Hi Captain Awkward!
I have a younger sister (very close in age – Irish twins). She is beautiful, talented, intelligent, witty and fun — one of those life of the party types, kind of universally beloved. I am more of an average person, and had a tough time growing up under my sister’s shadow. My family is very competitive and I always came up short. One hilarious/tragic example is that my first two (TWO!!!! BOTH OF THEM! as if this happened more than once!) high school boyfriends both told me that they only started dating me to get closer to my sister since she’s the one they were actually crushing on. Other high school kids called her “the hot one.” I was not. People in my grade would invite her to parties but not me.
This was not her fault! She didn’t ask other people to be cruel. She did kind of act like your typical popular teenage girl, though, and we were pretty bitchy to each other — but I don’t think it was any worse than normal teenage siblings. I just took it really hard. My parents tried to be understanding, but they also have very high expectations and growing up I just always felt out of place, didn’t feel like I belonged or was valued.
Anyway, the result is that in my midtwenties, I now live very far from the rest of my family and try to limit my time with them. I see them three times a year at major holidays. I call my mom almost every day and I have a good relationship with her one-on-one, but I always feel sad when I have to spend time with my extended family — in fact, the sad feelings last for a couple weeks even after I return to my home in a different city. I also notice that when I’m with my family, I have trouble being my best self. After moving away I became an outgoing, happy, well-adjusted, confident person, but as soon as I get home I turn into a shy sad little clam (although I think they would describe it as sullen and ungrateful).
My sister has grown up into an accomplished, non-teenage jerk-y person, and she has a GREAT relationship with the rest of my family — they all live in the same city. The issue is that my mom regularly bugs me about why a) my sister and I aren’t closer (we don’t talk to each other apart from holidays, although it’s definitely always civil); b) I don’t come home more often; c) why I choose to live so far away.
My question is just … how to deal with this?? For my own sanity, I’ve kind of taken the “run awaaaay!!!” route and it’s worked for me. I’m happy when I’m not around them. I’ve got a great “chosen family” of friends that I’ve made since leaving home. But I realize that a lot of my family drama is my own issue now, and my mom’s feelings especially are hurt that I don’t spend more time with them so we can be a happy close family that does all kinds of stuff together. For example, soon I’ll be in their area for a weekend with my boyfriend (for a non-family event), and my mom keeps asking “but I just don’t understand why you won’t just stay with your sister?!?? they have a spare room!” (he and I have booked a hotel room instead).
It’s hard for me to just say “Hey, I’m just going to be home for Christmas for a couple days but then I’m going to travel” when it’s not really THEM that’s dysfunctional, it’s me. I think my mom is getting increasingly twitchy about this because we’re approaching marriage and baby-making age, and also she and my dad are getting older so she worries about us staying in contact when they’re not around anymore.
Do I have the right to just set these boundaries for myself even though I’m pretty sure I’m the messed up one here? If so, how do I do this kindly and appropriately while still taking care of myself?
Sibling Rivalry Up the Wazoo
Dear Sibling Rivalry:
The scripts you’re looking for are:
a) Why aren’t you and your sister closer? “You’ll have to ask her!” “Sister is welcome to visit me anytime.” (i.e. Phones, roads, and planes work BOTH ways). “We have a pretty good relationship, I think.” “This is working for us right now.”
b) Why don’t you come
home to visit more often? “Three visits/year are about what I can schedule. You’re welcome to visit me sometime, though!” (Phones, roads, and planes, work BOTH ways).
c) Why do you live so far away? “I like it here.” “I’m happy living here.” “This works for me.” “My job/school/friends/life is here.”
Bonus: d) I just want you and your sister to be close, you know, when your Dad and I are gone. “That’s understandable, and I’m sure we’ll be glad to lean on each other then.” e) Why can’t you stay with your sister? “She didn’t invite us.” “A hotel is more comfortable for us.” “This works better for me.”
Answer the questions quickly, automatically, the same way every time, and without apologizing or getting drawn into a discussion about how dysfunctional and awful you are. You do not have to defend your actual life against your mom’s fantasy of what her family is like. Make it very boring to talk about this stuff and change the subject a lot. Your mom isn’t gonna change how she feels (or whether she asks) but you can get to subject changes more quickly and skillfully with some practice and time.