Hi Captain Awkward,
So here’s my situation (long, apologies): I have one younger sister who I see pretty infrequently, as I live on the East Coast and she attends school in the Midwest (our hometown is also in the Midwest). We bickered quite a bit growing up and are fairly different people to this day, but as we’ve gotten older (and started living in separate homes) we’ve managed to get along better and like each other more. We talk on the phone fairly regularly (once or twice a week) and when we are in the same place we’ll do coffee, shopping, drinks, etc.
Since we see each other so infrequently (Thanksgiving, winter holidays and usually sometime during the summer) I’ve expressed to her that it would be awesome if she could come and visit me. I live in a major city with lots of free, fun things to do. Flights from our hometown aren’t super cheap, but they aren’t prohibitively expensive either. A summer or two ago I offered to chip in for a flight but we weren’t able to work it out.
I’ve been here 6 years and she’s come to visit all of one time, two years ago (pretty sure our parents purchased the ticket). This bums me out and I’ve told her so (sometimes in a relatively mature way, other times a bit passive aggressively). The main reasons for her inability to visit have boiled down to 1) finances, 2) work schedule and 3) long distance relationship.
I’m pretty sympathetic to all of these things given that I work full-time, am paying off student loans and have previously been in an LTR (wooooo those suck! And sister’s been in this one for close to 3.5 years). So basically: bummer, but I get that when it comes to balancing finances, big sister, and long term, long distance boyfriend, I’m going to lose out. I wish it wasn’t that way but such is life sometimes.
So, I’ve finally more or less made peace with this and then I find out that Sister wanted to spend Thanksgiving with her SO’s family in West Coast City. This was first mentioned to me this summer. I was up front and honest with her about the fact that while I wanted her to go where she’d be happy, I’d be pretty sad if she wasn’t with our family’s usual T-giving crowd because then I’d be going a full year without seeing her in person (summer visit home didn’t happen this year). Also, T-giving in our family is a Big Fucking Deal. She was kind and seemed receptive to what I was saying, which was a relief– I was a bit worried that she’d roll her eyes and dismiss me.
Fast forward to yesterday….I hear from my parents that sister’s SO’s parents have offered to cover sister’s flight to West Coast City. As far as I know she hasn’t officially decided if she’s going but I’d be shocked if she didn’t accept. Sister really likes this city, plus, you know, LTR boyfriend thing and she gets along with his family.
Now I’m trying to deal with feeling REALLY sad about her not being around for Thanksgiving. Again, let me repeat, this is a BFD for our family and I definitely will not be the only one who will miss her.
But for me the biggest thing is the kind of message this sends me about how she feels about our relationship. From my perspective it comes off as: “Big sister is sometimes fun to hang out with/talk to when convenient but I don’t actually want to make any sacrifices to maintain/grow our relationship.” Again, I totally understand that I am not THE #1 PRIORITY in her life, but at this point it feels like I’m close to the bottom of the barrel.
So how do I deal with this? I’ve already told her how this would make me feel. Do I purposefully avoid spending time with her when we are in the same place to make a point (seems immature, probably wouldn’t work)? Do I Use My Words, again? Do I just have to suck it up and deal with the fact that this is how things are between us right now?
Sage advice from you and the Awkward Army would be much appreciated.
P.S. If age is at all helpful, I’m in my mid-20s, sister is in her early 20s.
Dear Sad Sister:
My suggestion is that you stop short of pressuring or guilt-tripping your sister into coming home for Thanksgiving.
She cannot be in two places at once. She is choosing this year to celebrate Thanksgiving with her partner. As awesome as Big Deal family holiday traditions are, it’s also an awesome thing sometimes to make a new one and celebrate the holiday exactly how YOU want to. It’s exciting the first time you celebrate a holiday with your partner’s family. If your sister and this person get married, they’ll likely be alternating holidays between both families in some way, so this is just the first stage of the rest of everyone’s life and everyone will need to adjust and not expect things to always be like they were. From your letter it seems that your sister lives in your same hometown with your parents. If that’s true, look at it this way: YOU are the one who left. She is the one who is there all the time, who sees your folks all the time. Thanksgiving at home might not loom as such a Big Deal to her in that case, where the opportunity to have major time off and see her partner does loom as the big deal.
