June 22, 2018
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I’m perfect. My sister’s dumb, fat and lazy. Is there a reason my parents love me more?

Emily Yoffe
By Emily Yoffe, Slate.

Dear Prudence,

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” and “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 metier), 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 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

Please send your questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. Questions may be edited.

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