#1182, #1183, #1184: “Do I have to be friends with my sibling?” or, Advice For Relationships You Don’t Want to Lose But Don’t Want To Work At.

Hi Captain,

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?

Sally (#1183)

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.

172 thoughts on “#1182, #1183, #1184: “Do I have to be friends with my sibling?” or, Advice For Relationships You Don’t Want to Lose But Don’t Want To Work At.

  1. I believe in unconditional love.

    …For dogs. Especially the goodest of doggos.

    (I agree that you are not obligated to love family, and that you can love someone without sharing your life; some family members fall into “love from a distance” category.)

    1. Interesting that you mentioned dogs since dogs will love and remain loyal people who harm and neglect them, and while I wish people were more like dogs in many ways, I definitely want people to not hold themselves to dog-standards with people who are not kind!

      1. Agggh – that reminds me of the dim and distant days of my Family of Origin, and the abuse and bad stuff that both parents used to unleash on me through my childhood. One of my Mum’s favourite sayings, to show that we were expected to put up with the crap, was “A dog, when it’s beaten, always comes back for more.”
        That was the family ideal. Seriously.
        My advice to anyone else in that situation? Be a cat.

        1. Cats are excellent at modelling their own boundaries, though I’ve heard mixed things about their willingness to respect yours.

          1. We should all have the boundary-setting abilities of cats, but with the boundary-respecting abilities of a dog who knows there’s a piece of chicken in your hand for him if he can just get this *one thing* right.

          2. I’ve often said that the reason a lot of people hate cats is because they suck at respecting boundaries. They get mad and offended when the cat they’re chasing runs away, or wants to sit next to them on the couch instead of on their lap, or walks away when they’re done being petted. So cats are mean and jerks because they set and enforce boundaries (as well as anything that weighs 8 pounds can, at least).

          3. I know a cat who is actually pretty good at respecting my boundaries – her owner is fine with bitey and scratchy play, I am not, if Cat wants to play with me she has to use Soft Paws or play stops. I’d say her level of success in this is about at that of a little kid, in that she starts well and usually gets over excited, but I’m okay with that.
            I mean she also yells when it rains and keeps trying to eat my food, so I’m not sure she’s a great role model.

          4. I had a cat who was an excellent boundary setter who escalated consequences perfectly. Get in his personal space too aggressively? He’d squawk. If the offender didn’t back off, he’d swat with claws in. If they still kept at it he’d swat with claws out and leave. We introduced him to many puppies since he was so great at communicating and enforcing appropriate boundaries. I try to channel him often, although I am not always successful.

        2. My parents’ cat hasn’t let me touch her since 2012 when I put her in the cat carrier. Which annoys me, but I respect the hell out of it.

    2. Actually, I think this is a tidier analogy to the letter than perhaps you meant it to be.

      I love dogs. All of them, unconditionally, including those I have never met and never will, and including those who I have met and who were aggressive towards me. That doesn’t mean I don’t maintain careful boundaries with (and if necessary, distance from) those dogs, because allowing them to hurt me is damaging to both of us.

  2. Love all this advice! I, too, have relatives that are nothing but an energy and emotion suck. As a Catholic, you better believe I felt guilty. But for me, the most freeing thing – the thing that made all of Captain’s advice doable is giving myself permission to disregard the “but it’s family, so you must” way of thinking. Once you give yourself permission to view a family member through the same lense as other people, and to judge them by the same criteria it is so deliciously freeing. It makes boundary setting, cutting time short, forgiveness, & decision making So. Much. Easier.

    1. It is obviously A Process, but I try to remind myself that when I feel guilty about these thing I am wrong: for me to be guilty it would have to be my fault or my responsibility to fix, and it most certainly is not. So I tell myself no, what you feel is sad for them. And that’s an okay (if sad) thing to feel. They want something that is beyond their ability to have. Very unfortunate. Many literary works have been written that focus on this. It’s the human condition, even. But it’s not mine to fix.

      Like all mantras, it is aspirational and not a magic wand. But I find it helps me, in my mind, to (re)name it.

      1. Yes, I realized some years ago that a lot of my misdirected guilt was coming from wishful thinking/comforting fantasies that I was in control of things. Because sometimes feeling guilty seems easier to take than feeling sad or scared or helpless.

      2. “It is obviously A Process, but I try to remind myself that when I feel guilty about these thing I am wrong: for me to be guilty it would have to be my fault or my responsibility to fix, and it most certainly is not.”

        You are right that it is A Process, but it can be learned, and once in place it is an incredibly freeing mindset to have.

    2. “Once you give yourself permission to view a family member through the same lense as other people, and to judge them by the same criteria it is so deliciously freeing.”

      I still remember when my therapist asked me, while I was angsting about my awful father (racist, sexist, homophobic, abusive alcoholic) and how guilty I felt for trying to avoid him when I can: “If your dad wasn’t your dad – if he were just someone you met one day – would you spend any time with him? Is he someone you’d be friends with?”

      I snorted and said “Oh my god, no. Like maybe 5 minutes because he can be charming in small doses, but he’s not someone I’d be friends with, ever.”

      He nodded, having expected that answer. “You can love your father because he’s your father, and miss the father figure you remember from your childhood, but really dislike the man he’s turned out to be – that’s not a contradiction or anything. You don’t have any obligation to make an effort to expose yourself to someone who, on a personal level, you don’t even like, the same way you’re not obligated to try to be friends with every person you meet whether you like them or not.”

      Like seriously, I cannot overstate how much that conversation changed my life. I still miss my dad, but what I miss is who I remember him as when I was younger. I can’t be around the man he turned out to actually be once I was old enough to see it. If he wanted his children to want to be friends with him as adults, he should’ve been a better person. The fact that he hasn’t, that’s on him, not on anyone else, and keeping that firmly in mind was incredibly helpful when it came to defending my boundaries from his attempts to batter down the doors and bulldoze right over me.

  3. This post is strumming my heartstrings right now. I have a difficult situation with a close friend and a lot of this is applicable, since we’re “like family” in really weird and specific ways that I can’t get into on a public forum. She very much reminds me of some of the LWs sisters’.

    1. I am in a difficult situation with a close friend as well and this is also ringing true with me. I hope your situation resolves itself.

  4. I’m gonna have to read this over a few more times, slowly. Possibly print it out and go over it with a highlighter. I recently came to the realization that I just… don’t actually like my dad very much. As a person. We’ve never been close, a fact only exacerbated by my mom’s death when I was a kid, his remarriage, and my moving away to another city. We don’t talk often, and when we do, it’s just him mansplaining things at me. If we weren’t related, I wouldn’t give him the time of day.

    (Unfortunately, because we’re related, not only do I give him the time of day, I give him almost $500 a month in college loan payments wheeeee)

    I don’t necessarily want to cut him out of my life, but I also just don’t really want to put in much effort into a relationship. There’s a lot of very good advice here, and I need to figure out how to apply it to my situation. But I think I *can* apply a lot of it, which is good.

