I’m having some trouble with my sister that I don’t know how to deal with. Basically, she’s a huge flake. Often when we make plans to spend time together, she’ll change her plans and not tell me until the last minute (when or after we were supposed to meet) and sometimes not at all. She seems to do this with everyone and doesn’t understand when people get pissed at her for it. A few times she has claimed that she’s on her way home and then doesn’t show up and doesn’t answer her phone, which of course means we get worried. Later she’s admitted that she lied about being on her way to begin with.
I’ve tried to explain that this is really annoying for me and I’ve asked her to at least contact me and cancel ahead of time so I can make other plans. I’ve also asked her not to make plans with me if she doesn’t think she’ll actually make it. I get that sometimes things come up or take longer than expected, but this happens all the time. When I’ve tried to talk to her, she’s been pretty defensive about it and she hasn’t changed her behavior. She’s 19, which I think is too old for this kind of behavior.
I really enjoy spending time with my sister and I don’t want to stop doing that, but I also want her to be respectful of my time. What can I do?
You can’t make your sister less flaky, and while your desire to stay close and spend time with her is admirable, it’s leaving you annoyed at her all the time.
Relationship paradox: The stress of making and keeping plans with your sister makes the actual time spent together less enjoyable. The more you try to make plans, the more her flakiness is activated, so the more unpleasant it gets.
Relationship axiom: No matter whose fault it is, a relationship where one person is always fucking up (or feels like they are) and the other person is always frustrated (and wanting an apology) is a dysfunctional one. The roles calcify and soon everything is about “you’re unreliable and immature!” vs. “you’re controlling & judgmental!”
Confession: I really struggle with being on time. I have gotten WAY better at it over the years with the help (& gentle mocking) and understanding of kind friends. Sometimes it’s a manifestation of depression – I lose focus and get a lot of anxiety & guilt about leaving things undone right before I leave the house because my jerkbrain has set up a bizarre hierarchy of tasks. Sometimes I have what is frankly Magical Thinking about how long things actually take, and sometimes I’m disorganized so things take longer than I think they will + I didn’t leave enough of a margin for things to go wrong (bad idea when you depend on public transit). I have a strong introvert streak, and sometimes balk at social plans on a weekend when I haven’t had enough downtime that week. My boyfriend summed it up really well recently, saying something about how my jerkbrain is self-sabotaging to create risk and drama out of stuff that should be easy. The morning commute turns into a “Will she make it?” exciting chase sequence. If I don’t make it on time I get to carry a lot of shame and do a little dance of shame/apology/forgiveness-or-punishment which feels familiar and like what I deserve and if I do make it I get to feel victorious and virtuous and normal about a really not-very-challenging activity that billions manage every day without fanfare.
I had things in much better shape for a while, but I remember backsliding about this fiercely after I witnessed a murder in front of my house 2 years ago – I started to have small panic attacks, lose time, be in a dissociative state & procrastinate even more whenever I had to go out my front door. Even though I have lived in major cities all my adult life, often in areas with major gang issues because that’s what I can afford, I spent a small fortune on cab fare because I wasn’t leaving myself enough time for the train (because I was afraid to walk there) and a small fortune on delivery food (because I was afraid to walk to the grocery store a few blocks away). I live in a different neighborhood now. Fortunately my street has just the one gang and I’m not on the borderland of disputed territory like I was before. I feel much safer here and can definitely go about my business. My post-traumatic stress about the shooting has largely dissipated and the depression is more under control. Product Endorsement: The Transit Tracker Phone App that says when the bus & train are due has really changed my life for the better.
But my own brain chemistry, personal history, and a lifetime of immaturity and bad habits around this are still against me and it’s a fight almost every single day even if I’m feeling okay and heading somewhere I really want to go. The mantra that gets me through is “Self, you don’t have to feel good while you do it, but you do have to do it, and you’ll definitely feel worse if you don’t do it.” It also helps me to visualize the other person or people waiting for me – fear of disappointing other people or being perceived as a fuck-up is a better motivator sometimes than taking care of myself. Sad feelings are not excuses for rudeness.
