Reader question #109: My parents prefer my sister. How do I talk to them about it?

Downton Abbey's Edith

It sucks to be the Edith of your family.

Dear Captain Awkward,

It’s always been clear to me that my younger sister is the ‘favorite daughter’ of the family. My parents have never really accepted any of my life choices. They tolerate them, to be sure, but they don’t accept them as valid. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the words “I’m proud of you” from either of them. They also ask me not to bring my partner over for family dinners, something which really hurts because I love my partner and want her to be a part of my family, but my family can’t seem to accept that.


Contrast this with my sister, who is ten years younger than me and is their perfect daughter. I don’t think she makes choices specifically to make them happy, but her interests always coincide with what my parents find acceptable. She also gets to bring her boyfriend to family occasions without any family complaints, and my parents are actually happy to have him around.

Now, none of this has hurt my relationship with my sister. I used to blame her for it, but I grew out of that about the time I graduated high school. In recent years we’ve grown closer than ever, and we’re pretty much inseparable as far as sisters go. But we both recognize that our parents are playing favorites, and it’s not hard to see why: she’s the perfect daughter who does everything right, while I’m the strange, humanitarian, lesbian daughter who goes against the “good values” of the community. (And before you ask, no, religion does not factor in here. Both of my parents are Atheist, as are my sister and I.) 

I want to sit down with my parents and talk with them about this, but I don’t know how to approach the subject. Do you have any advice that can make this conversation easier? And should I include my sister in this talk, since it involves her as well?

My heart really goes out to you, Letter Writer.  What a shitty, untenable situation.

I believe you that you have lots of evidence of their preferential treatment of your sister, and I’m very glad you’ve realized that it’s not her fault and formed your own relationship.  The thing is, it’s hard to have a conversation about all of it together.  “You don’t love me the way you love my sister, and it hurts my feelings, and here is my decades of evidence for that” is a hard conversation to start and a harder one to finish. What can they really say? So I think you should focus on the issue of your partner and her inclusion in family events.  It’s a specific, concrete issue that perfectly encapsulates the larger issue and also has a possible solution.  So the conversation starts with “I would like (Partner) to be included at family events from now on.”  Then you listen and see what they say.

Because unless your partner abuses you  or has been caught red-handed stealing the family silver, there is no good reason not to invite her to family occasions, and your parents don’t even have the dubious smokescreen of “religious reasons” to hide behind. Also, even if they did exclude your partner for “religious reasons,” that would also be total bullshit.  They would be saying “My prejudices are more important to me than the happiness of people I love.”  How convenient when”conscience” lines up so neatly with bigotry!

Best case scenario, they say “Of course.”  You hug them and say “I’m glad you’ve changed your mind, that means a lot to me” and you carry on.

Worst case scenario, they say “No” or “We just aren’t comfortable” and you say “Well, that hurts my feelings. Especially since (sister’s partner) is always invited to everything.  It sends the message to me that her love life is important and mine is not, and it tells me that you think some very ugly things about my sexual orientation and relationship.”

And then you see what they say.  It would be good to have your sister there for the conversation if you know she will back you up, but it’s not necessary.

And I need to ask this – Are you comfortable going where your partner is not invited?  How have the two of you been handling holidays, etc.?  Does it shred her feelings and your feelings every time there is a family thing and she is excluded?  What reasons have they given you in the past for not including her?

The reason I ask is that maybe you’ve all been managing your parents’ feelings about this and accepting their status quo, but if you raise the issue directly with them you’re opening a can of worms you might not be able to close.  They might not give you what you want.  You might have to make some terrible decisions about whether and on what terms you spend time with them, which will only deepen the divide between you.  And put you in a position where you must decide if you want to raise the question again and again.  Maybe once a year, you give your parents the “Are you human beings who love your child?” test.  And maybe once a year they fail it and break your heart again.

I still think you have to raise the question, but I want you to be prepared for all contingencies.

