For over a decade, I had a really bad relationship with my sister. She struggled with addiction and suicide ideation and, often, was just plain mean. I enabled her by making sure I was always available to her during her emotional crises and never saying no to anything she wanted. I got a weird sense of superiority from taking care of her, which I realize now, was a really sick source of self-esteem.
Fortunately, our relationship is a lot better now! She’s been sober for nearly two years and has apologized for many of the things she did when she was using. For my part, I apologized for being a condescending goody-good.
I thought things were fine as they were.
Recently, though, she called off her engagement and has started calling and texting me a lot. This is a common pattern. When she’s happy and busy, I don’t hear from her much. That’s fine by me. But, when she’s sad, lonely, or upset, the intensity of her communication ramps way up.
The other day, I asked her if everything was ok – noting that she’s been calling a lot lately. She said everything was fine, she just wants us to be closer. But, this is exactly what I don’t want! I want to enjoy her company when we see each other a few times a year. I want to talk to her maybe once a week. I don’t want to be her best friend or confidante. I’m just not ready for that.
The guilt I feel at not wanting to be close to someone who wants to be close to me is eating me up inside. Does forgiving her mean we have to be good friends? Is it ok to want the best for my sister, admire her good qualities, and still want her to kind of…stay in her own world? Is there any way I can convey this to her without seeming like a monster? Especially, since she’s going through a tough time?
Sister, Not Friend (#1182)
Hi Sister, Not Friend, your letter came in at the same time as some others, I hope nobody minds if we tackle these all together.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I have a sister who has been bothering me a lot lately. She has depression and a few other minor health issues, she is divorced, on disability. She is very negative and usually only wants to get together to complain about her health, my parents, her kids, or ex husband. She doesn’t have a lot of friends and constantly texts me all day. I would like to put some distance between us because all her issues are stressing me out which is leading to my own adverse health affects and I just don’t have time for them. I have tried to say things in the past but she always says “this is the straw that broke the camels back” or she feels “attacked”. She has always been like this and it’s really starting to bother me. I feel bad saying I need space when she doesn’t have any one else but I’m tired of her drama. I don’t want to cut her out of my life just limit our interactions to once or twice a week. Do you have any advice on how I can achieve this?
Hi Sally, your letter came in at the same time as several others. We’re going to have a group discussion. Read on.
Dear Captain Awkward,
Thank you for the existence of your blog! I love reading your advice and have been slowly trying to implement this into my own relationships.
The problem I have is that I am a very passive, live and let live kind of person, living in a family of opinionated people. My dad loves to rage on about articles he’s read and refuses to acknowledge alternative theories. My mother has an uncanny ability of seeing the world through everyone else’s eyes, and therefore believing she has the authority to cast judgement on their decisions. Loudly.
My sister combines the two and adds another ingredient. Selfishness. When her friend’s parents were getting divorced, she worried that her friendship with friend would suffer. When her university frienemy announced she was moving in with her boyfriend, to the same county as my sister after graduating, my sister worried that she would be obligated to spend all free time with frienemy, despite living 30 miles apart. My dad once complimented me on my jumper as I sat down to dinner with them. Her immediate response was to cry out: ‘But what about my jumper, dad?’ I bit my tongue so hard it metaphorically started bleeding. Call her out on any of the above, though, she calls me rude and gets angry.
Captain, your scripts and advice have been invaluable in building up my confidence to confront the aspects of our relationship that I’m not happy about, in addition to making everything about her, the way she has targeted me in the past has led to many of my insecurities.
I have put her on an information diet and refuse to engage in arguments. We have barely interacted for a number of months now.
We have recently had some bad news in the family which, I hoped, would start to bring us closer together in a positive way. It has had the effect of her calling me frequently to spill her emotional guts.
I’m dealing with my own fair share of emotions in reaction to the bad news. I don’t feel comfortable enough to share them with my sister whenever she calls, and I’m certainly not about to tell her that my eating disorder has started to resurface, because she will make it into a competition about who is having a worse time. This is one of her patterns and an easy way for her to avoid acknowledging that I have feelings.