    1. Different situation but similar feelings about my dad. Good luck to you in applying all this great advice!

      1. Joining the chorus in difficult dad relationships. The last time my parents came to visit me in my new city he behaved himself pretty well, was occasionally a condescending nincompoop (see CA’s description of her little brother and that’s a pretty good sum up of my dad, who thoroughly believes that “men” and “women” have “god given roles” O__o) but otherwise gave me space and was quite wellbehaved. I spent the next day in bed sobbing until I couldn’t breathe and having both of my closest people reassuring me that I’m not a horrible hideous monster that they just put up with because they have to.

        Clearly I have a lot to unpack with that relationship – I can’t go through that again and I have to trust that my body and my mind know what they’re doing in so clearly telling me “DO NOT spend time with that person!!1!one!” The guilt of “he wasn’t even mean this time! How can you go low-as-possible-without-being-non-contact?” is heavy, especially because he can be a pretty charming person when he wants to be. *sigh*

  5. Thank you, Captain, I needed this today.. My brother and I have been estranged for 3 years and, after the prodding of multiple family members, we agreed to a phone call this past Friday.

    He started emotionless and mono-syllabic. When I pressed him to talk about why he was angry with me, he exploded and I had the pull the phone away from my ear. He went on a 5-minute screaming tirade and even then, I couldn’t tell you why he’s so mad. When I asked him to clarify, he hung up.

    This expected behavior was a major reason I have avoided him for years. In some ways, it actually feels like closure. I thought I was done with him and now I know I am done with him.

    1. If you ever try again, or if someone is in your position, maybe skip the part about asking him why/whether he is mad.

      Just ignore the mad and have a superficial, pleasant conversation. Similar to one you’d have with a stranger at a bus stop.

      I am often reminded of a koan from the Way of Mrs. Cosmopolite: If won’t get better if you pick at it.

      Just aim for pleasant. Let that be enough.
      Don’t try for solved, or even for closure.

      1. Just ignore the mad and have a superficial, pleasant conversation.

        But the conversation was ’emotionless and monosyllabic’ – that’s not even at the level of superficial or pleasant; it barely reaches the level conversation.

        So, as an Internet Stranger [tm], I officially declare this the Acceptable Last Attempt at Polite Conversation [tm].

        Be free! Be free, MoxieGirl!

        1. Thank you! I am feeling better about the whole thing than I ever have.

          I never have to talk about this with him or any family member, ever again.

    2. Wow, Moxie. Thankyou. I also needed this, because my sister is so mad at me that no apology is enough. And yes, she time-travels too, so “let’s start fresh from here” isn’t allowed to work.

      My personal final straw was when we had trouble finding each other at her local airport and she felt *betrayed* by me. So. My sister needs to be angry at someone and I guess I get to fill that need for her. Yay? But she lives with our folks and I can’t visit my mom without my sister being there. (And right now, my mom can’t travel.)

    3. There’s a lot to be said for, “That thing they did to me back then? Yeah, they just did that to me again. Okay, I wasn’t hallucinating.”

  6. I love being reminded of “This is what works for me,” because I continually forget that it’s valid.

    Also, love the time-traveling concept.

  7. This is really timely and helpful and so so so relevant. I was wondering, does anyone have any Thoughts on how to deal when there are kids involved? I need to put really firm boundaries in place with Sibling after they blew right past every boundary I set (and told them about!) last time I saw them. But Sibling has kids and I still want to be a part of their lives. But there’s enough physical distance that I can’t say “hey, sibling, can I take the kids off your hands for a weekend and let you and your spouse have some Us Time”. If I see the kids, I need to be seeing Sibling as well. Any quality Kid Time is also Sibling Time. :S

    1. In my experience, yes, you have to get along with/at least tolerate the parents in order to interact with their kids, and there’s really no getting around this. That’s a tradeoff parents get to make, even unlikable ones, so other relatives need to make peace with that tradeoff, you can’t blank someone out of your life and then expect to hang out with that person’s kids, and as sad as that might be (or incongruent with what “should” be or might have been). I guess if you’re close enough to offer babysitting where they go out and you get kid time and they take you up on that, great, if not, you might see the kids only very intermittently or deal with extended family.

      I guess the bright side, in my experience, is that little kids (esp. before age 6 or so) pretty much only notice who is in the room Right Now. They can have a basic concept of “Grandma” or “Auntie” and theoretically love and miss you, like someone will say “Do you miss Aunt So& So?” and they’ll almost definitely say “Yes!” because they were just reminded that you exist, but otherwise they’re pretty focused on who is right here, right now, for good or ill. So a relative who sends cool presents & cards & or who shows up at family holidays every now and again is doing “enough” Aunt/Uncle duty for many, many, many years. The kids aren’t really missing out on anything b/c they don’t really give a shit, kids are awesome that way, I actually love this about them.

      Then we spend a lot of years in the Middle School Kid World, where kids notice extremely positive/loving interactions with adults and extremely negative ones, but we’re mostly an undifferentiated background hum, especially at big family gatherings. There’s room to have cool conversations, play games, find things in common, cultivate hobbies and interests, etc. but having a basically positive relationship with the kids’ parents is still, like, necessary. And again, that’s fair?

      If I had kids, “Uncle Younger Brother” would be some weird dude they possibly met at funerals, he can’t ever fucking babysit them, and I’d open any presents he sent in a safe, enclosed environment first b/c there might be a scorpion in there (I am not joking). Because the universe is an asshole my (fictional) children would probably adore him in order to spite me, but I’m not letting them go hang out and play with knives and guns and open pits full of sewage (again not a joke) until they’re 16+, if ever. If he had kids (this thought makes me actually terrified) I’d send cool presents when I could and hope I didn’t have to literally kidnap them to get them immunized. I would not expect that we’d be close, I’d try to put money aside for their education and be prepared to offer them some kind of safe haven as young adults, but probably there is no way to make a child understand “I kinda hate your dad but I sure do love you!” They’d have to follow the trail of presents and cards on their own if they wanted to after a certain point.

      1. > little kids (esp. before age 6 or so) pretty much only notice who is in the room Right Now. … in the Middle School Kid World, where kids notice extremely positive/loving interactions with adults and extremely negative ones, but we’re mostly an undifferentiated background hum,

        I don’t think this is generally true, unfortunately. As a parent of middle-school-aged children myself, I can tell you that kids start developing strong and true attachments to adults who are semi-regularly part of their lives, and are hurt when those adults disappear for whatever reason. Most may not be able to verbalize it, but any attuned parent sees the hurt communicated in so many little ways.

