I am currently estranged from my sister. Growing up, we were home-schooled together and were extremely close. She was usually awesome, but once we became adults, she would sometimes become obsessively jealous of my time. As examples: she demanded that I apologize for calling my significant other on the phone without including her in a conference call because “it is incredibly hurtful to talk with a mutual friend without including me.” Or, she would not call me for weeks and then, when I wrote to say “hi”, she would lambast me for not contacting her earlier and demand an apology. Or she would demand an apology if I planned a social gathering and then invited her because, if I had REALLY wanted her there, I would have let her choose the activity. She always seemed to be keeping a secret tally of what she expected from me, and she’d either get nasty with me or give me the cold shoulder when I inevitably failed to meet her un-communicated expectations.
For many years, I basically just apologized to her every time she would bully me because I was pretty socially clueless and assumed that I just really sucked at friendships. However, I’ve since decided that this is Not Normal. I’ve tried communicating my problems to her, but she always says I am being too sensitive or unreasonable. After I came out as transgender, it all got much worse until I was definitely keeping her at arm’s length. Then, about this time last year, I invited her to my wedding. She responded with a nasty email telling me that she couldn’t come “this time” (this is my first marriage) because she had a long list of unspecified grievances against me that she had never shared with me before that I should have addressed before I invited her if I had REALLY intended her to feel welcome. When I told her she was being disrespectful, she replied that I was too easily offended and my wedding invitation was obviously just an “excuse to attack” her. I was pissed off and gave up, my wedding came and went without acknowledgment from her, and we haven’t really talked since.
A couple of months ago, after radio silence for almost a year, she sent a postcard with a normal, friendly message in it., apparently pretending that everything is fine. At this point, I’m done. I haven’t responded. Her birthday is coming up next month and I’m not planning on contacting her at all. I’m still angry and I’m absolutely not ready to deal with her. However, I can’t shake this nagging fear that I’m stooping to her level of giving the “cold shoulder” and harboring resentment and grievances that I’m not trying to work out with her. I don’t want to emulate her passive-aggressive behavior by punishing her with my silence. Is it fair for me to just leave the door firmly shut unless she’s willing to approach me with an apology and a real effort to change her behavior?
Dear Not Passive-Aggressive:
People who have secret rulebooks that they never tell you about in advance (but you are always breaking them always), people who are always sure about what you REAL*LY mean, what you REAL*LY should have done or use a straightforward party invitation to discern your REAL* motives make it pretty fucking impossible to carry on any kind of normal, friendly relationship with them. The examples of your sister’s self-centeredness boggle the mind. You are allowed to call whoever you want, whenever you want, and don’t owe it to everyone you know to conference them in to every conversation. You are allowed to make whatever social plans you want and invite people to them, without consulting them on every detail in advance. You are allowed to invite your sister to your wedding (a nice, friendly, kind, loving gesture of wanting her to be there) without being attacked in response.
I don’t know what’s going on with your sister (and this is a good time to remind people reading that we don’t diagnose strangers through internet comments, though I’ve got some book recs further down), but it looks to me like she wants to be the most important, central person in your life without doing any of the work to connect, she wants a lot of validation of that fact to a toxic and unreasonable extent, she wants you to be constantly thinking about her
and what she needs how you may have unintentionally wronged her, she wants you to always exist in a state of pre-emptive apology and do some kind of ritual of abasing yourself before she’ll even talk to you, and she gives you the cold shoulder or insults you to punish you for failing to defer or cater to her sufficiently. You get zero benefit of the doubt, zero credit, and zero consideration.
Existing this way has to be very lonely and exhausting for her. I keep thinking of my childhood Great Dane who wouldn’t stop chewing his bed to pieces and then was sad because he had no bed and would have to sleep in the shreds for a couple of nights until my parents could get him a new bed. And then he’d chew it up again. And again. And again. Your sister wants your love, your attention, to be important to you and to know she’s important to you. But her own behaviors are alienating her from everything she wants, and she’s not really giving you any ways to safely approach her without setting off conversational land mines that harm you. My sense is that the postcard was an attempt to return to normal/nice relations. It’s pathetic, because she has a lot to apologize to you for, but she’s doing the very thing she is accusing you of (spackling over bad behavior and grievances). I bet that in her mind that is evidence of her making an effort, and that she thinks you are a jerk because you did not call her the second you got it.
