Destructive addition to the family


Destructive addition to the family


your avatar   Denise, 42-year-old woman

I'm a 42-year-old woman, married for 22 years, with a 21-year-old daughter, Angela, our only child. In May, Marie, a childhood friend of our daughter's came to live with us. Marie has had more than her share of hardship in her life and we knew there was likely to be some problems as we all learned to live together. We did not anticipate how severe these problems might be.

Marie suffered profound neglect at the hands of her father and stepmother from the age of five through fifteen. Her only respite from this was during the summer months when she stayed with her mother in a distant state. In Marie's eleventh summer, she witnessed her mother's death in an automobile accident. Marie's father and stepmother were on vacation at the time and they declined to cut their trip short. My husband and I made the drive to be with Marie, attend her mother's funeral, and bring her back home.

After her mother's death, Marie was punished any time she mentioned her mother or openly grieved for her. During the years Marie lived near us, she showed an uncanny, instinctual sort of wisdom in knowing how to get at least a minimum of her emotional needs met. She was fortunate in that there was a close-knit group of five neighborhood girls of which she was a part. Marie spent nearly every spare moment with one or another of these five girls. The families of all five welcomed her into their homes and hearts as one of their own.

When Marie was fifteen, her family relocated to another state and our contact with her became sporadic--periodic phone calls, letters, cards, and three week-long visits in the span of seven years. Marie had a very difficult time during her adolescence: repeatedly running away from home or getting kicked out, a six-month stint of homelessness during which she lived in an abandoned car, several arrests for prostitution, and a long string of physically abusive boyfriends.

At nineteen, she turned things around somewhat: she went to work full-time and moved into her own apartment. She augmented her income with occasional forays into prostitution, but not on the same scale as she had been; however, the abusive relationships continued unabated. She got into further financial trouble with credit cards and wracked up a sizeable amount of debt. On her last visit to us prior to moving in, we proposed that she come here and return to school. She would work part-time to pay for her car, her clothing, and incidental spending money. We would take care of the rest. She accepted and between May and August studied for, and received, her GED. She is now enrolled full-time at our local community college (and doing fabulous).

This all sounds like a feel-good story, but there's a not-so-feel-good side to it. There are some significant behavior problems present that we do not know how to deal with. In many ways, dealing with Marie is much like dealing with a toddler. She flies into uncontrolled rages over anything and everything; if she were little, I'd call them temper tantrums. But she's not, and these rages are destructive. For example, she's been banned from our local Home Depot because she completely tore up the wallpaper section of the store when she became frustrated at not finding a wallpaper border that pleased her. She will not tolerate suggestions or any sort of disagreement; you're guaranteed a tantrum if you do so. She is very judgmental and negative towards people, and both my daughter and I have had friends tell us that they don't come over as often as before because of Marie's harsh comments to them. She seems to be mortified of being left alone, especially by me. It's all right if she leaves the room, but if I do so, she follows. I try to reassure her that I'm not going to abandon her, but it falls on deaf ears. She doesn't seem capable of realistically assessing the danger of some of her actions. None of us will drive with her, she's far too reckless. For example, she made a 780 mile drive in eight and a half hours--you do the math. She claims to drive the route to her school (a 45 mph road) at 90-100 mph, and is quite proud of that.

There are also some significant problems with her sexuality. Marie takes great pride in her sexuality and believes it to be the strongest part of herself. She offered herself to my best friend's husband, she has had numerous casual encounters in parking lots, restrooms, etc. None of these are dates, they're one-time sexual liaisons. As she put it just last week, "Do you realize, I've gone through fourteen f***-buddies since I moved here?" She proclaims herself as "highly sexed" and if a man wants to have sex with her, she's going to do it, because she likes it. It doesn't help that she's a beautiful young woman--needless to say, she doesn't lack for volunteers. This is causing my own daughter, Angela, a great deal of distress. Relations with the opposite sex have never been easy for Angela. She lacks confidence in her appearance, and in her ability to relate to men. She has never had a steady boyfriend, and rarely dates. Although she recognizes intellectually that Marie's highly sexual presentation of herself is responsible for the long string of men and the constant flow of newcomers, it still causes Angela distress.

I'm trying to provide Marie with at least some of the experiences she didn't have as a child and adolescent. We had great fun in fixing up her room just the way she wanted it (the wallpaper incident notwithstanding). Her tests and papers go up on the fridge, along with Angela's. I know it sounds rather kid-like, but they both seem to take a great deal of pride in the display. When a new item goes up--both of them rush to point it out to my husband when he gets home from work. Once a week, when my husband bowls in his league, we have a girls nights, where we rent "chick-flicks", call for a pizza, and eat inordinate amounts of popcorn. We all like to cook, so we've instituted a culinary exploration day each week, where we take turns picking out foods from different ethnicities to cook. We don't have a lot of money to spend, so we can't go out often, but we take advantage of free activities available to us, like free days at art galleries and museums. My husband enjoys bowling as does Marie, so they go bowling sometimes.