I know my own strength and while I know that I can talk to her about family news, I don’t know how to increase the time and energy spent with her knowing that she won’t acknowledge any boundaries I’ve set up. Keeping her on an information diet has helped, but I worry that she’ll try to break past that as our relationship progresses.
I know you can’t choose family, and I want to have a good relationship with my sister, I just don’t know how.
Struggling Sister (#1184)
Greetings, Struggling Sister! Something’s in the air, right? I hope it helps to know you’re not alone. You’re not alone.
Now that we’re all gathered here together, I think that if improvement is possible in these sibling relationships, there is a common approach that gives all of you the best chance of making that happen.
First of all, I don’t think that you have to be close friends with your siblings (or anyone in your family). I don’t believe in unconditional love. I believe that adults are allowed to make choices about people that are informed by how they treat us, and that not everyone deserves our trust, our attention, our time, our focus, our benefit-of-the-doubt. There are a lot of stories out there about what siblings “should” be like (and parents, and other family relationships) but if your story doesn’t match those stories, it’s okay, maybe you don’t have to keep trying forever to make it match. You haven’t failed if your life isn’t like a storybook.
I have two brothers, who were adopted when I was 5 and they were 4 and 7. I went from being an only child (adopted as a baby) to Holy Crap, I Am Extremely Outnumbered Here (+ Be Careful, They Bite)! This would have been traumatic even if we’d been well-suited to one another personality-wise, which, we emphatically were not. We had childhood battles aplenty, and we were never close as children, but of course the hope is that everyone grows out of it someday, right? Sort of? Sort of.
As adults, my older brother (now mildly internet famous for answering every awkward question with “It’s hard to say,”) and I are pretty friendly. We don’t talk or see each other very often, we’re necessarily close (in that I am not his chief confidant about personal matters, nor is he mine) but when we do interact, it’s extremely enjoyable. I wish I got to see more of him, I’m currently trying to lure him to Chicago for a few days to eat all the things. It’s not a mystery why we have this relationship, it’s as simple as: We are nice to each other. We make an effort to be kind and friendly whenever we do talk. Also, I trust him to tell me the truth about things, to be a united front in dealing with difficult family stuff, and to generally be a mensch.
My younger brother…is another story. Please know that I typed at least nine paragraphs of grievances and troubled history here, which I then cut and pasted into a file called “The Memoir.” The exact history doesn’t matter right now (though it is fascinating on a literary level, like, if you wanted to invent or imagine a character who is the opposite of me in every way, and I described my actual younger brother to you, you’d be like “TOO ON THE NOSE, THAT CAN’T BE REAL” and I’d be like “You don’t know the half of it.” Something to look forward to if I ever finish…The Memoir).
What matters for today’s purposes: As an adult, based solely on adult interactions that happened by choice long after we all left home, my younger brother is extremely difficult person to be around. I have a budget of about 20 minutes of enjoyable interaction with him before I want to scream or throw something. (That’s per calendar year). He’s had a very hard life, which I feel guilty about, he would love us to be closer, which I feel guilty about, I’ve always had a lot of advantages that he doesn’t have, which I feel guilty about, he’s very expressive about loving me and wanting me to be a bigger part of his life, which I feel guilty about, he definitely tries harder than I do to reach out and stay in touch, which I feel guilty about, so I often wonder if I shouldn’t try harder.
Then I actually have to interact with him, and it’s like, ohhhhhhhh, there it is, there’s why I don’t like him. He’s a Jerk for Jesus,™ a bigot, a liar, a scam artist, and a condescending nincompoop. For at least two decades he has never talked to me unless he wants something (to borrow money, to sell me some pyramid scheme, to recruit me to his sketchy church) or to tell me that I’m going to Hell for one reason or another. I want only good things to happen for him, I hope he has people in his life who get him and love him, but we cannot hang. He wanted a nicer Big Sister, I wanted a pony. We both got…this.
