#948: “My sister enjoys being the other woman…and telling me alllllll about it.”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m a decade younger than my sister, who is in her mid-30s. After moving cross country, I feel so liberated and energized with the distance in place between me and my entire family.

I have played many roles for my sister…it was a draining pattern. Even as I have put distance between us, a good friend back home let me know my sister seems to have a new man in her life (spoiler: she doesn’t). How do I know she does not? With this latest new man, she’s forwarded me their exchanges. My sister is enthralled by striking up emotional affairs with male co-workers. She boasts how much these men reveal to her; how little they talk to their wives and girlfriends; or how these men don’t mention their wives/girlfriends to her. She’ll forward unsolicited text exchanges (I don’t want to see them, ever). The exchanges are basic who/what/where updates. She withholds communication (which is a relief, frankly) when I point out things like…ummm why should you know about their SOs in the first place? All of this strikes me as bananas. I work long hours in a male-dominated work place…I’m never privy to or pry for SO updates or information.

I’m at the point where I feel like I will lash out and say something that will really hurt my sister. Am I overreacting? Maybe this is an entertaining way to pass the hours while at work? Yet I want to broadcast: “Go pay for pricey therapy like I did! ” How do I communicate I’m no longer interested in hearing about her fantasy relationships and imaginary play-by-plays? Now I’m being judgmental, but I also think it’s sad to carry on a series of unfulfilling relationships. I don’t think there’s actually a way to help her, especially as I have spoon-fed her therapy resources and information, at her request. This was entertaining when, you know, I was in middle school and she was in college. She has never had a relationship and says she hates dating even though she was 18 when she went on her last date.

Edited to Add: This post needed a soundtrack, and lo, there is one.

 

Ugh. I see why this is upsetting and also awkward. I’ve been in some of those “Oh, that’s my friend, I can tell her ANYTHING”/”Well, um, actually, I wish you wouldn’t overshare about some of that stuff”-imbalanced relationships before, and it’s really hard to tell someone that the reciprocity they’ve been relying on isn’t there. It’s really hard to learn that when you’re the one who is doing the oversharing. The pattern where you are her confidant has gone on so long that it will upset her if you change the pattern at all. And yet, the pattern needs to change.

I don’t know that you can solve the problem of your sister and her sketchy interactions with her coworkers. Some people like having the “Work Wife/Husband”* and some people like being the “Work Wife/Husband” and it’s ooky but it’s also not on you to fix this for her.

Where you do have control is in changing the dynamic where she shares this stuff with you and you are the patient listening ear. Here are some strategies:

Be direct:Sister, why are you telling me about this? I don’t want to read all these texts from dudes you work with.

Predicted Result: Sister will likely get mad and avoid you for a little while, which, okay. If she stops forwarding text exchanges, this is a win.

Be absent: Never respond to texts or messages about these dudes. Respond only to other conversations about other topics.

Predicted Result: Sister will likely get mad and avoid you for a little while, which, okay. If she stops forwarding text exchanges, this is a win.

Be boring: “Hrmmm, interesting. So, what’s going on with [GIANT SUBJECT CHANGE]?”

Like, never dig into the content of these exchanges. Find that noncommittal phrase that you can repeat as needed. My older brother likes “It’s hard to say,” choose your own adventure:

  • “You don’t say.”
  • “Wow.”
  • “That’s one opinion.”
  • “Indeed.”
  • “Huh.”

Add a giant subject change onto the end of that and see what happens.

Predicted Result: Your sister will 100% see through this and maybe get mad and avoid you for a while or start an argument about how you don’t care about her. Okay? Over time you can teach her that it’s very boring to talk about these work crushes with you.

Be on the level: This sort of goes under “be direct” but I wanted that to be about what you want her to do, and this is a deeper sort of conversation that you might want to have with her on the phone or in person.

  • “It’s sweet that you like confiding in me, but these stories about your coworkers make me really uncomfortable. I know you don’t like dating, but these strange flirtations with coworkers seem really unhealthy to me, and I’m worried that if something blows up it will hurt your heart AND your career.”
  • “Hey, that dude is married. If he’s texting you like that, it’s gross.”
  • “When you share that stuff with me, what is it that you want me to say?”
  • “Are you really okay with someone lying to their wife or girlfriend so they can spend time with you? You are so much cooler than that!”
  • “Why do you waste time with all these people who are already with someone else? You deserve somebody who’s really into you, and only you.”
  • “Sister, it seems like you’d really like to be in a relationship with someone but you’re focusing all your energy on people who are already taken. What’s going on with that?”
  • “Are you happy? You don’t seem happy to me, and I want only the best things for you.”

Predicted result: I don’t know. Will she see the pattern or just think she’s being attacked? I don’t know that I’d start out here without trying some of the other strategies first. If this does turn into a big argument about your entire relationship with each other, I wouldn’t be surprised, so, don’t you be surprised either. Maybe that argument needs to happen in order to clear out some dank childhood air.

Here’s what else I am reading in your letter: Your sister is extremely lonely and trying to bond with you. She’s going about it the wrong way (a common theme in the stories you tell about her), but she sees this as bonding. If you’re going to continue a relationship with your sister even as you separate yourself from the rest of your family, it might be time for you to take control of the communication for a little while. By which I mean, figure out some stuff you have in common and instead of waiting for her to contact you about her crush-of-the-week, bond with her about something besides these girl-talk-overshares.