You aren’t “stooping to her level” by not signing up for this cycle of reproach and exclusion, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting a break from her. You are taking care of yourself by not continually exposing yourself to someone who hurts and berates you.
In my experience dealing with people who behave this way (and I have dealt with more than I’d like), it helps to keep your expectations really, really low. Again, this is my experience, but they don’t get it, and they won’t get it. They don’t apologize. They don’t gain self-awareness, or if they do, they don’t do it where you can see it. That magic day that your sister seems to want from you, where you will come to her and acknowledge all of your “wrongdoings” and maybe you’ll cry a little together and after that you’ll be close, like you were when you were kids? That day probably isn’t coming, for either of you. You didn’t do anything wrong, so if you did something like that it would be a charade. She won’t ever see that she did anything wrong. Logic won’t work, evidence won’t work, because in her emotional landscape reality has become warped, and there won’t be anything you can do to get her memories or perceptions of events to match yours.
You have a few options, but you do have options:
1. Go low/no contact. She can’t have the cycle of lashing out/apology/fake forgiveness/reconnection if she has no audience for it.
2. If you decide to communicate, find the medium that brings out the best/avoids the worst. It sounds like emails are not her forte – they give her too much room for her to write down her mean thoughts. But postcards and greeting cards might work? They are short, they are one-way communication, and they don’t require a response at all. I once had a boss who always said yes to things if I asked him in person and drowned me in maybes if I emailed him the same question, to the point that nothing would get done. I had another boss at that same job who wanted all pertinent details to be emailed so she could think about them, and then she’d send a yes or no. So I learned to get the verbal yes from him, and then email him the details, like, “Great news about your decision to do x. Next steps are….”, but email her all the details up front, and then follow up verbally. Sending them both the same email did not work. We all have friends who hate talking on the phone, so we text them instead, etc. etc. Find the medium that works best for you and your sister. Maybe you and your sister will send each other trite Hallmark Greeting cards once a year for the next decade. Maybe that is the level of communication your relationship can handle just now. Updated to add: If she does go off on you, it’s not because you chose the wrong communications method, she was gonna do it anyway. This is about increasing your chances of a better interaction/reducing both effort invested and potential harm to you.
3. Be very blunt in setting boundaries if you do talk on the phone or interact in person. You: “Happy birthday, Sister!” Her: “A likely story. If you REAL*LY thought that you would have called sooner (abuse abuse abuse.)” You: “I thought about it many times, but my feelings were really hurt when you didn’t come to my wedding, and it’s taken me a while to want to talk to you again. But I got your postcard, and it seemed like a good time to reach out.”
Likely responses will be pulled straight from the emotional abusers playbook:
- “You are misremembering that/blowing it out of proportion.” Subtext: You are an unreliable narrator of your own experiences, only my memories count.
- “You are too easily offended/too emotional.” Subtext: “I wouldn’t have to be so mean if you weren’t so weak and crappy and wrong.” Also, this is classic projection. She is the one who gets angry when you don’t conference her in on a call with your romantic partner, but you’re the “emotional” one? Mmmmkay.
- “Oh yeah? Let’s talk about the bad things you did/do/are/You’re just as bad as me, if not worse!” Subtext: Misdirection. If you are calling her out on bad behavior or telling her she hurt your feelings, that’s an opportunity for her to apologize or address it. If she then has issues with you, she can bring them up, but not until she closes the circuit on your initial point. You wrote: “However, I can’t shake this nagging fear that I’m stooping to her level of giving the “cold shoulder” and harboring resentment and grievances that I’m not trying to work out with her.” This is the part of your letter that made me go “ooh, ooh, I know! I know!” when I read it, because you are questioning whether you are being just as bad as she is if you take steps to protect yourself from her. You aren’t.
- “Oh god, I guess you think I am a terrible person. Why are you even talking to me if I am such a monster, then?” Subtext: If you apologize or reassure me that I’m not terrible, then I win, and I get to hold onto my idea of myself as the victim in all of this (and maybe distract you from making me feel bad by pointing out my own bad behavior).
