Dear Captain Awkward,
My brother died suddenly in an accident in May. He was my only full sibling. The only sibling I grew up with and lived with. I also have 3 older half siblings from my father’s first marriage- we’re not super close, we see each other at holidays and text quarterly updates. After the funeral, I had to plan my wedding happening just 8 weeks after my brother’s death. The trouble starts when I am texting with T (the oldest half sister) and say that I am having a hard time because my mother is emotionally unavailable due to her grief. T has a tense relationship with my mother and uses this moment to tell me how unreasonably angry my mother was acting when she last saw her. I am LIVID and stop responding. T says “sorry, it just made her sad.” I lose a day of wedding planning to being angry and trying to figure out how to respond. I give up and send no reply.
In the following weeks, T sends a message explaining her behaviour and then tells me that I am acting unacceptably. I tell her that I need some time and space. My other sister K is sent to get some answers and I tell her to mind her own business. T gives me 10 days and then tells me I’m being abusive and I’m just mad because her siblings are alive and mine is dead, that everyone was at her wedding and my brother won’t be at mine. She doesn’t want to come to my wedding because she’s not sure if I even love her anymore. I tell her that needing space was about me not her. At this time she also makes a plea to my parents to get them to make me talk with her- they say she should just leave me alone. My father sobs and begs T to attend the wedding.
At the wedding, T shows up late and leaves early. I generally avoid them and have a fine time. After the wedding she blocks me and my parents on facebook and gets her husband and mother to do the same. I text T that I am available to talk now, but understand if she needs space. No response. I text K and say apologize for being snappy and telling her to mind her own business. She blasts back demanding I take responsibility for everything – for making my “wedding into a battle ground”, shattering all of the relationships, and “single handedly tearing our grieving family apart”. I’m at a loss. Am I selfish? Are they? How much of this is my fault? Should I just cut my losses? Help?
-One wedding and a funeral
(Preferred pronouns she-her)
Dear One Wedding,
I am so very sorry for the loss of your brother, how awful! There would never be a good time for something like that to happen, but to have that grief overshadowing such a happy, huge life event seems like a special sort of hell. I am mentally hugging you and petting your hair right now, unless of course you don’t like that sort of thing. And making you tea (or coffee, or hot chocolate, or something cold, if you’d prefer). And piling good-and-not-too-stressful books by your bed.
What you 100% did not need and do not need is to be the dumping ground for all of T’s complicated feelings about family during an already stressful time for you. I guarantee that you did not “make your wedding into a battleground” and you are not “singlehandedly tearing our grieving family apart” or “being abusive.” I think you were right to tell K. to stay out of it and you didn’t do anything wrong by asking for a little space. This all sounds like some grade A, level 1 projection on T’s part, and I don’t think talking more to either T. or K. about any of it more right now is going to fix things. What would actually fix things is T. saying “I’m so sorry I made everything about me, I’ve been acting like an ass.” I don’t think that apology is coming any time soon. In the meantime, you’ve tried to mend fences where you could, and now it’s time to give yourself permission to let this all drop. A victory here, given the looming winter holidays, might be “Did not get into emotionally difficult conversations with T. about family stuff. Managed to exchange brief pleasantries over pie and chill with the rest of the family = +100 Points To Gryffindor/Me.”
One script for when T. eventually wants to talk it all out (but only focus on what you did “wrong” and not apologize) could be:
a) Have the FIGHT, already. “Here’s what this all looks like from my perspective: [Brother] died, and then when I tried to talk to you about some stuff with Mom you used it to grind an axe you have with her, and then you acted like coming to my wedding was suddenly a gigantic chore and made a big hassle for me and our parents about it and made me feel like a jerk for needing a little space to grieve. Then you sent K. to get in the middle of it, which was NOT cool. And then you’ve been saying this stuff about how I’m ‘tearing our family apart,’ which is just…incorrect? I do not want to fight with you anymore, but some of the stuff you’ve said has really hurt my feelings.”
She’ll react how she reacts. Maybe it will clear the air for you to get this all out there and not just be on the receiving end of it. Being the “bigger person” all the time can be vastly overrated.
b) Refuse to have the fight. “T., it was a really messed up time, and I don’t actually want to talk about it anymore. Let’s let bygones be bygones and try to enjoy each other’s company without going into all that. I’m really glad to see you, and I really don’t want to fight.”