Could be a joint sibling book club or book recommendations – “What are you reading lately?” Could be a joint sibling favorite TV show (hate-watching counts) – “What are you watching lately?” Could be a once-a-month or once-a-year “grab drinks and hang out” evening, or weekend trip or a hobby (“Let’s learn Latin together!“). Find something that she’s into (that isn’t gross work dudes) and give it at least a small try to see if you’re into it, too.

You don’t have to do any of this, of course, and it will take time, so go slow and be nice to yourself. Just, if you want to change the dynamic and form an adult relationship with your sister for the long haul, it might help to do some thinking about what you want that relationship to be like and actively try to move your communications in a more positive direction.

*I hate this term, btw. Barf-o-rama.

67 comments
  1. Celeste said:

    I agree, your sister isn’t happy. Hard to say if she’s getting what she wants from these habits, but you certainly are not. I love all of the suggestions for moving her to a different way to be with you. It must be really hard to watch time slipping away from her in these games, when she could be moving forward in a relationship. But if all you can do is help her heal her relationship with you, that’s a good thing. Wishing you all the best with that! xoxoxoxo

    • Nanani said:

      “when she could be moving forward in a relationship” … um
      That seems a bit judgey.

      Maybe the sister, who has not “dated” according to the LW in many years, doesn’t WANT a relationship at all? Maybe flirting with guys at work is all she wants to do.

      The problem is LW doesn’t want to hear about this, but would like a relationship with their sister (minus the oversharing)
      The problem is NOT “LW’s sister is doing relationships wrong”

      • crooked bird said:

        “Not moving forward” isn’t wrong, but emotional affairs with married dudes?

        LW isn’t in control of that part, only of what kind of sharing she is willing to accept, but let’s name that there’s two parts to this. If someone enjoys flirting and playing the field, fine, but it’s not fair to cross boundaries with monogamous people (or people who tell their spouses they are monogamous) and LW has a right to call that out even if Sister may not listen.

      • Celeste said:

        The LW made the same sort of judgement, and admitted to it being judgey. The LW is clearly in opposition to the sister’s behavior. What she does seems to rise above flirting to me; she delves much further. Does the sister have what she wants? Neither of us knows. But the LW does seem to have a sense of what maturity does look like, and is pursuing it in her own life. It isn’t just that the LW doesn’t want to hear it; she’s suggested many times ways that her sister can change her ways. The LW clearly thinks the sister is doing relationships wrong. I just don’t see anywhere in society that striking up emotional affairs with married men is the “right” conduct.

  2. Smithy said:

    My younger brother and I had a tough relationship growing up, and as adults finding a way to have a “grown up” relationship hasn’t been easy. Underlying issues aside, one of the weirder challenges has been finding what to talk about in a light/regular way. My brother and I do not do well talking over the phone – finding convenient times to talk is a struggle and when we are on the phone it’s often awkward. As uncomfortable as I find the experience, he clearly has it in his head “this is how long distance siblings should bond”.

    For me it’s much easier to maintain a light hearted texting conversation around “hey did you see this news story/weird animal video/latest Star Wars paraphernalia item you can buy”. I find this easiest, but it’s also clearly my preference – so it’s on me to stay a bit more on top of it. If I don’t, he’s more inclined to revert to his method of phone calls that I find less pleasant.

    • lizinthelibrary said:

      My brother and I have not connected as well as adults. The difference is he doesn’t do phone calls (at least with me). So a steady stream of text messages (funny memes, interesting news stories, etc) is our best way of keeping up the connection. It’s low key and low stakes and random enough to be fun not an obligation.

  3. H.Regalis said:

    I’ve been the person who was oversharing more times that I want to think about, and as awkward as it’s going to be for you to say, “Please stop telling me this stuff,” it’s better for you to tell her that sooner than later. It’ll hurt, but she’ll find out eventually and the longer you wait, the more painful it will be. Your sister’s not a car, so you probably can’t fix her, but at least you can get her to stop telling you things that make you deeply uncomfortable.

    • I think this is a really important point. Most people don’t want to make their loved ones uncomfortable. Setting boundaries is also doing them a favor, even if it’s a painful one.

  4. Andraya said:

    Wow. This is remarkably similar to some awkwardness I had with someone a while back. She also seriously over-shared, including screen shots of private conversations with other people that I didn’t want to see. I tried the Be Boring tactic. I had two or three stock non-committal responses (maybe I should have just had one?) that I would give. I figure I should warn you – my experience is that does not work at all. We would have increasingly long conversations where all I said was “hmm” and she would just go on and on and ON. I honestly don’t even think she noticed that I had almost completely disengaged. So… my prediction on that one is different from the Captain’s.

    Eventually when her oversharing started being about mutual friends and we were so far over the line I couldn’t even see it anymore, I just went blunt. “This is inappropriate. Stop.” She was outraged, blew up at me, and declared our friendship over, but honestly I considered that a win. Your sister may also be outraged. She may blow up at you. She may decide you can’t be friends anymore. I imagine that will suck, but consider that ultimately it will still probably be better than what you have right now.

    • winter said:

      I’d say it depends on the reason for oversharing. If sister is feeling a communication void, like the Captain suggested, and OP can fill it with different topics/reactions, that might work. If the person is oversharing because they’re only interested in themselves and their cool/dramatic life and they just need someone who is alive and nods (like it sounds your former friend did), then it won’t work.