I’m aware that I could cut off contact entirely if I want to, but I don’t want to. That’s where my personal “but faaaaaaaaamily” baseline is set. So, I interact with him very seldom, I try to keep to safe, innocuous topics where there is little room for conflict, I try to be polite and kind when we do interact, I try not to bring up the past, I don’t start arguments or get sucked into arguments (which definitely involves a lot of taking deep breaths and letting him say things that I deliberately ignore and not asking questions that I don’t want the answer to). I also limit avenues for him to have access to me (no social media access, not ever), and whenever I hit my threshold for pleasant or at least “bearable” interactions for whatever day/conversation/year is happening, I try to bail as gracefully as possible and try again next time.
I also try to keep a sense of humor about all of it. I don’t need a thing from my little brother in this life, and he doesn’t have power to hurt me, even at his most…himness…so I try to laugh whenever something is particularly on-brand. Consider the time he wanted me to invite him to my wedding with just a “plus one” because, as he explained with perfect sincerity, he couldn’t decide if God wanted him to bring his recently estranged wife or bring the new girlfriend that God recently introduced him to at work (who had already changed her Facebook profile to add his last name because they were “married in God’s eyes”), OR if he should keep his options open in case God wanted me to fix him up with one of my single friends. I could almost believe in a God who would find all of that hilarious but not in one who would expect me to punish any of my friends that way, so I laughed, he got his “and guest” invite, I knew he wouldn’t actually make the trip and that he would give me an excuse at the very last second. True to form, he sent a text message the morning of the wedding full of jibber-jabber about God and His plans, I let the large friends who had been recruited for “Literally sit on Brother if he tries to get up during the ceremony and ‘lead us all in prayer’ or do any kind of public speaking, throw him into the bonfire if necessary” know that they could stand down, and we had a great day. That’s what a win looks like in this relationship, and unless he has a personality transplant or until one of us dies, this is probably as good as it gets.
Letter Writers, here’s what I’d counsel for each of you, in this year 2019, where the theme of this blog is “Do Less.”
First, take stock:
- Be honest with yourself about how you feel about your sisters. You’re not friends. You don’t actually want to be closer than you are now. And there are reasons for why you feel as you do. Would you choose to be friends with someone who basically ignores you during happy times and expects on-demand comfort and listening as soon as things get tough, someone who makes everything about themselves, someone who ignores your boundaries and makes you feel drained and guilty all the time? Would you treat a friend this way and expect them put up with it? You can forgive childhood stuff (like, say, if a sibling transformed themselves into a snake because they know you love snakes and then back into Loki so they could stab you when you were both eight), but that doesn’t mean that as an adult you have to keep picking up every beautiful snake you see and giving it cuddles.You actually have a pretty good idea about how these interactions are likely to go, so trust that and respect your own history with these people!
- Ask yourself: What happens when you remove the word “should” from the situation? Your sisters want a lot of contact, they also all seem to want to use you as sounding boards/complaints bureaus/on-demand therapists, and they’re trying to use the idea of what a sisterly relationship “should” look like to guilt you so you’ll comply. But that’s not what your relationship actually looks like. So, what do you want to do about the relationship you have now? Ideally, how often would you talk to the actual sister you have, what would you talk about, what medium would you use (text, email, phone, Skype, Snapchat, greeting cards, carrier pigeons, semaphore, strongly worded letters to the editor, skywriting, avoidance)?
Second, create a structure that sets you up for minimum conflict and maximum success:
- Figure out what the most comfortable, sustainable level and frequency of communication would be *for you* and put that in place. Letter Writer #1182 and #1183, you both mentioned “once a week” as possible ideal levels of communication, so, maybe try out once a week. “Hey Sister, I want to make sure we don’t lose track of each other, but I can’t always respond to texts right away. Can we try to schedule a weekly call or text catch-up session, just for us?” Feel free to suggest a time window that works for you, she can suggest an alternative if she likes and you can figure it out from there. If your sister balks at that from the start, that’s good information. You’re trying to create a reliable way to stay in touch.
- Can you do even less? Be conservative with whatever structure you decide on, choose something you can easily and willingly follow through with all the time vs. something aspirational that you’ll want to avoid after three weeks. Can I also plug greeting cards/postcards here? You send them in the mail when you feel like it or to recommend important occasions. They do not require a response. They do not require you to say much, possibly someone has already written a poem for you inside and you just write “Love, YourName” at the bottom. In a strained relationship where you want to send someone a signal of caring, or show that you are observing the forms of expectations, but not make room for a lot of back-and-forth interaction, greeting cards can be excellent tools.
