An identical twin woman (whom I will call Jody) in her midseventies described her lifelong commitment to caring for her sister, Ellen. She said, “When I received my waitressing tips, I dumped them onto the table so that Ellen could take her share.” She explained that after she and her twin were abandoned by their mother at age two, they kept one another emotionally afloat and forged an unbreakable bond.
However, life has not been easy for Ellen. In the face of Ellen’s ongoing personal and professional misfortunes, Jody tirelessly helped Ellen, her children, and her grandchildren in every conceivable way—financially and emotionally. While the family history is too complex and convoluted to address in detail, suffice it to say that Jody always felt compelled to rescue Ellen from countless personal disasters, including run-ins with the police, addiction problems, homelessness, serious illnesses, and financial collapse.
Jody contacted me following a recent horrific incident in which Ellen endangered Jody and her adult children. Jody revealed her lifelong, guilt-ridden history of enabling Ellen. Jody felt enormous shame because her life, marriage, children, and physical health have been buoyant and joyful. Ellen’s abusive and manipulative behavior preyed upon her sister’s sense of familial loyalty, wreaking havoc on Jody’s life. This latest incident was so devastating that Jody could no longer justify Ellen’s actions or excuse her behaviors.
Jody’s pity for the sister that she adores prevented her from stepping back and understanding the role that she played in enabling Ellen to avoid responsibility for her conduct. Jody hoped that if she gave Ellen the comforts and support that Jody had, she could make a powerful and meaningful difference in Ellen’s life.
Sadly but importantly, Ellen’s latest antics opened Jody’s eyes to a much bigger issue. Jody has not been able to relinquish her caretaking role with Ellen, which evolved from their shared early-childhood experiences. If Ellen goes astray, Jody feels that she is at fault. Jody is incapable of holding Ellen accountable for her countless egregious actions because Jody feels she is to blame if Ellen is struggling and misbehaving. Jody has been unable to develop an adult perspective of her twin relationship because she is terrified of being abandoned by or abandoning her twin, who she cherishes more than anyone else.
Jody’s misguided good intentions to rescue her sister fueled endless conflicts that have now reached unfathomable proportions. Will Jody continue to excuse her poor, victimized sister or realize that giving all of herself will not make her sister successful and happy? When will Jody stop tolerating her sister’s duplicity and get in touch with her anger and frustration? At that point, perhaps Jody will begin to understand that her failure to change the course of Ellen’s life should not leave Jody feeling depressed, inadequate, and remorseful.