  5. I would reverse Cap’s advice and try the latter strategy first, then the former. It seems to me that you have two goals – one loftier than the other. The lofty one is for your sister to break out of unhealthy patterns and get some help! That is a hard thing to want for someone else because honestly, while sometimes friends and family can be the final nudge toward breaking destructive habits that you already recognize as such, they are almost never the singular thing that does it. That’s the sticky thing around what we say when we say “enabling” – it’s not a desirable thing, but there’s a difference between actively promoting a behavior that’s unhealthy and recognizing your limitations in controlling it. The latter is an important part of loving imperfect people.

    I would try it, coming from a place of love and genuine concern, and then if she’s not receptive, you back off and revert to more achievable goal of, okay continue doing this thing but don’t involve me in quite the same way. Ignore, redirect, suggest other things. I am much more optimistic about your success at curbing the frequency of these awkward exchanges than I am you creating genuine change.

    This doesn’t have to be a straight line – one to the other, then never return. You can re-evaluate and try strategy ‘a’ again if the background conditions change such that she might feel more receptive to hearing gentle re-direction and offers to help (say one of these interactions DOES blow up and it’s a serious, sobering wake-up call for her).

    I understand you want her in your life and you don’t want her to feel judged or pull away. Anyone with destructive behaviors, though, is constantly negotiating how important [unhealthy thing] is to them vis-a-vis their relationships. Reassure yourself that her reacting to your boundaries by maybe distancing a bit or getting angry is not her loving you less or choosing that behavior AT you, it’s just that she’s not in a place to see how much more important you really are to her than the things that may give her immediate gratification. Be steady, be clear that you’re still there in general just not for this, and you have the best chance of success.

    • Yolanda B. Cool said:

      Nothing to add, but holy cow, everything you’ve said here is great, and I’ve read your comment, like, three times already, unpacking it as it applies to relationships in my life.

      Thank you for sharing this.

    • CJ said:

      I’ve read laurencleansup’s comment a bunch of times too. Amazing stuff. When I grow up, I would be quite pleased if I was able to articulate these concepts even half as well.

  6. Try all of the Captain’s advice first, but…

    My family is dense. They need hitting with the Clue-by-four. My favorite phrase for that is; “So the other day (week, year), as I was changing the subject, [insert stuff I am willing to talk about]”. If nothing else works, you could try it.

    • pixel said:

      I have used “Don’t care.” successfully on dense people, as long as you don’t mind them getting mad and stomping off.

  7. I may be wrong, but part of the vibe I’m getting off these exchanges is that the sister is waging some some of weird-logic war on the idea of relationships. On the one hand, she ‘hates dating’ and has never had a relationship; on the other hand, she’s pouring a ton of emotional energy into these exchanges where it seems the thing that excites her most is the idea of beating out her objects’ wives, or proving just how little devotion to their wives she had in the first place. She doesn’t want to go for a relationship of her own that would have a chance of working, but she’s very invested in seeing and/or creating damage in other people’s relationships.

    Loneliness may be part of it, but the vibe I’m getting is anger and hostility. She may be trying to bond, but am I the only one to whom this smacks of bonding by trying to create a kind of shared emotional banditry, an army of two enjoying the marauding against settled relationships? And switching off at the ‘betrayal’ of pointing out that actually, this is kind of destructive and not a good idea?

    Like I say, I’m just speculating, but this feels to me like it might be partly fantasy, but partly punishing something. And if that’s the case … well, I’d be quite worried about what she’ll do if/when the letter writer got into a decent relationship of their own.

    I don’t know what to do with that opinion, really, except maybe factor it in if you decide to go the route of, ‘Okay, what do you actually want me to say in this situation? What are you actually getting out of this pattern?’ But if she is looking for an ally in a campaign against relationship stability, well, that’s a boundary that’s going to have drawn at some point.

    • Celeste said:

      It’s sort of an avoidant behavior, in that she goes for guys who are already taken. Yet she has something to prove, in feeling like she has one up on their partners. I’m also guessing that she brings this to her sister because she doesn’t have any women friends.

    • dr_silverware said:

      I think there is certainly trouble in her kingdom, and I think she’s fishing hard for some kind of emotional response that the LW doesn’t want to give. But I don’t know that she’s such a villain that LW should spend a lot of energy right now worrying about relationship sabotage–I’m also not sure how it would change their response to their sister in this moment.

      • You’re probably right, except insofar as it’s probably best to work out a boundary now rather than later. I don’t think she’s a villain, just that, given the family dynamics LW hints at, there may be some anger there. Which doesn’t make her evil, just carrying damage and acting more from her messed-up side than her healthy side. And of course, this is all speculation that may be wrong…

      • winter said:

        Agree. I think this is not that sinister. She’s looking for some emotional connection, obviously in an unhealthy manner and it’s coming out all weird because she hasn’t worked on her own issues. Yes, it is (somewhat) destructive to the people around her, but I don’t read it as malicious in such a way that LW needs to fear for their/their relationships’ well-being.

      • BeautifulVoid said:

        This is why out of all the possible responses/strategies, my favorite is LW asking “When you share that stuff with me, what is it that you want me to say?” (Phrased in a curious/concerned way, not accusatory.) The sister’s answer might provide some valuable insights, and LW can go from there.

    • Kathleen Turner Overdrive said:

      The sister could simply have abandonment issues and be in denial about it. These “relationships” are more likely to end because the wife or GF finds out than the a single guy who simply dumps her because he loses interest. And even if they do, you can’t be “dumped” if you’re not really “dating”.