        Personal anecdote: my sister is wonderful but entirely flaky. She frequently makes and then just as consistently cancels plans to meet up with me and my kids, usually at the last minute. I learned not to tell the kids about our plans at all, to treat her visits as YAY SURPRISE GUESS WHO’S HERE. We’d only see each other for a couple of days twice a year. The kids were nevertheless strongly attached to her, and would bug me with, “When are we going to see Auntie??” every few months.

        And then it so happened that she dropped entirely out of our lives for two years with no explanation and no reason that I could discern. At this time my kids were 4 and 6 yrs old. During those two years, if my kids asked about Auntie, I’d tell them “Aww baby she’s working really hard at something right now, I’m sorry, I know you miss her.” They stopped asking after a year BUT their hurt and disappointment and feelings of abandonment showed up in sooo many different ways! Another close friend of mine (and theirs) moved out of town, and we all made promises to meet up in a couple of months, but the kids said to me, “They’re going to be too busy working hard in the other town to play with us when we go there.” That was the most explicit and heartbreaking example of it… there were lots and lots of other little things they did and said which showed that my sister’s disappearance made a real impact.

        (Now my sister is back on a low contact basis, and I am careful to help my kids see any contact with her as strictly “adults getting together”, not Fun For Kids With Auntie YAYY! She’s barred from doing bonding activities with them – no taking the kids out, no showering them with presents, no long hours playing board games with them… I told her she needs to be just a friendly, boring adult towards them until she can sort out her flakiness.)

        > probably there is no way to make a child understand “I kinda hate your dad but I sure do love you!”

        I don’t think there’s ever room for the first part even when the kids are adults, especially not from someone who isn’t very involved in the kid’s life. And you don’t NEED the child to understand that you hate their dad, surely. There are lots of diplomatic (though less than fully honest, I suppose) ways of avoiding contact with their dad while still showing and telling the kid you love them. I do believe this is one case where being less than honest does far less damage than honesty. It’s different if their dad has been abusive towards people and has crossed serious boundaries: no good comes from keeping such secrets. But for infractions of “he’s just an asshole” or lower levels, the most loving thing you can do for the offspring of the asshole is to not share your true feelings about their parent with them.

    2. Yeah, you can’t have a relationship with young kids without having a relationship with their guardians. Older teenagers might be a different story–a 16 year old can have your email and talk with you separate from your interactions with their parents–but mostly kids and their parents are a package deal.

    3. I know people all over the spectrum as far as how involved they choose to stay with a dysfunctional family member for the Sake of the Kids, but most of the examples I know of that are “very involved” involve physical proximity/taking the kids off their hands for outings or essentially respite care.

      In every case, though, it has involved some-to-a-lot-of being along for the ride with dysfunctional family member’s choices. There are some IRL situations where I’m thinking pretty heavily right now about how much I could stick out bad situations in order to consistently show up for kids, and I think everyone has to set their tolerance.

      If this is not a case where you’re worried about the kids for their own sakes, and you otherwise will only see them at joint gatherings, then – yeah. You also get to set your tolerance as far as how much you hang out with the adults! But they do come as a set. I will say that kids are often a great reason to consistently redirect conversation to Cute Kid Things and away from other topics – do your boundaries need to be “no contact”, or do they need to be “if this topic comes up I just go to the porch and stand there”? Only you can tell!

    4. The spouse’s late sister was very troubled, and also lived very far away, but she wanted a relationship with our kidlet. I think she would have liked to have regular visits, but we couldn’t feel confident that she wouldn’t, for instance, drive while drunk. But I have to give her credit — despite having very little face-to-face contact, she was *very good* at being an aunt from a distance.

      She sent cards four or five times a year, full of chatty stories and pictures of her pets, the animals on a nearby farm, any wild animals she happened to get a chance to take a picture of. Her gifts were things like Sponsor A Tree or Name A Dolphin, which the kidlet found very inspiring. (She died before the internet was a part of the kidlet’s life; that might have complicated things.) I was always a little worried that she would start laying the Horrible History on the kidlet’s head, but she never did — everything was always friendly and kid-appropriate. It may have been the only uncomplicated family relationship she had.

      If you can’t maintain a relationship with the kids in person or on the phone, the mail is a wonderful thing.

    5. Ideally, I think you work to maintain a superficial, small-talk-style relationship with the parents, and accept that–in the short term, at least–that precludes a deep relationship with the kids.

      As they get older, it might be possible to volunteer to take them for a week in the summer, or on a weekend trip to the closest Big City, etc. Different parents would have different comfort levels with that. Personally, I would happily let my kids stay with my sister-in-law for a week or two, even though I find it very trying to spend time with her myself. This is a situation where she’s not abusive or wildly unsafe in any way, our personalities just don’t mesh. I wouldn’t want her to be my kids’ guardian if my partner and I passed, because we have very different understandings of what healthy parenting looks like. But for 7-10 days of summer vacation, she’d be fine, and the kids would benefit from a relationship with another adult who loves them, regardless of how annoying my partner and I find her.

  8. It’s too late for the sibling and I’s relationship (deceased a few years past), but this really helped me lay aside some of the “but what if” and “if only” to recognize that sibling was the way sibling was and nothing was going to change it. I hope it helps the LWs, too.

  9. First, when I read this bit

    > 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 scared the crap out of my dog, as “OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO” erupted from my face-hole at uncontrollably high speed and volume. YOWZA. Good on you for finding a way to make your sibling relationship…exist.

    On a more serious note, I am sort of on the other side of this equation at the moment. I have 3 younger brothers, and we all are (were…) very close, especially after the youngest nearly died in fall 2014. (He’s totally fine now, so fine that he makes nonstop jokes about the bziarre and hilarious accident at his own expense.) Unfortunately, my oldest sibling recently made clear that he’s not interested in being close anymore. Or rather, he continues to say that he wants to be close, but he has begun doing many things which make clear that he has a very different definition of “close” than the rest of us do. Our definition of close includes spending time together as a group (we all live within a 2 hour drive of our hometown, so it’s very doable) at least once a year, and his definition…does not. Our definition includes keeping each other updated on our holiday plans and attempting to coordinate our plans so we can spend at least one major holiday together, and his definition…does not. Our definition includes visiting each other in various pairings a few times a year, and his definition…well, you know how this ends. Anyway. This all came about in an unexpectedly heated discussion over Christmas plans (or lack thereof), and it fucking *hurt*. Like, it sucked a LOT to realize that my brother mayyyybe doesn’t like the rest of us, and definitely doesn’t prioritize spending time together. But that’s his choice, and he’s putting up boundaries, and even if he does that in the rudest way possible, I need to respect that. I need to mourn the relationship on my own time and in my own space and give him space to dictate his own terms. it sucks, but it’s life. So anyway, I needed this post as a reminder to give him space. Thanks, Cap’n!