- Brace yourself for an extinction burst. People who are bad at boundaries love to test them. And/or people who are not used to boundaries often panic and become extremely anxious when one is set, so they ramp up whatever annoying behavior they were doing. If you know this is likely, you can keep your cool when it happens. The best way to deal with someone ramping up behavior you asked them not to do is to be consistent and follow through with what you said you’d do. Save responding to messy, overly intense interim communications for the weekly (or monthly, etc.) catchup. And redirect the person there, for example, respond once with something like “Got your texts, can’t talk now, tell me about it when we talk on Friday?” and ignore whatever else comes in. It will be very hard at first, your sisters know how to push all your buttons, you can probably expect a lot of “emergencies” where they need your attention right now. In my experience, they will either adapt with a little time and consistency, or they’ll push you so hard that you will need to go no-contact for a while.
- Press the “reset” button a lot. The weekly catchups are not for arguing about how you don’t talk enough. They aren’t for rehashing things from childhood. They aren’t therapy sessions. You’re checking in with each other, delivering any news (incl. family news), catching up on each other’s lives in what is hopefully a brief, friendly way. You don’t have to solve or understand everything or fix anything, you just gotta check in for a few minutes and be present. Arguments that have a lot of “You always take Mom’s side” or “You’re never there for me” back and forth indicate that it’s time to get off the phone and try again next week (or skip to Plan Hallmark). P.S. It’s 100% ok to set a timer for these calls.
- You can forgive without forgetting. Apologies are great, forgiveness feels great, you can erase a slate and still remember what was on it. Remember the old Peanuts cartoon where Lucy sets Charlie Brown up over and over to kick the football and then yanks it away? Lucy could apologize for the rest of time, and Charlie Brown still has a right to say “I’m not playing this game with you any more.” In fact, his safety depends on doing so. For another example: My younger brother often scams people out of money, including family members. I don’t give him money, period. If I ever won the lottery I’d happily make a trust fund to set him up for life (carefully managed so he couldn’t spend it all on nunchucks or donations to build a certain Wall the first week), but if he asks me for money the answer is “no.” If he wants to stay with me the answer is “no.” He’s violated enough people’s trust enough times, he’s literally stolen from me enough times, that the answer is “no.” If we get twenty good minutes in a calendar year, we’ll try for forty next year, but he can’t ever have money. If your sister(s) have turned their lives around, that’s wonderful! You can celebrate that without letting them all the way back in.
- You can have empathy for people without taking their problems on as your own. For instance if your sisters need therapists, it’s okay to say “Hey, buddy, I love you and I think it’s time you talked to a therapist about this, I’m your sister, I can’t be your therapist.*” Other scripts if someone keeps venting to you about problems with no end in sight: “What do you think you’ll do about that?” “I already told you what I think, is there something specific you want me to say?” Additionally, you can’t change people’s patterns or make them self-aware, but you can laugh (inside your head) when someone is sadly predictable, like the sister who totally ignores you when she’s in love and wants to be your best bud the second she’s not. You can remind yourself that “you’re the only one I can count on” isn’t a binding spell, you’re not breaking laws if you say “Oops, that’s all the listening time I have today.”
- Identify two or three “safe” topics you can discuss with minimal conflict. These should be: Things you have in common now, things without a lot of emotional stakes or baggage, things that are innocuous and enjoyable. Read anything great lately? What are you watching these days? Also look for things where your sister knows more than you and can be in the role of the expert. “I’m looking for some new music, what’s your latest earworm?” “I need to go glasses shopping, will you help me pick out some frames?” These are conversational life preservers, subject changes, opportunities to reset things to easier topics. You might be like, wait, is Captain Awkward suggesting that I make small talk with my sibling like I would a stranger? And the answer is, yes, absolutely! In a way, you are trying to find new, enjoyable ways of interacting with this person, so maybe find ways of getting to know them that don’t depend on all the touchiest subjects and messy things you’ve survived together.