      As for why she is confiding in the younger sister – most of the women’s friends that are her peers have partners or spouses at that age and would be really skeeved out at the idea of their own boyfriend or husband carrying on an emotional affair with his coworker. The sister knows this and wouldn’t want to risk the social consequences.

    • Paulina said:

      I interpret the sister’s behaviour less as overall hostility to relationships and more like her being unwilling to take the risk of having a relationship. She avoids dating, but has these fantasy relationships with the men she works with as a way of getting relationship-type validation, telling herself that she could have these men if she really wanted them, and also telling her audience (the LW).

      It’s also not uncommon for older siblings to have gotten used to being in the more senior role, and wanting continued attention from younger siblings, even once everyone is an independent adult. A successful topic change may need to have some sort of opportunity for the sister to “show off” in a way that the LW can tolerate (and hopefully also give space for the LW to enjoyably participate as well!). Not participating in the discussion can be interpreted as rapt attention, unfortunately.

      • alexa said:

        That’s how I interpreted it, as well, largely colored by my own experiences, mind. I’ve never delighted in attracting the attention of married men at work (in fact, the two times I found men over the top flirty with me and discovered they were married I was HORRIFIED), but as someone who also hates dating for many reasons, there’s a certain attraction in the idea of falling into an ideal relationship organically through a work interaction/friends group, etc. There’s far less risk (emotionally) in that type of scenario. It’s a fantasy I’ve entertained a few times, then got over as I aged and never had a magical workplace romance, ha. Anyway, I wonder if the older sister is in that type of arrested development where she’s hoping for some magical happenstance and is latching onto these tenuous connections. I feel for OP in her frustration, though, as I’ve been on the receiving end of someone perpetuating fantasies, re: every man she meets (turning “that guy in my MBA class” into an Epic Romance Tale even though he’s not actually asked friend out), and endlessly going on and on about them.

      • onyx said:

        My older brother does something similar to this. He does date — a lot — but is one of those people that bills himself as “polyamorous” so he can excuse having multiple emotional affairs at once. He’s been dumped by half a dozen long-term girlfriends for having secret affairs, never anything physical to my knowledge… love letters, sexting, that sort of thing–but it’s still cheating. He loves the thrill of it, I think. I joke he reads too much Lord Byron. He’s obsessed with romantic intrigue and emotional passion… but the root of it is his crippling fear of commitment. Those emotional affairs always destroy the real relationship he’s in, and I’m honestly not sure if he thinks he can get away with his fantasy or if he’s deliberately self-sabotaging so he can move on to someone new when he feels things are too “serious”. LW’s sister reads like that to me–it’s a risk-free fantasy where she feels desired and empowered.

        • CJ said:

          THIS. The destruction that these Lord Byron aspirants often leave in their wake can be considerable and impact entire families. Yet that doesn’t occur to them, as the relationships of other people are not their problem, especially when the heart wants what it wants. We’re all adults and free agents, right? I suppose that’s true, yet it seems to work best when there is full knowledge and consent all around.

          Oh, the many sins that have been committed in the name of ‘polyamory’. While a lovely concept, the realities of that lifestyle often fall far short of the promise when engaged in by imperfect human beings. In my experience (which is considerable in that community), those who can actually live up to their “communication, communication, communication” and “do no harm” ideals are few and far between. Humans are inherently self-serving, pleasure seeking creatures unaware of their limits. They have enough difficulty avoiding temptations and balancing the needs of one committed relationship, let alone multiples. So much Big Drama, so much less amour, so much more business for therapists.

          When combined with a high tolerance for the abundant more-evolved-than-thou superiority and evangelizing mindset common to sexual minority communities that often feel persecuted by mainstream society, it’s just a breeding ground for disrespect and contempt toward relationship models that represent those of their mainstream oppressors. Which of course justifies spurning social norms sanctified by mainstream society and regarding everyone as fair game to approach, to the extent of hitting on known monogamous/vanilla/square/otherwise-unavailable hotties (often in the presence of their uncomfortable spouses) with little regard to the consequences. What harm could come from being the worldly libertine who takes it upon themselves to introduce so many delicious possibilities to attractive potential partners whose committed relationships may already be organized around a different paradigm? They can always ignore the attention and decline, right?

    • Nanani said:

      The thing is, all we have is LWs complaint about text conversations they would rather not see.
      We don’t actually know how important these exchanges are to the sister, and “fix sister’s dating life” is not actually the goal.
      (Fix LWs sibling’s co-workers’ relationships is DEFINITELY not the goal)

      I think it could be a dynamic where significantly older sibling has always been the “experienced” one, by virtue of the age difference, and doesn’t know what to talk about other than relationship drama. The whole thing sounds very middle-school-gossipy, tbh.

      I’d advice LW to focus on redirecting to something they actually want to talk about, and setting boundaries around what they don’t want to talk about.

      I could be wrong, but this sounds like a stale role and rut problem to me.

      • Chelle said:

        Yeah, there are multiple threads here:

        1) Whatever is going on with the coworkers’ marriages/relationships.
        2) Whatever is going on with the sister that is driving her towards weird dynamics with coworkers.
        3) The LW doesn’t want to know about the sister’s weird dynamics with coworkers.

        Muddling them up together is no good, as only #3 is something the LW can actually control. I’m glad it’s what the Captain focused on, and I think we all should too. Trying to armchair diagnose #1 or #2 is ultimately unhelpful and beside the point.