Not everyone gets unwavering support, love, and comfort from their parents.  If you’re one of the people who didn’t get that, a tough part of growing up is realizing that your parents may not be able to give you these things that you need from them, and sometimes the answer is to teach yourself not to need those things anymore so that you won’t be (as) heartbroken when you don’t get them. You end up rewriting your relationship around the things you do have in common and the things you can relate about, and kissing the rest up to the universe.  Lieutenant Trans writes about it very beautifully here.

I hope they pass the test.

6 comments
  1. Florence said:

    Oh god, my heart goes out to you on this one, LW. A version of this has been playing out in my family for the last decade plus. I’m the black sheep in my family too, for reasons that are partially my fault and partially attributed to the weird dynamics in my family that were set up before I even came along (youngest child, and a naughty one at that). It has definitely affected my sibling relationships, and part of me believes that my mother likes it that way. Long story, not related to your issue. However. Anecdotally.

    I tried to approach this much in the way that CA recommends and was met with flat-out denial on the part of my parents. The Christmas where the whole family forgot about me (and I sat watching them all open presents with my mouth shut) — total fluke, sorry. The family vacations where I wasn’t invited or was not included in planning, and whoops! can’t go — total fluke, sorry. The sibling visits in town when I wasn’t invited to dinners or card games or even told they were on the way — total fluke, sorry. The evidence I couldn’t deny (and they so easily could) added up to a hill of beans as far as they were concerned. Move along, nothing to see here.

    I was heartbroken, naturally. And like CA suggests, over time my mental health was contingent on “realizing that your parents may not be able to give you these things that you need from them, and sometimes the answer is to teach yourself not to need those things anymore so that you won’t be (as) heartbroken when you don’t get them.” So, if I need a coffee partner on a Saturday, I can totally call my mom. If I need career advice or want to vent about some vile gossip I just heard, talk about a great movie, that sale at Target, the fucking dentist bill, I can totally call my mom. But if I need emotional support, if I want someone to say they’re proud of me, or that they think I’m special or pretty or that I haven’t made my life a steaming pile of shit… my parents, especially my mom, are the wrong place to turn. I’ve had to build other channels for those needs. Sometimes it’s lonely. Sometimes it is scary to reach out to my non-parental loved ones and say, I need this, please, especially when the people who ought to be giving you this reassurance never have and possibly never will. That’s a lot of doubt and betrayal for a child to carry into adulthood.

    I spent a lot of time and energy deciding whether or not to keep my parents in my life at all, and I have finally set the boundaries that make a decent relationship possible with them. Ironically, though I have a very strained, formal relationship with my siblings, they come to me now to figure out how to deal with the parents. Which is only to suggest that maybe your sister’s relationship isn’t all that pristine — a lot of therapy has told me that if they’re maladjusted with you, they are with her too. Trust.

  2. EmilyBites said:

    Hey LW, I’m really sorry to hear about your situation, and I really hope your parents can accept your partner. If they don’t, I think there are plenty of us out there who know that you sometimes can’t have the things you want from your parents, and that you have to find those things (acceptance, support, pride in you) somewhere else.

    It’s a sad thing to have to come to terms
    with, but you have to be prepared for that if you are going to ask them for their support.

  3. Sheelzebub said:

    Hmmm. . .good advice here for you, LW. I’ll add in my two cents.

    First, I’m glad you and your sister have a good relationship (it sounds that way, anyway). Am I wrong in my impression that she agrees with you that your parent’s treatment of you is very different and all kinds of fucked up? If so, I think that is great, and that it would be worthwhile for you to continue to nurture a good relationship with your sister (who can’t control and seems to feel shitty about your parents treatment of you). In fact, I’d second Florence–chances are, things between your sister and your parents may not be as rosy as they look, or they may be doing things that are different but just as hurtful to her.