I feel like should say this now: Readers, if you’re tempted to jump in with helpful hacks or time-management tricks like “Lay your clothes out the night before!” and “Set your watch 15 minutes early to give yourself a buffer!” or any sentence that contains the words “But you could just….” or “Why don’t you just….?” just don’t. I can’t be smart at this problem and I’m really not looking for people to put their smart to work for me around this especially when so many of the solutions ARE really obvious. If smart fixed things I’d be fixed. I’m sharing this about myself because I think a lot of people can relate, and if you can’t relate, just enjoy your own good luck and this brief chaotic window into the rest of us.
So yeah, I understand your frustration with your sister and as a recovering Chronically Late Person, I can empathize with her, too. Nineteen IS old enough to behave better, and figuring out how to be on time is part of becoming a functioning grownup and also part of treating other people well. As we say all the time around here, knowing the why of someone’s behavior might give you more insight into and compassion for them, but it doesn’t meant that your needs don’t matter or that solving “Why?” is a magical solution to your problems. Your sister might have a lot of reasons for her poor time management: brain issues (many disorders manifest in the late teens/early 20s), lack of maturity, disorganization, jerkiness/basic lack of consideration, the fact that what is taught/modeled is not always what is learned and she did not get the same skills & manners you did from your upbringing, lack of healthy boundaries around scheduling (saying yes to too many things because you don’t want to say no and then realizing when they all converge that you can’t possibly do them), self-esteem issues that manifest in little tests to see if you’ll still wait for her and put up with her…etc. to infinity. Sussing out those reasons matters to her in developing coping skills, but they’re not (and should not be) as important to you as your need to have her cut the shit and act right around this.
So. Practical stuff.
You’ve already spoken up about how you feel and asked her to behave differently just fine without us. My advice is that you give yourself a set time period (3 months to start?) where you do not initiate any plans with your sister. The goal is not to punish her or give her secret tests, it’s to give yourself a total break from this dynamic and the responsibility of being the planner and see if you can reset some things about how the relationship works. Remove all pressure from her to change or prove something to you. Keep your expectations very low.
During this three months:
1. Prioritize people who actually treat you like you want to be treated. Don’t initiate plans with her, but if Sister initiates plans with you, use the following decision tree:
Were you invited to something else with someone else for the same block of time (and is that something you’d like to do)? ==> Accept the plans with the people who can keep plans and give your sister your regrets. Do not prioritize plans with her and set yourself up to miss out on something you could have gone to instead when she behaves true to form. If the block of time is totally open and you enthusiastically want to see your sister ===> make plans with her, with many caveats described below.
2. Set yourselves up to succeed by designing the lowest-pressure scenario possible. Nothing elaborate that costs you money or stress if she doesn’t show up on time, nothing that’s inconvenient for you to get to and from. You’re not buying advance tickets to anything, driving for hours, standing in line at the crowded brunch place that won’t seat people until the entire party is present (In Chicago this is the rule anywhere popular, so if you’re dealing with flakes, Sunday brunch or a Thurs-Sat dinner is the WRONG meal to meet up for).
Think along the lines of :
- (Drinks) + (Bar 2 blocks from your place that you like going to anyway) + (On a Monday or Tuesday) + (She should stop by between 6 and 7) + (You’ll have a book to read)
- (Sunday night) + (You’ll be at home doing laundry anyway) + (Sure, come by and we’ll order something and watch a movie) + (Anytime between 5 and 8 is a good time to show up) + (After 8 sorry, you’ll have to do it another time and she shouldn’t bother. You’ve got an early start tomorrow.)
Anything more complicated than this she has shown she cannot handle, so once again, politely decline more elaborate offers for the present.
3. Travel separately. Don’t depend on her to pick you up. Don’t get sucked into being her only way to and from an event.
4. Think twice about involving others. It will end with you and whoever else you invite being stressed out about whether you should just go ahead and make it a party of two so you can order. Also nobody likes watching their dinner companion carry on the 45 minutes of “ARE YOU HERE YET?” anxious texting.
5. Set limits on how long you’ll wait and how much you’ll text back and forth. Let’s talk about that anxious texting that you’re probably doing that’s making you long for the days before cell phones when making plans meant “See you at the movies at 8” and then you’d see the person at the movies at 8. Even a Recovering Late Person like me hates the constant cycle of confirming and reconfirming plans or the email sent late Thursday night/early Friday: “Do we still have plans for Friday?” I don’t know, it is Friday. You tell me.