  8. sister - misters = cool™ said:

    Cap’s advice to be boring and then change the subject works for me. I never got this specific subject, but my cousin did consistently overshare about her sex life. Yuck!! My specific brand of friendly misunderstandings worked for me:

    I’d put off texting back for a while (a couple hours or even a day or so, depending on how often y’all text). We both have iPhones, so I’d avoid selecting the text message and marking it “read.” This gave me the plausible deniability that I hadn’t seen it or hadn’t gotten to it yet.

    Then, I would text back, by starting a completely new conversation. “Look at this cute top I saw at Target! Talk me out of buying it!!” or “Remember when… [childhood memory/inside joke]” or “Have you figured out what you’re getting Grandpa for his birthday yet? I’m thinking instead of a tie this year, I’ll get him TWO ties.” or “My boss gave my coworker a talking-to because she doodled a sheep on her notes during the meeting. What a stick in the mud!” (True story. It was absurd. We were all like: ??? Anyway…)

    Anything! Something I would have sent her if we DIDN’T have this discomfiting dynamic. I never even saw the creepy text. (I’d also delete it on my end, so I wouldn’t have to read about her fiance’s you-know-what every time I opened up our text thread.) I was totally unaware she was still doing it! I had no idea! What’s sex? I didn’t even know!! Eventually, she did learn that I wanted to talk to her… about anything but that.

    My cousin’s receptive, so she accepted the subject change, and we got to have cool conversations! She’d try to overshare another time, at which point I did this again and again until she got tired of trying to do this with me. Seriously, I’m sure your sister can find a different friend to send these to, or make a blog calling Goofing With My Married Coworkers, or or or. She’s a big girl.

    The other option that my cousin didn’t do, but that I’ve experienced in other situations is this: They are irritated and say, “Why didn’t you respond to X?” or “Did you see X?”

    At which point the boring response comes in: MY preference is the friendly but totally noncommittal “Oh yeah sorry! Nice” or “Oh haha cool”. It’s not QUITE the right response to what they said, which makes it seem like I’m open to chatting with them, but I also don’t get the joke lol. People in general don’t really want to talk to somebody about X if X totally goes over that somebody’s head. It’s just not fun without the encouraging responses, and she can’t, like, get mad at you if you’re not being judgmental. And then of course I’d immediately follow up with ~something it JUST occurred to me I want to say to them right away!!~ “Oh! Moana’s out on DVD! Have you seen it?? I cried!”

    I agree with the captain that it sounds like she’s just trying to chill with you. Like she keeps trying to do this with you because it used to work when y’all were younger. She might be trying to get back that sense of big sis + little sis = fun times making fun of peers. If you want to, try figuring out what makes both of y’all laugh – my brother and I like to insult each other and exchange Ocean’s 11 quotes – and spackling over your old relationship with a new one. It’s hard to resist a change when the old way felt one-sided and unsatisfying and the new way makes you laugh!

    This is an awkward situation! Sorry you’re going through it, LW. But if it gives you encouragement, my cousin and I have a pretty great relationship now! I love talking with her! And I don’t have to think about what she does in the boudoir anymore.

    • olivia0330 said:

      I have a childhood friend who does this very thing to me! I’m not oversharing or sending creepy messages. Our roles in life are so different, though, that I suspect a lot of the minutia life is very boring to him (me, an Old Married, and stay at home mom to 3 kids under 10, and him, a single cool dude who has lots of interesting hobbies, travels, and has never had a long term relationship but has lots of sexy, exciting friendships). So, if I write him something that doesn’t interest him, he’ll write me back and completely change the subject to whatever is on his mind. That sounds mean when I put it like that, but I swear it’s really kindly done, and the message is clear: “I don’t really want to talk about THIS, but I do want to talk to YOU.” It also works because of reciprocity. If he wrote me and I changed the subject, he would go with it without hurt feelings.

      I never take anything to him that is important to me or emotionally charged for me, though, because if I did and he punted, it would hurt my feelings. So because of that, I’d say we’re *good* friends, but not *close* friends.

      • olivia0330 said:

        Bah! That should say, “. . .the minutia of my life. . .” You know, studying spelling words with my littles, finding a good deal on a grocery staple: the things I love about my life but are, to be fair, pretty dull.

      • Brooks Moses said:

        I just want to say that that sounds very nifty that you’ve kept the friendship going despite the different life-roles. Yay for having a way that being good friends doesn’t require close-friend-ness. 🙂

  9. B. said:

    Wow, that version of Gloria says something completely different than the one I know o.o

    I had a friend who did stuff like this. I turned her into a small doses friend because I just couldn’t deal with her racism, but before that I had luck with the boring monosyllable + obvious subject change. When she saw what got her my attention and what didn’t, she stopped oversharing so much.

    Good luck, LW!

  10. dr_silverware said:

    How about just: “Sister, I love you, but I really don’t want to hear about your sex life. How else is work going?”

    I had to do this with my own little sibling, whom I love very much and want to talk to, but I would deeply prefer to know about their sex life in as broad strokes as possible. Same for my older brother. Same for my parents. Same with my uncles and aunts. Not the same with just about anyone else in the world not related to me–I can usually hear a whoooooole lot of information before it becomes TMI–but it’s ok to have different boundaries about these things depending on your relationship.

    When I established a new TMI level with my family, I did get a little pushback, because my family values sex-positivity and openness; I got through the pushback by emphasizing that I wasn’t judging anyone, just preferred to talk about other topics or about less specific sex.