It’s not the same as “I forgive you for acting like an asshole when my brother died and being a big weirdo about my wedding” but “Sister, why won’t you tallllk to me, you’re tearing our family apaaaaart” isn’t the same as “I apologize for acting like an asshole when your brother died and being a jerk about coming to your wedding.” Letting the argument die might help the relationship thaw, with some time and some new, positive interactions to chase the old, negative interactions out.
You seem like a “this specific thing is bugging me” sort of arguer and T. comes across as a “This specific thing is reminding me about how you ALWAYS are a BAD PERSON who is WRONG and I am telling EVERYONE” sort of fighter. Those two styles are not real compatible, so I really wish you luck in finding a way to talk about this that gets you what you need, which sounds like a respite from being T.’s personal scapegoat for everything wrong in your family.
One more suggestion going forward:
It sounds like T. + texting + You do not mix very well, especially around emotional topics, and that is some information you can use in the future.
Let me explain: Some people really prefer the distance & time delay of text conversations, and I get why, and in many circumstances doing things by email or letter can be really valuable for that reason. However, I find that texting, email, chat, etc.* can also be terrible ways to have contentious back-and-forth conversations with certain people about emotional stuff. There’s something about it that sucks me in so easily, the addictive chime of the incoming message, the “Oh yeah, howbout THIS?” retort, the fact that I type 100+ words/minute and can answer so quickly only to realize later that I was putting things in writing that would be passing, forgettable comments in a verbal fight except I’ve now written them in stone, to be read and re-read and dissected. Text message fights: All the savoring pleasures of grudge-holding with the immediate gratification of being right!
Even when removed from the realm of the petty or the emotionally searing, different mediums foster different kinds of interactions, for instance, the Person-You-Like-At-Parties-And-Dislike-On-Facebook or that colleague who is super affable and reasonable in person, but then you email him a request and discover that in writing he is The Amazing Bureaucrat Man, Who Only Says No, but if you run the exact same request by him in person, he’s like “Sure, let’s do it?” so you learn to always ask in person first and then follow up in email only once the request has been verbally granted. (Do other people have this colleague? No? Just me?)
I generally want to like people and have positive interactions with them, and sometimes little things like “I will walk the 10 feet to that person’s desk and talk about it instead of answering this email that annoyingly CC’d our boss in kind” or “Let’s go to bed angry – I gotta sleep and so do you! – I trust we’ll figure this all out in the morning and I love you” and “I can tell this student is really upset and writing me these emails is stressing them out more, I’m gonna give them my cell # so we can talk for a minute” can make a big difference in how a conflict resolves itself.
Anyway, to bring it back to you, dear Letter Writer, you might be able to use this knowledge to help in de-escalating situations with T. and/or K. in the future. For one example, you might want to limit how much you use texts to communicate with them, especially now when things are messy. If you do text with them, you might make a personal rule to keep things light and reserve deeper topics are for a phone call or an in-person chat. As soon as something gets emotionally heavy, or you feel like they aren’t hearing you, or are escalating a conflict, it’s time to take a break from the conversation and move it to another venue. You can be explicit about it: “Hey, Sister, I feel like there is more we both want to say here than I can comfortably text – when’s a good time to call you?” or “Whoa, can’t chat right now, call me later?” You can also wait a while before responding to the text. It’s been a very hard & valuable lesson in my life that, just because someone used a fairly immediate mode of communication, it doesn’t mean I have to reply right now or engage with everything they said.”I got your message and I’m thinking about it” is a reasonable response that can de-escalate situations by giving everyone some breathing room and taking things out of the heat of the moment.
Obviously this doesn’t solve your whole problem, since T’s overall behavior and not Text Messaging is the culprit here, but in a situation where you can’t control very much this might give you one vector that you can control even if it’s just reminding yourself:”T’s being T. again, I don’t have to respond right this second.”
Wishing you the best in your new marriage, in resolving these family conflicts (or at least de-escalating them so they aren’t all coming at YOU), and sending you condolences on the loss of your brother. I hope you are being very kind to yourself and that your spouse & friends are being very kind to you. ❤
*See also: Internet comments, Tweets, other social media