5. Don’t argue with her characterizations or projections. If you get into a point-by-point rebuttal, you will lose (even if you are right), because you are stepping onto the terrain of her constructed reality and sinking time and energy there. “You’re too easily offended.” “Yes, I guess I am very easily offended. So, doing anything cool for your birthday?” “Well, god, if that’s what you think of me why do you even talk to me?” “Sometimes I don’t know the answer to that myself, but, here we are. Watching any cool shows lately?”
6. Literally end the conversation when it gets mean. “Welp, good talking with you, have a great birthday.” :click: Filter emails, do not answer calls.
7. Go low/no contact until or unless you feel up for it again. ABORT! RESET! Honestly, the default setting when it comes to dealing with someone like this. This is the one situation where you know you won’t be abused by them. And people who don’t respect logic, or reason, or empathy sometimes do learn to respect the message “I can live without you, if necessary, especially if the alternative is putting up with how mean you are.”
And yet, we don’t (I don’t) all always cut every difficult person we know out of our lives forever. Sometimes cutting contact permanently or indefinitely is the healthiest possible choice, and if that’s what you need to do for your own safety and peace of mind, then do it without guilt. If people wanted you to stick around in their lives, they’d be nicer to you. But sometimes there are compelling reasons to engage. Because: Shared history. Because: Ties with other family members. Because: Hope and optimism and love and wanting it to be better. Because: Small doses can maybe become manageable over time. Because: We have financial and care-related entanglements that we can’t just walk away from.
If you do wade in again:
8. Have a sounding board who is on your side. The person who led me to piece together this particular set of coping behaviors is a close family member. I cannot tell you how much better it makes it to have friends accessible by text or email during visits or having my boyfriend there to witness what happened and what was said. Interacting with this family member makes me feel crazy (disoriented, out of control, out of balance, like my grasp of reality is shaky, prone to tears, stomach in knots), and it’s very, very valuable to have someone who can remind me what is real.
9. Silently add “you think” on the end or beginning of every mean or untrue thing she says about you. “You are so selfish” ==>”You think I am so selfish.” This is a gem from commenter delbelcoure and it’s especially useful for keeping that sense of reality if you have to interact with your difficult person often. Remind yourself that they aren’t telling you deep truths about yourself. It’s all just opinions.
10. Identify a few safe, neutral topics of conversation. I have probably written some variation of “set the boundary and then change the subject” 1,000 times on this blog. Change the subject…to what? Try to find a TV show, an author, an interest in robots or recipes or rainbows that you have in common, so you have somewhere to go when you change the subject and a reminder of something you do have in common. And sometimes you have to literally say that’s what you are doing. “This is getting uncomfortable for me, but I do want to keep talking with you and not fight. Can we change the subject to that “Forever” show and how it’s exactly like the love child of Castle and Elementary with extra supernatural stuff added in?” They may not take the bait, and a really difficult person can make discussion of socks into a weapon if they really want to, but it gives you a strategy.
11. Keep expectations very, very low. It is unlikely that you will ever forget an instance of your sister’s mistreatment of you. Ever. And it is unlikely that you will ever fully relax around her and trust that an interaction won’t get sour sooner or later. But, since she is incapable of this, it might help if you can try to approach every time you interact without bringing old stuff into it. Think of it as modeling the behavior you want to see from her. Every new interaction is a chance for things to be cool, for you to make new positive memories to drive the old ones out. You know how it’s likely to end, so protect yourself from that, and disengage before she pulls out the Football Of Setting You Up To Fail. Then, take whatever time you need, and if you choose to interact again, treat the person like you expect them to be cool. With time it might get better. You always have the option to withdraw if it doesn’t.
We are not diagnosing, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the debt this post owes to Dr. Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? and Dr. Eleanor Payson’s book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping With One Way Relationships in Work, Love, and Family, especially the parts about how you cannot logic someone who behaves this way into seeing your point of view. If this post contained a recognizable cluster of behaviors for someone you have to deal with, those books may be of aid to you with or without a diagnostic label.
*REAL = not actually real