    In many American families you’re going to have an easier time setting boundaries around this type of “don’t tell me about your sex life” request, because it’s already part of American family culture, for better or for worse. I’d definitely take advantage of this!

    • dr_silverware said:

      Also, LW: I suspect that your sister is hounding you with information in part because she wants validation from you. Validation for hating dating? Validation for pursuing already-attached partners? Validation that you see her as romantically mature? Validation that she’s as romantically mature as she perceives you to be? Impossible to tell without being in her head–but I think you may be withholding some validation of that type.

      Once she stops cluing you in to every aspect of her love life, I think you’ll progressively easier to get along with her. Right now you’re so frustrated and you see the dubious morality of her love life so clearly that it’s really hard to validate her at all, and I think that may be creating a vicious circle. You’re kind of judging her, and she wants something else out of your response to her life. When you totally remove your response as a possibility–“I love you and you deserve happiness, but I don’t want to hear about your romances”–hopefully that breaks the circle.

    • My husband’s father thought it was appropriate to reminisce to my husband about using a str@p-on with my husband’s mother.

      And – when my husband was cleaning out their house after they died, he found photo evidence.

      Nobody wants to know this about their parents. Nobody.

      • dr_silverware said:

        Right? Thankfully my little sibling was the only actual TMI culprit, and not even that bad. Such intimate details as positions and tools are really unfortunate to know when you don’t want to.

        But–the LW certainly has precedent for setting this boundary, even if their sister’s information isn’t quite so raunchy.

      • I don’t want to know this about anybody!

        J Edgar Hoover in a dress was bad enough.

        • Aris Merquoni said:

          Hey, is it possible in the future when stuff like this comes up, you could be more careful not to kinkshame/queershame? Not wanting to know about other people’s sex lives is fine and normal, but your comment is coming across like it was J. Edgar Hoover’s cross-dressing that was the problem, not his systematic abuse of institutional power–er, the fact that you got something overshared with you.

          • Sorry, good point. It was an oversharing angle, but I did not express it well.

            He was a loathsome person and knowing intimate details makes it worse, somehow.

          • Aris Merquoni said:

            @WayofCats thanks!

  11. Marthooh said:

    Hey, LW! Fellow little sister, here.

    It sounds like the dynamic used to be: you watching admiringly while big sis made up her face with mysterious potions and implements; but now you’re wondering if inch-long lashes and powder-blue eyelids are actually a good look for anyone. I think the horrible (non)relationships with coworkers are all she has to offer now for your admiration, sad as that is, and it’s going to be painful for her to change the dynamic to a friendship between equals. And, as the Captain said, she probably doesn’t know how to go about changing it.

  12. resili0 said:

    Perhaps this is a backlash for your (healthy) choice to get therapy and move away. By shocking you and putting on behaviour Sister knows will push your buttons about relationship ethics, she is fishing for a hook into your emotions. She knows that it gets to you.

    I think the suggestions and strategies mentioned will help. I’d be inclined to believe your Sister that actually, she doesn’t want the intimacy and hard work that comes with a relationship with an available partner. She is an adult. That’s on her, not you.

    My brother has a few negative drinking patterns of his own that he used to seek out my disapproval/shock/pity/compassion over; arguing about his decisions didn’t help either of us. No one can take weird comraderie and comfort over the kind of alcohol related stuff he was doing so I decided not to fake it. I came to accept that he will change when he wants to and nothing I can offer will prompt that. When he had his silent sulk, I hung in there telling myself that enabling is not a substitute for closeness. My job is to be his sibling and talk about the other stuff that makes up life. In reality, I reckon my brother got into shame spiral by over sharing his bad habits, the less I say about them, the less he acts out. He also gets to feel like he is a brother to me. I act like he is awesome company, gladly take his calls and graciously back off when he is being an arsehole.

    I recommend checking out the Drama Triangle, it helped me step out of rescuer/persecutor and into sister who is kind but not gonna laugh along with my brother that he passed out in a pub cellar drunk like that’s not alcoholism.

  13. resili0 said:

    Perhaps this is a backlash for your (healthy) choice to get therapy and move away. By shocking you and putting on behaviour Sister knows will push your buttons about relationship ethics, she is fishing for a hook into your emotions. She knows that it gets to you.

    I think the suggestions and strategies mentioned will help. I’d be inclined to believe your Sister that actually, she doesn’t want the intimacy and hard work that comes with a relationship with an available partner. She is an adult. That’s on her, not you.

    My brother has a few negative drinking patterns of his own that he used to seek out my disapproval/shock/pity/compassion over; arguing about his decisions didn’t help either of us. No one can take weird comraderie and comfort over the kind of alcohol related stuff he was doing so I decided not to fake it. I came to accept that he will change when he wants to and nothing I can offer will prompt that. When he had his silent sulk, I hung in there telling myself that enabling is not a substitute for closeness. My job is to be his sibling and talk about the other stuff that makes up life. In reality, I reckon my brother got into shame spiral by over sharing his bad habits, the less I say about them, the less he acts out. He also gets to feel like he is a brother to me. I act like he is awesome company, gladly take his calls and graciously back off when he is being an arsehole.

    I recommend checking out the Drama Triangle, it helped me step out of rescuer/persecutor and into sister who is kind but not gonna laugh along with my brother that he passed out in a pub cellar drunk like that’s not alcoholism.