    1. This is tough. My siblings and I all have different levels of… introversion / extroversion? Anxiety, I guess? And there was a tough period where we each wanted different things. My younger brother, espeically. It took me a while to figure out, you know, he doesn’t want to run off and live in the woods *at* me. He loves me, but he loves the experience of being completely away from people better than the experience of being with people 99% of the time. I actually “got it” after reading the short story ‘Solitude’ by Ursula K. LeGuin.

      I don’t know if that’s the deal with your brother or not. It’s hard to let go of wanting something that someone else doesn’t want to give us. But, I’ve found that it is actually possible. And, once it happens, it’s truly wonderful.

      1. I feel like I’m the brother in this situation–I love my sibling, but sibling is SO much more extroverted and needs so much more of me than I am able to happily give. Like, I genuinely care about sibling, I do want to spend time with sibling, but I really really need my me time and I just can’t handle the amount of socializing or even just talking on the phone that sibling wants. It’s not that we’re not close or that I don’t want to be close–it’s just that I can feel close without anywhere near as much time together as sibling would like.

        In siblings’ ideal world, we would talk for over an hour nearly every day, hang out for several hours anytime I’m in town, and spend all holidays together with family. In my ideal world, we would talk for 30ish minutes every month or so, maybe get lunch every third time I’m in town, and spend some part of Thanksgiving OR Christmas together. We mostly compromise with 10-30 minute calls 2-3 times a week (sibling calls Every.Single.Day, I just don’t always answer), getting together every time I *tell* sibling I’m in town (which is roughly every other time I’m there), and alternating holidays (because also, I’m married and I like my in-laws and I want to spend Christmas with them, too).

        If sibling would respect the boundaries I’d like to set up, I’d feel so much more able to be open with sibling. But sibling does NOT understand why I’m not as enthusiastic about SPENDING TIME TOGETHER!, so I have to keep sibling at an arm’s length.

        Dr. Kat, you didn’t mention if your sibling has a new SO or job or house or kids or something, but that could very easily be a factor in the change in plan coordinating–it’s so, SO much more challenging the more people/things get involved in your life, and the easiest thing is often to drop plans with people you know will still love you/not pitch a fit if you’re not there. I really would not take “I don’t always want to do all the same stuff together that we used to” as a sign that your brother doesn’t like you. It may be that he simply doesn’t have the bandwidth he used to have, or has realized he’s happier with more time to himself.

    2. I’m having a similar situation with my brother, and it does hurt a lot. Jedi hugs, if wanted.

      Mine also, per his own words, makes other people do all the chasing and make all efforts to keep a relationship going. Since I’ve started trying for more reciprocity and sharing of the emotional labour in our relationship, it has grown much more distant, so I’m angry at him for that and also tired, on top of feeling hurt and neglected.

      So I try to apply the good Captain’s advice: I try to focus on nurturing relationships with other people who welcome and reciprocate my efforts, and invite him to really low-stakes things that I want to do when I feel up for it, and don’t chase after him if he says no. I’m very sad to have lost our formerly close relationship, but I don’t want to do all the work anymore, either.

      1. > Mine also, per his own words, makes other people do all the chasing and make all efforts to keep a relationship going. Since I’ve started trying for more reciprocity and sharing of the emotional labour in our relationship, it has grown much more distant, so I’m angry at him for that and also tired, on top of feeling hurt and neglected.

        Oh oh oh, yes, this, so much. Mine doesn’t say it outright, but it’s there if you read between the lines. It hurts. Jedi hugs to you as well!

        I also sometimes wonder *why* I keep trying to make our relationship better, given some of the history. For example, one year he had a massive birthday party, and invited all his friends, including probably a dozen mutual friends, AND invited our other two siblings, but didn’t invite me. Other people asked him why I wasn’t invited (not at my request, mind you; I was bummed but just wanted this whole thing to be over and done with). His answer was that I had blown off his birthday party the year before, so he decided to stop inviting me. Except…that was false. Super false. Could not be more false. Because, you see, I had *hosted* his birthday party the year before. Scheduled it, organized it, invited all his friends, cooked a ton of food from scratch. People reminded him of this, repeatedly, but he had no answer. I got a last-minute text message invite without an accompanying apology, but I’d already decided to travel out of state with my now-husband rather than moping at home, so that was the end of that. Maybe the party sucked? Maybe he just came up with a bad cover story rather than explain why he was actually mad? I have no idea, and he’s never been interested in explaining or apologizing, so I prooooobably should have stopped trying so hard a long time ago. Ugh, it just sucks, you know?

        1. It sucks a lot indeed! Thank you for the jedi hugs; I’m sorry your brother treated you so poorly, especially after all the effort and care you put in 😦

      2. I basically lost my sib to this. We’d connect periodically—if I reached out. As an experiment, I stopped reaching out and…(entirely coincidentally, I’m sure /s) we stopped connecting.

        Took me a looong time to realize this pattern was not new.

        1. I’m also trying to break that pattern, and am afraid to lose him to it. I’m so sorry, cavyherd.

      3. I’m there with my sister and mother, as well as some friendships. It’s sucks to know that people won’t make as much of an effort as I will for them, but I also know what to expect from them, which is much less disappointing. It also leaves room for the people who *do* reciprocate.

  10. >forgive without forgetting

    You can also forget without forgiving; in other words, a) decide what they’ve done is unforgivable, but b) refuse to dwell on it.

    I disagree with every drop of my earthly strength that forgiveness is freeing. Forgiveness never frees the victim; it instead frees the perpetrator, which is great if the act requiring forgiveness is minor or if the perpetrator expresses remorse and (if applicable) makes reparations. It’s not at all helpful or kind or freeing, though, when the act is unforgivable. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in the case of unforgivable acts it’s easier to forget and not forgive than to forget and forgive, because forgiveness feels like submission to the perpetrator.

    1. I agree that forgiveness is a thornier concept than pop culture gives it credit for, and I think the forgiven/not forgiven binary ends up making things more complicated than they even need to be. I like to think of it more as what gets me stuck and what I need to move on. I find that I can think more creatively and holistically what moving forward will look like with that framing, rather than “my choices are either forgive and forget, or be bitter and angry forever.”

      1. Like Anna, I also have a different interpretation of forgiveness. For me, it means letting go because my sibling is always going to act like that. I’m not going to forget all the crap they pulled, but I’m not going to get mad/upset any longer because I can’t expect any different. I forgive because healthy, happy people don’t act like my sibling.

      2. Like Anna, I also have a different interpretation of forgiveness. For me, it means letting go because my sibling is always going to act like that. I’m not going to forget all the crap they pulled, but I’m not going to get mad/upset any longer because I can’t expect any different. I forgive because happy people don’t act like my sibling.

    2. Thank you for this. I wholeheartedly agree. Forgiveness can be a good thing, in some circumstances, but it’s vastly overrated. The way it usually gets deployed benefits victimizers, their allies, and bystanders who won’t helpfully intervene. Everyone else gets to keep doing whatever they were doing before without any serious disturbances and the victim gets to deal with the trauma (and, often, continued abuse) alone.