- Don’t try to explain or justify why you’re doing what you’re doing about boundaries to your sisters or others in your family, just do it. Your sisters may react badly to you setting boundaries with them. They may feel rejected, angry, left out, upset, like they aren’t getting what they need or want from you. That’s their prerogative, mostly nobody likes being relegated to “small doses friend,” so I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to embrace the new order. Good news, you don’t have to convince anyone that this is the right way to move forward, they don’t have to get it or like it, they just need to respect it. If they do, you’ll try to be pleasant and keep lines of communication open and see what can be built from this moment forward. If they don’t, you’ll interact with them less. They can feel however they want to about that. P.S. Letter Writer #1184, you mentioned putting your sister on an “information diet.” That’s a healthy, smart thing to do when someone can’t be trusted to handle information well. Continue. Consider scripts like “This is just what works for me.” If you can honestly answer a sister who asks “Why are you shutting me out?” with “I’m not shutting you out, I’m trying to make sure there’s always a sacred Sister-spot on my calendar where I can give you my full attention,” that’s all the info you need to say. If that’s not convincing them, more information won’t do the trick, it will just give them more to argue with.
- Watch out for triangulation and splitting in your family. These are forms of manipulation where a difficult person tries to use you as a proxy in their arguments with others, or stir up others as their proxy against you, redirecting negative emotions and blame away from themselves and onto others. To fight this, reconsider whether and how you talk to other family members about your sisters, or how much you talk about your sisters about other family members. I truly think one way of taking control back in messy, conflict-heavy family situations is to institute a personal policy of “I don’t say anything about anybody in my family that I wouldn’t say to that person, and until I hear something directly from a person, I try not to react to it or pay it too much mind” as much as possible. You can turn this into scripts, like, “If mom’s worried about that she should ask me herself, you don’t have to be the messenger!” and change the subject. And then (this is key), DON’T ask “Mom” about whatever it is or even mention it. If “Mom” has a problem, she can tell you about it. Until she does, it’s not your problem, and your sister is not her errand-girl. Does that make sense?
- Schedule periodic check-ins with yourself. “Is this working?” “Would I be okay with a friend behaving like this?” “Is anything getting better?” “Am I enjoying any part of this?” “Would I keep talking to this person at all if we weren’t related?” The overriding question was “do I have to be friends with my sibling” and I definitely don’t think you do, but I think it is a useful reminder to come back to from time to time, especially if you’re trying to decide on whether to put more effort in or change something up or take breaks.
Third, realign your map:
- Boundaries aren’t mean. You aren’t “attacking” someone if you have preferences or minimum standards for how it’s okay to interact with you. Boundaries can be necessary defense mechanisms against bad treatment in troubled relationships. They can be constructive ways of saying “Here is the best way to interact with me, if you want to make me happy and comfortable, do it this way, also, please tell me what I can do to be good to you” in good relationships. They are investments in ourselves and other people, in the possibility that things can work better than they do right now. If I didn’t care about someone and want to be in their lives, I wouldn’t bother to try to set or communicate or maintain boundaries, I’d just bail. The boundary would be “farewell forever.”
- Be very pessimistic about the relationships with your sisters ever being fixable or “close”. Whatever a close, happy, loving, enjoyable sisterly relationship is, where you count on each other and confide in each other and trust each other and enjoy each other, it’s probably not happening here. Maybe there’s a Beth or Meg to your Jo March or the Jane to your Lizzie Bennet out there somewhere in friendship-land, but she’s not in your family, where you’re stuck with an Amy March or Lydia Bennet (not evil, necessarily, but definitely not your favorite) or worse, a Goneril to your Cordelia. Maybe you’ve got a Joan Fontaine to your Olivia de Havilland. Or a Hela to your Thor. Whatever you’ve got, deal with what it is, not what you wish it would be. Less room for disappointment that way, more room for pleasant surprises.