  14. Indoor Cat said:

    I’m just going to second that “being boring” hasn’t seemed to work for me in the past re: oversharers. Generally my experience has been that the oversharing friend misses the fact that I’m bored or disengaged entirely and just keeps talking, even to the point that, if I changed the subject, we can talk about the new subject for a while, but then they’ll try to circle back around to the Thing I Do Not Want To Know About.

    So, one vote in favor of bluntness / directness first. Also, I’m in favor of using “please and thank you” and emphasizing “it’s me, not you,” (even though it *is* on her, at least mostly) because she is your sister and it seems like you don’t want to burn the bridge if you don’t have to. I’ve had good luck with things like, “Hey, listen, I like hanging out with you, but can we please not talk about [politics / porn / gossip about friends]? It makes me anxious and uncomfortable. Thanks.”

    I think saying how it makes me feel makes the other person feel less judged / defensive. Although, as the Captain said, there’s no way to guarantee that the other person won’t get mad or try to argue. And it’s important to remember that you can always enforce your boundary by just hanging up the phone or ending the conversation.

    Just my 2c, good luck.

    • attica said:

      I would say straight out to my oversharer. “Ugh! TMI! Stop!” and she’d be … thrilled. And continue oversharing, laughing at the whole thing (and me, I suppose).I had to make her a small-dose friend, until the exchange of African Violets.

    • Arizona said:

      I love Indoor Cat’s suggested script. Most of my communication with my friends is through text. Often times, I’ll give short responses that I intend to show I’m listening even though I don’t have anything to add yet. So when I get short “boring” responses from my friends, I’ve always thought they were doing the same thing (they didn’t know quite what to say, but they wanted to show support / let me know they’re still listening). Reading this post, now I wonder if I’ve steamrolled right through anyone who actually didn’t want to hear about it. I would hugely appreciate bluntness / directness.

      I’d also prefer “I’m sorry, I can’t be the person you talk to about this; it makes me anxious and uncomfortable” + subject change, rather than just a subject change ignoring what was said. I’ve had a couple friends who’d totally ignore a message I sent and respond with something totally different, and I’d always just felt blown off and upset. There was only one situation where I realized “ohh maybe they don’t want to hear about this” because it happened repeatedly every time I brought up politics. They would have gotten results a whole lot faster had they just said “I’m not interested in politics, can you leave me out of these conversations?” and it also would have avoided the whole “why are they being so rude???” thing I was experiencing.

      Of course it’s going to depend on your relationship with the person, and if past experience has shown that being direct doesn’t work, then refusing to engage makes complete sense. But your relationship is otherwise good, I’d give them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t want to be making you uncomfortable, and use directness as your first strategy.

      • CJ said:

        I’m with you about the direct approach. I would probably feel blown off too if the other person took the safe, easy, conflict-averse approach of constantly changing the subject. Yeah, I know it’s up to me to pick up on the cues that someone is uncomfortable with the topic. Yet there is no way for me to always know that the subject change is due to their discomfort or just wanting to talk about their own stuff.

        I figure honest relationships require courage to express my boundaries. It’s a much cleaner and faster way to get what I want (or don’t want) in the interaction. The other person’s reactions tell me a lot about the state of the relationship. But I can well afford the risk, as I don’t have any living family, thus don’t have to deal with sulking (or worse) from siblings, etc.

  15. Cor! said:

    Wow, these exchanges sound kinda exasperating to me, call me out if I’m being insensitive, but I’d just throw a bomb at her and ask “if you’re so happy being single, why does it matter if your guyfriends’ wives/girlfriends know about you, I assumed you weren’t getting involved”.
    I know plenty of women who prefer to have male friends over female friends, that’s an entirely different can of worms, but the majority don’t wanna play the “other woman”.
    Sister may likely be very lonely, she may hate dating, but she’s seeking out the approval of guys who are already in relationships and doing a ton of emotional labor for them, people who are happily single don’t typically do these kinds of things. Hell, people who aren’t single by choice don’t typically do this.

    • STH said:

      Yes, I had to do this with a friend recently. She’s never had a relationship, but has a history of crushing on unavailable men at work–being their confidant, taking care of them, etc. I think it has to do with the emotional neglect she experienced from her parents; the other kids in the family have had similar relationship issues. The other day she called me up just to tell me that her latest crush’s wife is expecting a boy rather than a girl, a bit of news that she was super-excited about: “can you believe it?!? I’m so surprised!!” I think she gets so far into these things that she loses track of how not-normal it all is. I just asked her, “why do you care so much about this? This is just a guy you work with, why is this so important to you?” She immediately backtracked and played down how excited she was. She hasn’t brought him up with me since, and I’m hoping she’ll cool it for a while. I was doing the boring thing and it was having NO effect, she was happy to just rattle on about every little thing this guy had said and done.

      • TO_Ont said:

        Maybe it’s just me, but, some of that just seems like… being close friends? I have some good friends both male and female who I can imagine being excited for about their upcoming babies! Regardless of whether they or their partner are the one who’s physically pregnant, it’s still ‘my friend is going to have a baby, OMG!’

        The problem here isn’t that she’s made close friends at work, which would be nice. It’s not that she has friends of a gender her sister doesn’t think she should be friends with, which would be her sister’s problem. It’s that she’s gossiping about these friends’ relationships and spouses with her sister (and with the friends themselves, which would make me uncomfortable too – gossiping intensely about your spouse to your friends – whether you suspect same friend has a bit of a crush on you or not – doesn’t seem like being a great spouse. But it’s not the LWs problem).

        The problem is that sister doesn’t want to be part of this gossip circle. And she shouldn’t have to be.