      1. I agree with both Charlene and Dre. Forgiveness, *especially* of egregious acts such as abuse, and *especially* when those acts are committed by family members, is a wonderful way for everyone who isn’t the victim to go on peacefully with their lives after bad things have been done. It’s also a great way for perpetrators and bystanders to do a switcheroo in which the *victim* becomes the bad guy by apparently “holding a grudge”, “being resentful”, or even “being vengeful”, while the perpetrator of abuse – and the people who allow the abuse because it kinda sorta works for them – get to bathe in a wholly unwarranted aura of sanctity.

        1. I’m weirdly happy to see so many of my people here. I so often feel like the only person out there yelling “No, you don’t have to forgive! It’s not even useful! You’re allowed to feel your feelings about somebody choosing to harm you! You’re allowed to talk about it!”

        2. I’ve had all of those accusations (grudge/resentful/vengeful) lobbed at me by people who see my decade+ estrangement from my extremely toxic addict/alcoholic brother as a worse offense than the (objectively terrible) things he did that caused me to walk away in the first place. It’s astonishing to me how many people think that way.
          I basically walked away from him, cut him off/blocked him completely, and have gone on with my life, ignoring any attempt he has made at contact or reconciliation (it will NEVER happen, his actions were unforgivable) but that is enough for some people to go off on how terrible MY character is for not being “the bigger person” or “hating him so much” (I don’t, but it would be entirely justified if I did.)
          And while I *DON’T* forgive him, it certainly doesn’t weigh me down in any way not to. I don’t dwell on it, it doesn’t eat me up inside, I don’t stew over it or think of it daily. I rarely think of him or the things he’s done at all, and even if I do, it’s not from a place where I am sad or it hurts all over again. I am simply DONE, I’ve reached a point where nothing he does is of any concern to me anymore, as long as he stays FAAAR away.

        3. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I have had my mom say to me repeatedly ‘Why can’t you forget ???’ Maybe because I am not 3 anymore with a hazy concept of today and tomorrow.

      2. Even (especially?) with difficult people or bad relationships, I have found forgiveness most helpful when forgiving… myself. As in, “Past-Me got us into a kind of crummy situation. I forgive Past-Me for not being able to see the whole picture of what was going on. I know she was doing the best she could at the time.” Sometimes I will even imagine I’m giving Past-Me a reassuring hug.

      3. In Jewish law, there is a compulsion to forgive. IF AND ONLY IF THE GUILTY PARTY: verbally confesses to what they have done in public, accepts any and all punishments associated with that behavior, maybe moves to a different place/ stops hanging out in the social circles where the person they wronged hangs out, demonstrates that they have stopped doing the offending behavior in similar situations. I appreciate this because the bar is extremely high. As well it should be.

        1. Jewish law also recognizes that forgiveness can just be refraining from pursuing the other person with hostile intent. If you decide not to deal with them, but aren’t taking any harmful action – that’s enough.

    3. There’s “forgiving” on the public stage, where we play Happy Families and pretend nothing bad happened and basically sign up for more of the same until the end of time. That, I agree, is good for the perpetrator and not for the victim. Then there’s the kind of forgiving that says “I won’t let this take up more space in my head. I don’t wish them ill but also I’m going to move on with my life without them.” In my mind, that’s a kind of forgiveness that works for me, 30 years after I last saw my biological parents. I’m not stewing on it (though occasionally I look back in amazement at how messed up it was). I’m not hoping they suffer as I did, for some kind of balance. Go, have a good life (or whatever kind of life you want), and don’t expect me to take part in it. I think that’s what people mean when they say forgiveness is freeing. At least it’s what I mean.

      1. I agree that this is the version of forgiveness that people find useful, but I don’t think it’s a misinterpretation making people not wanting to associate that freedom with the word forgiveness. I’m not gonna tell you what words to use and am happy for anyone who heals this way. But to me, that’s not what forgiveness means, so being told that it is and that I need to do it is unhelpful. (Not that you’re doing this! Just that it’s kind of the dominant narrative)

        Non forgiveness has been important to me as a huge part of my healing has been being able to feel angry for myself and to unflinchingly maintain estrangements from day 1. I don’t need to have a forgiveness relationship with strangers, I don’t need to think of them at all. I feel that giving them forgiveness is still giving them space in my mind, and don’t like being told that this thing I don’t want is actually all for me, and that I won’t be at peace without it. (Again, not you specifically! Just def on the side of “it’s not for everybody but is talked about like it is”)

        1. Thank you! I’m getting really tired of people trying to redeem the word “forgiveness” by wildly redefining it. If you mean something other than “telling the person who hurt you that everything is hunky dory now and it’s totally fine and dandy that they harmed you and have never made any effort to make amends, apologize, or even acknowledge what they did,” then use a different word. There are lots of them. Here are some suggestions: acceptance, moving on, choosing not to dwell on what was done to you, moving forward, refusing to give someone rent-free space in your head, release, dismiss, let go, purge, think no more of, etc, etc. Why yes, I did go to thesaurus.com.

          I vehemently agree that it’s not some bizarre misinterpretation to think that the most common, generally understood definition of “forgiveness” is what people mean when they use that word. I mean, if you decide in your own head that a sucker punch now means to offer someone some delicious fruit punch stirred with a lollipop, well okay that’s a nicer idea than the real definition of the phrase, but you still don’t get to act surprised when people say “wtf no get lost what is wrong with you?” when you ask if they would like a sucker punch.

      2. I’ve heard this before and it’s something I respect *when someone is talking about THEIR OWN choices about THEIR OWN healing*. I’ve seen a number of people evangelising about it and insisting that that’s the only way others can heal too, and that can still be really damaging even when they don’t have selfish intent.

    4. Is it weird that I read this comment and my first thought was “My people!”? I’m so glad there are more people out there on the fuck forgiveness bandwagon. It just makes me so angry that this tremendously harmful idea gets thrown around as the One True Way to healing.

      In all of my time on the internet I’ve read one (1) article about forgiveness that wasn’t worse than useless: What is Forgiveness?

      The extremely short version of that article is that there are three things you need to do before you can even meaningfully consider “forgiving”:
      1. Acknowledge the harm that was done to you
      2. Feel your feelings about it
      3. Talk about it

      The usual advice (read: bullshit) about forgiveness is the exact opposite, it’s meant to pressure victims to shut up and keep whatever was done to them a secret so nobody around them has to feel weird about still being buddies with the person who hurt them/directly being the person who hurt them/not protecting them/not supporting them after they were harmed/etc. Fuck that.

      Not only is “forgiveness” not helpful, it actively prevents people from healing by making it so much harder to do anything that actually helps. If you’ve “forgiven” then magically it’s you who becomes the bad guy if you want to acknowledge that you were harmed, or have feelings about it, or talk about it, because if you were a better person you’d *sparkles* forgive *more very sarcastic sparkles* and be over it.

