Carolyn Hax: Worries about a sister’s post-breakup behavior

October 5, 2012

Dear Carolyn:

Back in February, my little sister was very unexpectedly dumped by her boyfriend of three years, just three months before their wedding. Breakup was done in cold, cowardly fashion, and even though she’s over him, she’s understandably having a whole host of emotional/trust issues that are giving her a very hard time dealing with men in a romantic way.

This has also led to some behavioral changes (drinking, random encounters with men) that, while not unusual among women her age, are extremely out of the ordinary for her. Before this, she had been an extremely “together” person — definitely the golden child between the two of us.

At what point do we (friends, family and I) sit her down and gently tell her it might be time to snap out of it? In other words, how long do we give her to figure things out before starting to worry there’s been long-term emotional damage? I know there’s no bright line on this, but just wondering at what point somebody should step in and give some firm advice. The things she’s doing aren’t a huge deal in a vacuum, they’re just in stark contrast to how she usually behaves.

Broken Engagement


(Nick Galifianakis /For The Washington Post)

If the long-term emotional damage is severe, then use a prescription-strength “Snap out of it.” [Face rub.]

You seem unaccustomed to having people wander off the sanctioned path in your family — at least, doing so in plain view. You also seem to be testing the idea that your sister is overreacting to the breakup, bad as it was.

I believe, though, that this was much more than a breakup for your sister, and that you’re under-reacting to her crisis — one she’s having because this is all so new to friends and family.

“Golden” children tend to live by a do-what-I’m-supposed-to model of behavior, gradually forming an expectation that this will result in the life they’re supposed to have.

When instead these exemplary choices send them into a publicly humiliating ditch, often the next place they find themselves is smack in the middle of a major existential crisis. That’s especially true if her sense of self derived from her golden status. Getting dumped challenged the validity of that definition of herself, and if she’s not golden after all, then what is she?

Worldview-crash is usually comprehensive.

The absence of a strong sense of self, or at least the presence of one that’s contingent on outside approval or predictability, would certainly explain her sharp turn into self-destructive choices. It would mean she’s not thinking too highly of herself right now, and is mystified about who she is, why she bothered making the choices she did, and what on Earth does work if being conscientious doesn’t.

Yes, she does need her family right now, but not to tell her [this] or firmly advise [that] or set her upright and return her to her dollhouse. She needs you to recognize that you all mistook her good behavior for emotional maturity — and that she has to find her own way back to making good decisions for her own, internal reasons instead of the old, external ones. Loving her for who she is, vs. what she accomplishes, is the best map you can possibly give her for this difficult road ahead.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers.
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