        But if sister is in the habit of relating to people and feeling closeness by this kind of gossiping, then she may be trying to gossip with LW as a form of closeness too. If so than maybe replacing it with some other more mutually-enjoyable form of bonding might work.

  16. Fierce Passion said:

    Maybe it’s just me but I don’t think “Work Wife/Work Husband” mean “inappropriate overshare with coworkers”. Sometimes it’s just a cutesy heteronormative way to refer to the person of a particular gender who you are closest to at work.

    I referred to one of my old bosses as “My Work Butch” & me as “Her Work Femme”. I oversaw her fashion choices for work events & she put up shelves in the office for me. We were also friends who lived in the same building (and yes ok, had had a past never discussed, acknowledged, or acted on mutual attraction–our mutual friends knew about it but we never brought it up).

    • SarahTheEntwife said:

      Yeah, I’ve only ever heard it used in a jokey, positive sort of way. Maybe it’s regional? At my work it’s usually not even heteronormative, but I have many many queer colleagues and the gender balance is such that almost nobody gets to have a work husband anyway. 😉

  17. Guava said:

    I just have to say that the soundtrack to this post is EVERYTHING. Thank you, Captain, for that trip back down memory lane to 1982 at the roller rink. Those were some magical moments, now lost in the mists of time.

    • Cora said:

      Please tell me I’m not the only one who suddenly remembered that one time on Solid Gold that Laura Branigan and Rex Smith sang Journey’s “Separate Ways”together?!? That was a FESTIVAL of cheese!!

      • Aris Merquoni said:

        Thank you for letting me know this exists. *TO YOUTUBE*

  18. lovelyepidermis said:

    I read this letter differently than the Captain and a lot of you, I think. I’m getting that the main thing that bugs LW is not that the sister is oversharing details of her *life* or that LW thinks it’s *wrong* to be “the other woman” and so doesn’t want to hear about it, but that the sister is (per LW) delusional–she’s sharing details of her overactive imagination and is in fact not anyone’s other woman. What the sister has been characterizing to her friends as a “new man” is (LW claims to be able to tell from having seen the relevant exchanges–hence the emphasis on their boring / standard content) a series of totally run-of-the-mill interactions with a coworker that sister has spun into a “thing” all because the coworker didn’t mention his girlfriend anywhere in his text that says, “See you at the meeting, then?”

    On my reading, the reason LW hasn’t disengaged before is less that it’s awkward and more that LW is actually half- or at least quarter-invested (“I point things out like…”) in having the conversation: they want to disabuse the sister of her fantasies or get the sister to go to a therapist who will do so. This might not change the strategies LW should use in the end, good suggestions all, but it might make some difference if I’m right that for LW there’s some element of this that feels to them like an argument they’re having with their sister, not just like being on the receiving end of unwanted confidences.

    • Chelle said:

      While that might be true, LW can’t actually fix whatever is going on with the sister. LW has offered opinions and resources should the sister ever decide to go that route, so now establishing a “Don’t talk to me about this” boundary is all that’s left for the LW to do. Hopefully LW sees that, and knows that healthy boundaries go in both directions!

    • chickie said:

      This was how I read it too – like the sister is talking about interactions that might not have happened in that way or perhaps at all – but I wasn’t really able to parse it all out.

    • Not That Jane said:

      Yeah, I read it that way too. I guess, as I think about it more, the degree of fantasy in the sister’s relationships with her coworkers isn’t really within the scope of what the LW can control, and so it makes sense to just focus on the part about “how do I get her to stop sharing this stuff with me?”

      But I will say, it is uniquely unsettling to be around someone whose sense of reality about relationships is so skewed, and I can sympathize with the LW’s apparent desire to disabuse her sister of these imaginary romances.

  19. Aloot said:

    LW, if your sister is driven by a want to talk and connect to you, then maybe a “hearing about these emotional affairs and the not-available men you are flirting with makes me not want to talk with you. But you’re my sister, and I love you, so let’s *not* talk about that, but let’s talk about this instead.” And then bring up a topic you’d like to talk about and make a conscious effort on your part to have a good conversation about that.

    If she brings up the topics you don’t want to talk about, grey-rock her or don’t respond. The moment she brings up another topic you’re okay with? Instand and good conversation. If what she actually wants is your attention, then teaching her that These Topics will yield zero/very little attention while These Other Topics will yield consistently good attention could be helpful.

    Though I have to admit that in a similar situation that I was in, I was just So Done with the person that I dropped the rope and faded on them.

    • CJ said:

      Until you got to the part about dropping the rope, I could have sworn that we were talking about dog training. Many of those techniques are good human training too.

  20. The way I read the letter was that the LW, as a middle-schooler, was spoon-feeding the older, already adult sister information about therapy and resources. If that is correct, that is so unhealthy and the sister has robbed the LW of her childhood.

    • WilhelminaMildew said:

      I read it as being a totally different thought than the sentence before it. Sentence 1. Since moving away and having therapy herself, she has supplied her sister with information about it at sister’s request. Sentence 2. Listening to her older sister’s romantic play by plays was fun when she was younger, but not anymore.

      • OK, that makes a lot more sense!

  21. Rhoda said:

    Ick. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why relatives discussing their sex lives feels so uncomfortable, and the word that keeps entering my mind is… incestuous. It’s almost as if they’re getting you to participate in a way. I wonder if LW needs to just block her sister for a while. Sister will have Hurt Feelings, but that’s entirely her fault.

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