      Oh and I completely agree that some things are simply unforgivable.

    5. “You can also forget without forgiving; in other words, a) decide what they’ve done is unforgivable, but b) refuse to dwell on it.”

      Absolutely. And you can also neither forgive nor forget but just choose to move past it. If you have something in your life that makes you unhappy, whatever it may be, and you can either remove it from yourself or remove yourself from it, why wouldn’t you do so? Although I admit that in complicated family situations where more than one party is involved that can be easier said than done, of course. However for the sake of your own health, both mental and physical (bearing in mind all the conditions that can be caused or exacerbated by stress) the sensible solution is often the most drastic.

      By way of a personal anecdote, my ex-sister thought she had me at her beck and call over a period of about ten years, despite her being the one to make all the rules. [Example: she invited us for Christmas one year, then accepted an invitation just for herself to a social occasion – but would not allow us to stay in her house when she wasn’t there. We spent the evening sitting in our car.] When I started saying ‘no’ to her, all of a sudden she found herself a good-natured wealthy man and they very soon got married. All she wanted was a puppet to do her bidding, and the moment I stopped being that puppet she found another one. There are just some people who don’t operate on the same level as the rest of us, and it’s probably easiest for everyone just to leave them to their own devices.

    6. Charlene, many people see forgiveness as saying “you, perpetrator, are off the hook.” In my faith, we’re taught that forgiveness is, “I am no longer going to be shackled mentally by what Perpetrator did.” I can forgive….and sitll give them a piece of my mind, or set a firm boundary, or banish them from my life, or seek justice through the courts, or whatever. Forgiveness doens’t mean Perpetrator suffers no consequences. Pop culture has, unfortunately made it out like forgiveness is something the Perpetrator is somehow owed. Nope. Perpetrator can ask for my forgiveness, but I’m not obligated to give it.

      1. This is more what I think of when I think of forgiveness. I read a book once that talked about the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. The author pointed out that reconciliation only happens when the person who hurt us is genuinely sorry and willing to change, and we can still put more boundaries around them as needed. I often look at forgiveness as saying that the other person hurt me and I won’t let them keep doing so because I’m going to make a conscious choice not to let their actions keep tearing me apart. Not that this is always easy or just a matter of willpower. Sometimes it takes a long time. And it doesn’t mean that they get off without consequences. I agree that this is one of the most noxious traits of “forgiveness” as portrayed in general today. I can cut a person out of my life because they still don’t respect boundaries. I can forgive a person who commits a horrible crime against my family and still want him to serve his full sentence because he’s a danger to society. I can forgive the customer who is being a jerk to me and still require her to leave and come back when she can behave with basic decency.

        So I guess just underlining that for me a better definition of forgiveness is not letting someone else’s actions continue to harm me and that’s what I work towards. Letting them avoid consequences is another story entirely and very different.

        (I tend to think of my cats here. They don’t stay angry at me if I step on them by accident…but they also stay out of my way and don’t give me another chance to step on them again.)

      2. This is more what I think of when I think of forgiveness. I read a book once that talked about the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. The author pointed out that reconciliation only happens when the person who hurt us is genuinely sorry and willing to change, and we can still put more boundaries around them as needed. I often look at forgiveness as saying that the other person hurt me and I won’t let them keep doing so because I’m going to make a conscious choice not to let their actions keep tearing me apart. Not that this is always easy or just a matter of willpower. Sometimes it takes a long time. And it doesn’t mean that they get off without consequences. I agree that this is one of the most noxious traits of “forgiveness” as portrayed in general today. I can cut a person out of my life because they still don’t respect boundaries. I can forgive a person who commits a horrible crime against my family and still want him to serve his full sentence because he’s a danger to society. I can forgive the customer who is being a jerk to me and still require her to leave and come back when she can behave with basic decency.

        So I guess just underlining that for me a better definition of forgiveness is not letting someone else’s actions continue to harm me and that’s what I work towards. Letting them avoid consequences is another story entirely and very different.

        (I tend to think of my cats here. They don’t stay angry at me if I step on them by accident…but they also stay out of my way and don’t give me another chance to step on them again.)

      3. I commented somewhere else but the spam filter ate it, that in Judaism forgiveness is only owed if the guilty party: verbally confesses in public their wrongdoing, accepts any and all related punishments, maybe moves to a different location (I interpret this as stops hanging out in social circles where it would be hurtful to somebody they wronged), and definitely has established a new pattern of behavior in similar circumstances. I love saying to students suffering with the idea of freely given forgiveness “Has the person who wronged you gone through these things? If no, then you owe them NOTHING.”

    7. Thank you, Charlene. PREACH. I have a really long fuse, but when someone reaches the end of it I am completely and 100% done. To the “but, forgiveness!” people I encounter, I say: “The only way for me to release my resentment and let go of my negative feelings about this person was to ensure that I never had to deal with them again.”

  11. Its really difficult to give up the fantasy that you can have good or even civil or decent relationships with family when that relationship has never given you what you needed. I still struggle with this with my dad, but I need to give up the idea that he will ever be there for me or do the right thing. He thinks he is the best dad ever but he really just isn’t. My brother is a lost cause, he will never acknowledge the hurt he’s caused me and I probably can’t ever have even a civil, seeing him once a year or so relationship with him. It sucks, I’m sorry.

    1. This is how I had to deal with my brother. Instead of beating my head against the wall of you’re my brother, we have to be friends, I realized I would never be friends with someone who treated me that way. I then decided that I would think of some distant friend of the family that my parents insisted on having for the holidays and be the minimum friendly/polite I had to be to keep the peace and other than that spend zero time with him.

  12. Thanks so much for this advice. I have a very long sister chronicle. It took me years to work out that I was being emotionally abused by her, and it was extremely painful. Thankfully, my friends, fiance and counsellor have been fantastic. She told that I had to have children and shamed for being upset about being sexually abused. I am about to get married and I will invite her. Your advice is going to help a lot. I think I will print it out and keep it with me.

    1. I’m curious – was there a specific incident or “breaking point” that made you realize your sister was emotionally abusive? How did you come to that realization?

      I ask because my ex boyfriend also has an emotionally abusive sister similar to how LWs have portrayed, except they are enmeshed and he doesn’t see the abuse yet. We are no longer together because of triangulation/ sabotaging from her, and I couldn’t handle the toxicity anymore. But part of me wishes with all my heart he will one day realize the abuse, set boundaries, and himself get out of that dynamic.

      1. I’m sorry Nanie, that’s really hard.
        I didn’t see that my dad was emotionally abusive until I was in my mid-20s and it was because I was unpacking the emotional manipulation and abuse of my ex-best friend – then I started to put the pieces together (CA actually helped a ton).
        Abusive relationships often have an element of co-dependency that is really really hard for the victim to see. I wish my mom could see how unhealthy her relationship is with my dad and how much happier she could be without him – but I would bet *A LOT* that she’ll never see it, 35 years of believing that she needs him is a hard habit to break.