You say in your letter that when she doesn’t show up or respond in a timely manner, you worry about her. Is there any way you can, for the 2-3 month trial period, try to reset that in your head to assuming that she’s fine and that she probably just flaked out again? Better yet, frame it as a choice: “Sister chose not to come tonight.” Resist sending texts, calling to check up, or issuing ultimatums like “I don’t even care about the movie anymore, can you just let me know you’re ok?” Give yourself permission to disengage and turn off the phone. I’m trying to get through this response without saying the words “you are not your sister’s keeper,” but obviously that failed. You’re not your sister’s keeper. You can care about her, you can’t do her caring for her. Break the dynamic where her disappearing or running late = tons of “ARE YOU OK?” attention from you.
If she’s barraging you with “OMW!” updates, respond once with “Cool, hope you get here soon.” Then put your phone in your bag and get on with whatever you were going to do. Prioritize your own comfort and enjoyment and the comfort of the people who actually showed up. If you’re hungry, eat. If you need to leave, go to sleep, or whatever, you make the decision to cut the evening short. Text her with “Looks like you won’t get here in time. Sorry to miss you, but I really have to go to bed/drive Mom home/stop by the post office. Catch you next time.”
6. Pleasantly, casually, accept-but-mostly-ignore her excuses & apologies. Sister: “Long elaborate story about why I’m late!” You: “Huh. Good thing I brought a book.” or “Sorry you had to deal with that, but yeah, I really couldn’t wait up.” + (Change the subject) + (Keep a tone out of your voice. Yeah, THAT tone). Don’t give her attention for having an entertaining story and telling it in an entertaining way or let her do the weird “I”m so ashamed that I’m like this” over-apologizing shame dance. This will seem counter-intuitive, but don’t make her lateness an issue (right now, during these three months). Just keep a flat affect and ignore it as much as you can. You want to try as much as possible to treat each interaction as a separate incident and not part of the story of how Late Sister is Always Late. You’re not letting her off the hook for rudeness, it’s more about getting out of the Big-Sister-Scolds pattern. What happens if you don’t scold? Find out.
7. If she improves, give positive reinforcement, but don’t make a thing about it.“I’m really glad you could make it” or “It’s super-great to see you” + (hug) + (Get on with your planned evening).
NOT “Who are you and what have you done with my sister?” Really, anything you say that makes a big deal about it is just drawing attention to the old conflict and all the other times she did not show up on time. It keeps the conflict and hurt feelings bitter and fresh. Or it sounds patronizing with an air of “Look who finally made a poo-poo in the Big Girl Potty!“
8. Change your expectations to reflect the reality of the situation. Right now your expectations are “Goddamnit, stop being late! You shouldn’t be late! Don’t change plans at the last minute and disappear without calling us! Be more considerate! Grow up already! You shouldn’t act like this!“
More realistic expectations are “Sister will be late or absent and not communicate well about it. She’s rude like that sometimes. What’s our Plan B?” Stop being surprised when she acts like this. Treat it like the status quo that it is. You actually do have a lot of control over how much you allow this to wreck an evening of your life.
This whole trial period is about disengaging, withdrawing attention triggers & rewards for her bad behavior, and prioritizing your own comfort. You want as little as possible of your relationship and communication to be about her lateness problems so that you can enjoy what there is to enjoy. Does that make sense?
At the end of the three months, see how you feel. Are things better? Are you at least feeling less stressed and angry about it?
Save any big talks until you’ve given yourself that time to try different strategies and reset. When and if you do have a big talk, start it like this:
1. “Sister, you know and I know that you have trouble being reliable and committing fully to social plans. It’s not normal to be this consistently late or to have to lie about where you are. What do you think is going on with that?“
2. “The way things have been really hurts my feelings and stresses me out, and I hate feeling that way. I’m sure you hate feeling like I’m always mad at you. Do you want to try to figure out a better way of handling this with each other?
3. “The good news is that we’re adults now and we get to decide how we want our relationship to work. So, in a perfect world, how do you want this to work between us?
Ask questions and get as much of her side of the story as you can without lecturing her on how things should be = a good plan for any kind of stressful conversation with someone you love and are trying to do right by.