We are trying to work this all out as best we can, without undue hardship on anyone. Most specifically, I'm concerned about the effect this situation might have on my daughter. I don't want to risk or damage the phenomenal relationship I have with her. My husband and I want this all to work out for everyone, but we have agreed that there must be some changes in Marie's behavior; we can't continue this way indefinitely. We're well aware that the best thing for Marie would be professional help. However, she refuses. She says if we make it a condition of her staying here, she'll just move. That goes for family therapy as well. So for now, that's not an option. I have some hope that she may soften on that stance, because--ironically--the field that interests her and which she plans to study is psychology.

All right, now for the questions: 1. Are we doing the right things in our approach to Marie or are we treating her too much like a child? 2. Are we putting our own daughter's emotional well-being at risk? 3. Can you suggest how best we deal with Marie's out-of-control sexuality? 4. Is there a period of time that I can expect to elaspe before we start to see some positive movement in the problematic behaviors I've described? 5. Please, please, anything that comes to mind that you think may be of help to any of us, please tell me. AND THANK YOU.


    Margaret Burr, MA, MFT


Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed letter. I'll respond to each of your questions directly.

1. Are we doing the right things in our approach to Marie or are we treating her too much like a child?

Developmentally, Marie is very much "a child," so I do not think your instincts are wrong there. You are supportive and encouraging about the things which will help empower this young woman, such as her schoolwork.

2. Are we putting our own daughter's emotional well-being at risk?

I am assuming that you talk to Angela alone now and then to assess how this is for her. A constant, open dialogue with her and your husband will be the best way for you to determine how "at risk" she feels.

3. Can you suggest how best we deal with Marie's out-of-control sexuality?

My suggestion to you is that you hold Marie to the same standards of behavior you and your husband set for yourself and for Angela.

4. Is there a period of time that I can expect to elapse before we start to see some positive movement in the problematic behaviors I've described?

I guess you are asking when the love and support you are showing Marie will affect her low self-worth, and when her behaviors will reflect increased self-esteem. It sounds like you are seeing this already, in that she is proud to exhibit her schoolwork and enjoys participating in your family.

5. Please, please, anything that comes to mind that you think may be of help to any of us, please tell me.

You've taken on a lot, Denise. Marie is an extremely disturbed young woman who appears to have several traits which hint at a severe personality disorder. In other words, you and your husband and Angela are providing care and structure for Marie, but the fact is that the level of psychiatric care she probably needs is well beyond what you or any family could ever provide.

You say that she refuses professional help and threatens to leave if you insist that she get it. I hope you can see how convenient that is. With that threat effectively limiting the direction and structure you can provide for her, she gets to continue a level of acting-out which intimidates and controls your household.

The real question, here, has to do with the role Marie plays for all of the rest of you. I can't guess at what that is, Denise. While I understand that your long history with Marie has influenced you reach out to her to this degree, I am asking you to look deeply at what you and your family get out of this - what you all get out of inviting so much chaos and potential destruction into your lives.

That - in my opinion - is the real issue here. Marie is the vehicle for this confusion and chaos which you and your husband unconsciously needed or wanted. If you both had not unconsciously agreed upon needing and wanting this, you would never have attempted to rescue this young woman from herself.

There must be some unconscious and, as yet, unknown reason you offered to take in Marie without agreements and provisions for her psychiatric care, ongoing therapy, impulse control and possible sexual addiction treatment, probable medication for a mood disorder, etc.

Maybe it will help you - imagine doing this kind of "rescuing" with someone who needs constant care for a debilitating physical illness. Imagine, for instance, taking in a child who is diabetic without having some plan to deal with or treat her diabetes or to otherwise maintain her metabolic health.

Generally, persons who find themselves in situations like you are in with Marie, have (unconsciously) needed to distract or diffuse or obscure other difficulties in their lives, their marriages or their families.

The challenge I present to you and your husband and to Angela, is to come from the healthiest parts of yourselves. All three of you have a pretty good idea of what being responsible is really about, so, please be responsible to yourselves and each other, first. Assertively help Marie by insisting she get the appropriate care she needs; to do anything less is a great disservice to you all.

You didn't ask, but the first thing Marie needs is a complete psychiatric evaluation, followed by ongoing psychotherapy and possibly, medication. She needs a physical and gynecological exam as well, along with a blood test for HIV and other STD's. She needs to begin sexual counseling immediately, and to become involved in a continuing support group for young adults with self-destructive tendencies.

It wouldn't hurt you and your husband to begin counseling ASAP, too, Denise.


Margaret "Peg" Burr , MA, MFT

This question was answered by Margaret "Peg" Burr. She is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC34374) with a private practice in Santa Clarita (near Los Angeles). She performs psychodynamic psychotherapy with individual adult clients as well as couples, teens, and families. She also runs groups for adults and adolescents. Her specialty area is Object Relations Systems Theory. This branch of psychodynamic psychotherapy uses a client's interpersonal relationships as windows into his or her intrapsychic structure.For more information visit:

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