  13. “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.”

    Yes. YES! It took my sister and I several years to realize this one, and we are still working through it in some ways. I encourage anyone who believes this is happening with a family member–especially a parent as the triangulator!–to really think about what’s been “messaged” over the years and make a list. Then, approach the other side of the triangle–you know, the good one? Who you could never measure up to? and have a conversation. Just say, “I realized that we never actually talked about these things, I just heard them from X. Can we talk about them? Is this really what you said/happened/what you wanted me to know?”

    Once we were knee-deep in a very confusing situation involving loads of paperwork, my sister and I finally called each other and were just like, “What the what is going on?! What did she tell YOU?” So freeing! We finally mutually realized that she’d been keeping herself as the middlewoman of communication between the two of us and mixing in truth with, uh, alternate facts about the other sister.

    Now, we just shoot each other a quick message and say, “So, did you really say XYZ thing? What’s going on with that?”

    Best of all, we communicate directly with one another.

  14. I have a brother I cant stand I put up with next level abuse throughout my childhood and he is the missing stair in my family that everyone enables because they dont want to deal with his temper tantrums when he doesnt get his way. I can’t/won’t cut him off completely as long as my dad is alive because its important to my dad and I do love my dad. However I have stiff boundaries and I only answer phone calls if I have a large amount of spoons and I will hang up if he gets even the slightest bit unpleasant. You donot have to be buddies with a sibling if you dont really like the siblings you can eliminate contact altogether or do what i do if you feel you staying in contact is necessary only answer every 10th call and hang up when things start to go downhill

  15. Every time I read your words,
    “I don’t believe in unconditional love,”
    I am reminded that I am not alone in the world.

    Thank you.

  16. This phrase from LW 1183 “She doesn’t have a lot of friends and constantly texts me all day.”
    My mom is extremely needy and has almost no friends. I am still trying to figure out how to keep a relationship with her that does not tear me up. One of the tools I use is to constantly tell myself “it is not my fault that my mom has no friends. She is a grown, fucking adult and she can figure out how to make her own friends if she wants to”. This lets me limit the number of times I talk to her and the length of time I spend on the phone with her without being wracked with guilt.

    1. Are You Me.

      After 10 years of being consistently terrified about my mother’s need for some social interaction outside of us, she moved across the country to a walkable town and is taking, like, jam-making classes. I have spent most of my adult life to date deeply concerned about her social isolation, and then one day she woke up and realized that she wanted to fix it for herself without my input. Yay and also ghargh.

    2. This is a bit of a light bulb comment for me regarding a situation with a friend of mine. I have struggled with deciding on boundaries such as lessening social contact with a friend, who I know has very few other friends. I have felt obligated to hang out with her more often than I want. I need to remember that it it not my fault or problem that she has friendship difficulties…it’s something only she can solve for herself.

    3. My mom is extremely needy and has almost no friends.

      My husband tried to convince me to be closer to his mother with this argument – that she had no friends and that his dad was a jerk.

      Both of these were true, but I said what you said to yourself – if she doesn’t have friends, it’s her own fault. It’s not my responsibility to be friends with someone who just wants to whine and complain and who is complicit with the man (OK, he was horribly emotionally abusive, but still) who told my husband that one of the main reasons he and my husband’s mother hated me was because of how I eat bacon.

  17. Can you be abused by a sibling?
    I know that seems like a DUMB question, but I am genuinely confused about many experiences I have had with my sibling.

    1. Absolutely, you can be abused by a sibling. If it would be abuse coming from a parent, friend, or romantic partner, it’s abuse coming from them, too. (It took me way too long to figure this out for myself, by the way. It’s not a dumb question.)

    2. Yes, unfortunately, of course you can. Confusion of this kind can be resolved by talking it out, preferably with a trained professional.

    3. Yes you can.
      Its a relationship you can’t get rid of without risking your financial security and the core of your emotional support network.
      Older siblings had you since you were a baby and had a chance to teach you to accept the unacceptable.

      1. Younger siblings can also abuse you – they get to do whatever they like to you, and they get away with it because they are the adorable baby, and if you retaliate at all you are the irredeemably wicked one.
        At least, that’s how it was in my family.

        1. I believe you.
          There are many aspects about sibling hood which could be used for abuse by the wrong type of person. If their older they get to teach the other person about the world and are proberly left in charge sometimes, if their younger they are not held as accountable for their actions and sometimes the older sibling will be held more responsible for the younger child’s actions than the younger child but is given no real authority. In either case the relationship is not exactly optional until adulthood.

    4. By my personal definition, you can be abused by literally anyone. It’s worth working through what your experiences mean to you, how you feel about them and what you want to do now (even if that’s “do nothing”).

    5. I’m going through this now Chuck, and I can state that I was being abused by a sibling, and HAD to go no contact. She just… doesn’t get it, doesn’t want to get it, and refuses to even acknowledge that I am person. Check out “Betrayal Bonds” by Patrick Carnes. And if I may, there are a TON of videos on YouTube about family roles, triangulation, and trauma bonds. It’s easy to get sucked into the YouTube hole though!

    6. There is a book called Sibling Abuse that you might be interested in. I found it very helpful. Sibling abuse is definitely real.

  18. I’d be very interested to read …The Memoir if you ever decided to publish it.

    However, thanks to your use of ellipses (ellipsises?) I will forever refer to it in my mind in the same way as …The Nozzle from Venture Bros. https://youtu.be/H8yQhXDquII

    1. I had the same thought. Or visceral response. Whichever.

      If …The Memoir exists, I’ll read the heck out of it.

  19. I have a sibling that I could (and, to friends, have) gone on for hours about. To sum up: we are not close and will never be close. I actively dislike sibling. Sibling feels the same. Every few years our surviving parent wants us to Do Family Things. We talk about our pets. That’s it. That’s our whole relationship these days. IT WORKS. (For us.)

    The hardest part for me was accepting that I do not like sibling, will not like sibling, and do not actually want to do more than talk about my pets and sibling’s pets every few years.

    If you need to, oh letter writers, forgive yourselves for not wanting that closeness. It’s ok. It’s not a failing. It’s just how life worked out.