    Second, ITA with the “my partner must come to family events.” I will echo the advice already given–think of ways to spend the holidays (if it’s holidays) if your parents say no. Prepare for the fact that they may not want her there and that you will have to have alternate plans at the ready. If your parents don’t accept her, then I’d draw a line. You can still have a relationship with them–there’s no law that you must completely disown them if you don’t want to do so–but there’s nothing wrong in saying, “If [partner] is not welcome than I will pass, thanks.” Be consistent with that and they’ll get the message. And as Emily said, find acceptance, support, etc. elsewhere.

    Third, I don’t think a conversation will get them to see the light about their obvious preference. They will either deny it, turn it around on you, or tell you it’s all in your head. We all hope for these kinds of conversations where there are apologies, explanations, and validation, but unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. So I agree in sticking to concrete things that need to change, like allowing your partner at events, etc.

    I’m so sorry you have to deal with this.

  4. glassesandblueeyes said:

    I can identify with the difference of treatment. My own younger sister is preferred by my mom, it was a year ago that after 29 years of preference that I was able to tearfully and sadly approach my mom about it. I told her it hurt to see her (mom) come out 1400 miles to see her(sister), but never once has she come to see me. It hurt that she came 1400 miles to see the birth of a grandchild but when I had my youngest, I was alone. (I moved here 5 years ago, my sister moved here 2 years ago. I was pregnant when I moved here, and my nephew is now a year old.) I’m not clear on how we began to speak on the issues, but now my mom is trying harder to be apart of my life. Partly because of her health issues, and her own recognition she wont be around much longer, and partly because I said ‘Hey! be more fair.’ and another part others in the family pointed it out. We have a long road to go yet.
    LW it wont be easy. But I learned if you dont speak up and make the request, the want will go unnoticed. And sometimes, like in my case, they think that you are stronger and dont need as much, and therefore they leave you to it. I get that it hurts and you want their love, and parents will justify they love each kid differently, becuase they need different kinds of love. But mostly you need to open up and tell them you feel its unfair. In this whole process, I have learned I need to stand up for myself and what I need and want. Its a hard complex road. From here, on my computer, I will give you lots of support, as much as one can from across the internet.

    • And sometimes, like in my case, they think that you are stronger and dont need as much, and therefore they leave you to it.

      I have a pretty strong relationship with my various parents, but this line still made me physically flinch. I have always been the peacekeeper, the mediator, the go-between, since I was very very young, and as a result, when I grew up I became the one who flew across the country all the time to visit people. I lived in the Pacific Northwest for 5 years, and each set of parents visited me *once* that entire time, while more or less demanding that I fly to the East Coast 2-3 times a year on a grad student budget. Because I was brave and strong and independent and resourceful, you see!

      Gah, I don’t mean to threadjack, but that dynamic is so, so familiar.

  5. Bethany said:

    Hey, Letter Writer, my heart goes out to you and your family. I have definitely lived this story out, except I was the unapproved partner.

    My husband and I have been together for a long while (we only got married almost a year ago) and his family only liked me for some of it. There were probably 2 years in there where I was not welcome at their home. He went and spent a little bit of time with them on Thanksgiving and Christmas and skipped just about everything else. He went over occasionally otherwise, I think he dropped by for his birthday. He didn’t get them gifts and never stayed long.

    I don’t know exactly what happened that this changed, I assume it was when he announced that we were going to the courthouse to get married. (We didn’t get around to doing that for another five years or so.)

    In this case, it had nothing to do with being gay or straight, I think they might have accepted the right boyfriend easier than me. His mom simply didn’t like me, still doesn’t entirely like me I don’t think. Or maybe I’m just uneasy about our bad start to the relationship. She goes out of her way to be nice, though, and it seems genuine.

    His mother didn’t think I was good enough for Greg. I doubt she’s convinced, and I’m sure she’d be shocked if she found out I agreed with her in my darker moments.

    I don’t have any advice, except that it may not be because you’re lesbian. It may be the way they perceive you or your partner. It’s not fair, and I have been there.

    They accept me now, but it took years. It sounds discouraging, but my relationship with them now is pretty good. I wish I had more advice.

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