this will be a challenging time in your life. From day one, it’s important that you have a solid plan and that you stick to it and not allow your parents or Freeda to guilt you into losing perspective and going down a road you will quickly regret traveling. Thinking optimistically, maybe Freeda will find a happier life out here for herself. This is a wonderful community! You can suggest that she join the Kadima group at the JCC, which offers excellent emotional and concrete support for divorced women. Let’s hope she begins to figure things out for herself and emerges emotionally stronger and happier from her challenges. In the interim, you can continue to feel safe and in control.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone sessions. She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295. 

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