Histrionic Sister-in-Law


My family has been struggling for some time concerning my sister-in-law. I don’t believe she has been professionally diagnosed as having a certain disorder, but what we really see in her is the histrionic personality disorder–and may have a couple of disorders combined with that. She is on medication for anxiety and depression but is not seeking counseling–She is very dramatic, everything is all about her–she is 40 and does not work–she has a disabled son that she sends to respite care almost every weekend so she can go party and drinking in the bars–she basically keeps him for the money from the state–she just got a drunk driving and disorderly conduct from her so-called boyfriend. She can’t keep a relationship–always creates turmoil in her life. She always talks about suicide–everything is everybody else’s fault–not her own–We disown the way she lives her life and basically don’t want much to do with her because of her actions–BUT, on the other hand, our question is–How do we show her that we love her and care for her without “approving” of her actions and the way she lives her life? How do we set limits with her to not allow her to take advantage of us and yet still get across to her how much we love her and we do care for her? Our concern is are we doing enough for her? Is there something more we can do? We have talked her ears out about getting counseling, etc., but she sounds like she is listening, but she never changes.

This Disclaimer applies to the Answer Below
  • Dr. Dombeck responds to questions about psychotherapy and mental health problems, from the perspective of his training in clinical psychology.
  • Dr. Dombeck intends his responses to provide general educational information to the readership of this website; answers should not be understood to be specific advice intended for any particular individual(s).
  • Questions submitted to this column are not guaranteed to receive responses.
  • No correspondence takes place.
  • No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Dombeck to people submitting questions.
  • Dr. Dombeck, Mental Help Net and CenterSite, LLC make no warranties, express or implied, about the information presented in this column. Dr. Dombeck and Mental Help Net disclaim any and all merchantability or warranty of fitness for a particular purpose or liability in connection with the use or misuse of this service.
  • Always consult with your psychotherapist, physician, or psychiatrist first before changing any aspect of your treatment regimen. Do not stop your medication or change the dose of your medication without first consulting with your physician.

From your description, it sounds like you should add ‘anti-social’ and ‘substance/alcohol abuse’ to your list of potential diagnoses. Chances would seem slim that you will make any significant impact on this individual so long as she is ‘getting away with it’ so to speak. This is to say that an alcoholic (and other self-centered types) usually doesn’t seek out or sustain treatment until he/she has hit bottom (e.g., is involved in a significant crisis which strips him/her of property and lifestyle and sometimes, health. How do you express love to such an individual? It sounds to me like you are already doing a good job of it, what with all the attention you’ve shown her. How do you set limits on her behavior? That is the harder question.

Probably, you have to figure out what you genuinely want to offer her in the way of love, and what you genuinely can afford to provide her with in the way of attention and invitations. A good rule of thumb is that you probably cannot count on reciprocity from her. Whatever you give will be accepted without any effort at giving back. Because most people expect reciprocity, giving a lot to this individual will probably result in your getting angry and frustrated with her. So take time now (in advance) to really figure out what you are willing and able to give without getting frustrated. Do you want to let her know that you are always there to take her call when she is distressed? If so, figure out what hours of the day and night ‘always’ applies to – if you don’t want a midnight call. Are you willing to lone her money (probably not a good idea). If so, how much and for what purpose (and how will you enforce that purpose?). Is this woman invited to your family gatherings? If so, what are the ground rules? What conditions will you tolerate and what conditions will result in your needing to show her the door? The difficult thing about limiting someone are the feelings you experience (guilt, anger, frustration, etc.) Getting things as straight as possible in advance will help you better manage your feelings and the situation where you need to put limits on.


Regarding your question, “Are we doing enough?” (e.g., to address her problems and illness. The answer is probably, “Yes”. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make her drink. Maybe figure out if there is really neglect or abuse going on regarding the son (and make a child abuse report if there is). Maybe provide her with some telephone numbers where she could call for help, assistance, counseling, a case-worker who can help manage her affairs. But after that, it is up to her to use the resources.

More "Ask Dr. Dombeck" View Columnists

Myndfulness App

Designed to Help You Feel Better Daily

Myndfuless App Rating

Download Now For Free

Learn More >