- Don’t try to be perfect. There’s no amount of “nice,” accommodating, friendly, warm, sympathetic, empathetic, available that you can be that will guarantee that someone will respect you or stop acting like a jerk. It’s okay to change the subject, it’s okay to get off the phone, it’s okay to take breaks, it’s okay to get pissed off if you feel pissed off, it’s okay to take the bait sometimes if a sibling is insisting on baiting you, it doesn’t mean you failed forever or you’re a bad person or you deserve bad behavior or your boundaries don’t matter. Lots of today’s letters mention mental health problems and addiction issues that the sisters are carrying, and that’s so hard to deal with, but there is no known treatment or cure for any mental illness or addiction that starts with “Therefore you have to let the person do or say anything they want to you literally forever, with infinite chances, or else everything sad in their lives definitely becomes your fault!“
- Cut through the bullshit. If someone has a lot of words and feelings for you about what family obligations are supposed to be like but they only ever mean YOUR obligations to them, that’s a red flag. If your arguments with them constantly involve time traveling as a way to avoid accountability, that’s a red flag. (“Time Traveling” is what I call it, if someone knows a widely accepted term, lmk, what I mean is this: Ever meet people where “the past doesn’t matter”, unless it’s things you did wrong in the past, which they can always bring up, but it’ s extremely Not Fair for you to consider things they did in the past? And where, if you agree to that rule, so you try to focus on their behavior in the present, they immediately jump to a time in the past when you were in the wrong, and then you never actually get around to addressing the thing that’s bothering you here and now, because the argument always moves to a time when you’re wrong? Yeah, that’s a red flag). If someone is demanding “more closeness” with you and a) the only claim they have on you is faaaaaaaaaaamily b/c there isn’t anything enjoyable or kind in y’all’s history that would make you want to be around them AND b) they’re willing to do everything under the sun nowadays except be a minimum amount of kind and considerate to you and/or respect the basic things you asked them to do, who’s the one making things in your relationship weird and difficult? Consider that it’s not you?
In most cases, when we leave the door open to family who aren’t the greatest, we’re not playing for “closeness,” we’re playing for time. I’m not trying to tell you how to get to “close” or “happy” or “normal,” we’re not even trying for that. We’re steering toward “bearable” or “slightly less irritating than before.” We’re buying ourselves time to figure out how we feel, what we want, what we can live with. We’re buying the other person time to do better, grow, and take the cue from us. We’re leaving a door slightly ajar in the hopes that the sister who walks through it won’t be a jerk this time, with a heavy bar and a locking mechanism kept handy in case we were overly optimistic. Sometimes that’s how we can be the most loving, the most compassionate to everyone in the situation including ourselves, given what we’re working with.
Like I said above, in my experience when I set boundaries and create more structure in difficult relationships, people often adapt with a little time and consistency as we slowly create a history of positive interactions or at least neutral ones that push the negative interactions down. In many cases things actually do get much better with a predictable routine and structure for communication in place simply because there’s a lot less avoidance and chasing when people know what to expect (i.e. “We don’t talk or text every day, but I can trust that we will catch up on Saturdays.”) and the whole thing becomes, or at least feels like, so much less work to maintain.
In cases where it doesn’t work at all, in my experience it’s because the person pushes back so hard and does or says something so awful that it’s necessary (and extremely obvious) to go lower-contact or no-contact. That second outcome is painful, it’s not ever what I was hoping for, but it can be incredibly freeing to know: Look, I did my best here, the other person was either incapable or unwilling to respect even the most basic rules. I gave them lots of chances to get it right, at some point I get to put down my marbles, drop my end of the rope, decline offers to kick the football, and stop playing games that only hurt me and piss me off.
I hope this helps all of the Letter Writers from today, and all readers who stop by or who have similar questions about parents or other family members who are struggling in that limbo between estrangement and still hoping for better days. My goal is to give you something you can do, or something you can at least try.
The only other thing I can really offer is the reminder that some people wash up in the same family completely by accident, and some love is best delivered from a safe and extremely distant distance.
*Therapist, addiction counselor, support group, non-therapy well-being resource, friend, pastor, roller-skating instructor, mentor, someone who is Not You. I know the mental health system is far from perfect or accessible for everyone, but I am going to continue to argue that we do not have to each fill in all its gaps, on demand, at great length, for people who are not nice to us.