I also suggest that you stop seeing that time she spends with her partner as time she *should* be spending with you or as a referendum on your relationship. Finances, a work schedule, and a long-distance relationship are very good reasons to prioritize your travel in a certain way. It’s hard sometimes to miss big events – holidays, weddings – but it’s also hard to be financially squeezed or even go into debt so that you can make them.
I understand why you’re sad, and I understand why that little voice is saying “If you really wanted to see me, you’d make a way to see me.” You’ve used your words and let your sister know how much you want to see her. Now it’s up to her. If that creates distance between you, sure, that’s something she’s choosing. And if you close yourself off a little from her to prevent yourself being hurt, that might be a sensible thing to do. You may not have a choice about whether her decision hurts you, but you do have a lot of choices about how you frame this and how you handle it with your sister.
I think the decision you have before you is about whether to make this one Thanksgiving holiday the battle you choose, and about what kind of conversations you want to have with your sister about how you spend time together.
An analogy: A few years ago I read an advice column – maybe Miss Conduct, or Ask Amy? – that stuck with me. It was about a mom who was sick of fighting with her 17-year-old daughter about picking up her room. She nagged and nagged, the room didn’t get picked up (or got picked up grudgingly), everything was tense and horrible all the time, and everyone was always angry. Seventeen was OLD ENOUGH to learn how to pick up one’s room, surely?
The columnist said that even people who have messy rooms as teenagers eventually learn how to keep them somewhat in order (or at least hygienic) as adults, because of peer pressure from roommates/significant others or because it’s just nicer to have a clean room. So the mom should maybe stop worrying that if she doesn’t intervene now that her daughter was always going to be a slob, and maybe having some autonomy & privacy was more important than having everything be perfectly put away. Then the columnist asked: “What kind of conversations do you want to have with your daughter this last year while she’s at home? Do you want them to be about her room, or do you want them to be about other stuff? Because the room argument is poisoning & dominating all the other stuff you could be talking about.”
So, LW, I’ll turn it to you. What kind of conversations do you want to have with your sister? Do you want them all to be about how she should visit more and you are disappointed that she’s not coming home for Thanksgiving and you feel undervalued? You’ve already spoken up beautifully for yourself, and she’s going to do what she’s going to do, so how much do you want to belabor the point?
Full disclosure of biases: I’m the person in my family who lives far away. I’m the person who can’t afford to come home for stuff like weddings & holidays. I’m the person who disappoints everyone by sometimes choosing to go other places than home to see family when I *do* have money. Sometimes I don’t want to go home, because in the past Home for the Holidays was a profoundly uncomfortable place to be, with lots of yelling. Or because Christmas falls at my most stressful/sick/broke time of year and traveling just isn’t a good idea for me right then. In more recent years, I really want to, but haven’t always been able to for financial or schedule reasons. I’m sure from the other end it all looks the same, like I don’t really care.
What has never worked to get me to go home more:
- Being told the holiday will be ruined if I am not there. TOO MUCH PRESSURE.
- Lectures about where my priorities *should* be. “But we’re family!”, etc.
- Being told how hurt everyone is when I don’t come.
- Judginess about why my finances aren’t in better shape.
- Appeals to religion.
What has worked, if anything:
- Mellowing out about the whole thing.
- Talking more regularly about good stuff we have in common, things we’re looking forward to doing together.
- “I’m excited to see you!” (vs. “Why don’t you visit more?”)
I think it would help as much as possible to take the long view. Your sister might not be in a place where she can travel to you right now. She might not be prioritizing your relationship as much as you want her to right now. But she is always going to be your sister, and if you can find a way to keep the lines of communication open and prioritize what you do have in common, you’ll come out all right in the end.
Finally, for you, I suggest what I suggest in any difficult negotiation when you really want to preserve the relationship. “Sister, I want to be close to you and see and talk to you more often. In a perfect world, how do you think we could make that happen? Now that we’re grownups and can sort of choose how we have our friendship, how do you want that to work?” It has the twin benefits of putting the most generous and positive perspective on what you want and also making the other person do some work of thinking through how to solve the problem at hand. You can leave her with that question and let her solve the problem (or not) in her own time and her own way.
Who are you most looking forward to seeing at Thanksgiving besides your sister? Who is going to be the most sad that she isn’t home? That’s where you put the extra love you’re feeling, I think, and hopefully everyone will have a good time.