    1. My mother is one of those women who says “I’m lucky. I gave birth to my three best friends.” about my sisters and I. I don’t like my mother. I love her, want good things for her, but I don’t consider her to be a friend. I also don’t like my youngest sister. My youngest sister is 11 years younger than I and we have wildly different versions of what our tween / teen lives were like. She was carefree – allowed to go to parties, able to study and work on homework without interruption, have a boyfriend, do extracurricular activities. I took care of her while my mom worked nights. I actually didn’t go away to college because my mom depended on me so much. She’s spoiled and unpleasant. Her go to expression, when I set boundaries for myself that my mother or her disagree with, is “things are fine the way they are. Why mess with it?” I stopped reaching out to youngest sister when I got pregnant with my first child. In the last 15 years I’ve seen her approximately 10 times. She only reaches out to me when my mother is upset with another boundary I’ve put up. Recently I went no-contact with my mom (5 months and still going strong!) and youngest sister sent me an email outlining that this isn’t how friends and family treat one another. I didn’t respond, but I wanted to just send something back that screamed “WE’RE NOT FRIENDS!!!” over and over on a loop. These are people I had no choice in including in my life for a really long time. I have a choice now. They’re not nice to me. They make me feel bad about myself. I don’t like them. Realizing that I was allowed to say this, to make the decision to stop interacting them, was a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. I’ve felt lighter in the last few months than ever before.

      1. I’m a therapist and one of the most useful sentences I heard in grad school was something along the lines of, “Every sibling has a different family.” It can be jarring to hear your sibling give a completely different account of your childhood than the one you remember, not because they’re lying or deluding themselves, but because they [weren’t around for the bad parts/were too young to understand/were given a different set of rules/had different relationships with your parents/were treated differently]. You want to scream, “Just because it didn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it didn’t happen!”

        1. That is so helpful and very much how I feel. Just because it didn’t / doesn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or that I just deserve it because I am ‘ trouble’. Their abuse is not a reaction to my behaviour, my behaviour is a reaction to their abuse.

          1. “Their abuse is not a reaction to my behaviour, my behaviour is a reaction to their abuse.”

            This is so powerful for me. Thank you.

    2. Yeah this. I spent YEARS in deep pain over how little I like my sister. Almost wrote the Captain about it even! And it’s been even harder because I have treated her in genuinely shitty ways now and again over the years because of my dislike. I have apologized for that. It didn’t help. To be perfectly frank, she deserves better love than I can give her and i deserve better love than she can give me. And we both have very very dear female friends from early childhood who are able to be to each of us what we can’t seem to be for each other. When we don’t see each other much, it makes me sad. And then I have a family dinner with her, and I’m immediately less sad! Because she is exhausting and awful.

  20. Wow. Considering how tolerant you claim to be, you sure spew a lot of hatred about Christians.
    Just… Wow.

    1. Ok, are we having this talk? Let’s go!

      First, I said nothing about Christians as a group in this post, but I did have a lot to say about one specific person who I’ve known for forty years (and you don’t) who often does whatever selfish, crappy thing he wants in life and then uses his religion as an excuse. If my story about my brother and his ridiculous hypocrisy about whether he wanted to bring his wife or his girlfriend to my wedding or keep his options open somehow in case The Lord wanted him to get laid on the dance floor reminds you of people you know, and those people are Christians, and that made you feel bad, and (I’m guessing) you are also Christian, go take it up with them, they’re making you look terrible! How is that my problem?

      Second, I refuse to be lectured about tolerance on my own fucking website in these United States where many Christian Institutions seem to be engaged in (checks notes):

      Raping everyone all the time and covering it up for decades
      Raping, still raping, always raping
      Working super hard to make sure transgender people can’t pee or shit in certain toilets
      Pretending that stuff like, idk, denying human beings medical care because of who they love is something that involves “conscience” and other super cool “tolerant” behaviors
      That thing where the leaders of my church of origin see me as a vessel and not a human who gets to make my own decisions about my health and life Did I say “vessel”? Oops I meant a “host body.”

      #NotAllChristians, I know, I know! I know so many lovely wonderful people of faith in this world, among my readers, and I don’t want to alienate or hurt them, ever, and I know so many people doing great work to redefine, resist, reclaim their faith from harmful narratives and power structures and live the beautiful parts of a beautiful faith. But I also trust that y’all know an asshole in your midst when you see one, and my brother is definitely one. Plus, “religious tolerance” means “live and let live”, esp. at the government/state/power level. People can worship as they please, nobody should be hurt or persecuted because of their faith. It does not mean a person never having a feeling or opinion about a religious institution or how someone who represents that denomination behaves! Nuns are so cool (#notallnuns, but I’ve been lucky)! Rape is bad! My little brother sucks!

      And look, when institutions like churches (powerful lobbying interests, whatever you want to call it) harm people on a large scale or people in my life are awful directly to me and they explicitly namecheck their faith to justify their actions, turns out my views on “tolerance” shrink until they are extremely transactional and simple: You first, buddy!

      Goodbye getfreegetclean, we won’t be having this talk (or any other talk) ever again, I hope you feel very tolerated, I know I do. Kisses!

      1. Christian here just wanting to say this response rocks! And that I’ve never felt hatred from the blog and have found it incredibly useful in my life. (And yeah, the Christian Left exists *waves to the others who hang out here*)

      2. I’m really amazed at the gall of someone to read the description of CA’s brother’s appalling behaviour and instead of thinking ‘wow look at how this man is manipulating Christianity to his own ends’, thinking AND saying ‘Captain how could you be so intolerant!’

  21. I want to read The Memoir too!

    And I have to admit that I am grateful for being an only child right now. I have other problematic relatives but I tend to limit interaction with them severely. It helps that I am an introvert and even talking to people I like can be exhausting for me.

    And I love that so many commenters are bucking the “unconditional love” and “forgiveness is universally awesome/freeing/enlightened” platitudes that we hear all the time. It’s like the perpetrator of the bad act gets to put yet another obligation on their victim to make them feel better.

  22. I don’t think this song was originally supposed to be about familial relationships, but it reminds me of nothing if not one of the more fraught and difficult ones I’ve had during my lifetime. There’s a certain type of person who demands unconditional love from others but who puts all sorts of conditions on the love they give, and it sounds like that’s what some of these LWs are dealing with from their siblings.

  23. I’d like to throw out my own experience on the set contact time. I had a negligent mother and I spent most of my childhood living with my father. To ensure I had a relationship with my mother, my father scheduled weekly phone calls on Wednesday at 4.30pm. We usually ate at 5.30pm, which meant when Dad noticed either me or my brother getting agitated or upset talking to her, he could take the phone and say ‘dinner is ready, goodbye’. This helped me so much, having a ready-made excuse to bail from a bad conversation and it’s a lesson I’ve taken to all difficult relationships. (Oh hello FIL, yes lovely to see you. Oh, we’re starting with how all Muslims are terrorists today? Excellent, well then I have to go see a man about a dog, goodbye!)

  24. This is timely for me. I have a friend who…well, he genuinely has had a hard life, and he genuinely is going through a lot right now, and he genuinely does need support. But for the last few years, our entire friendship has become him telling me all his problems and me offering support. (Before that we did actually have a mutually supportive, close friendship.) And it’s reaching a point where I just can’t do it anymore. Even when a conversation starts out looking light, within 2 minutes it turns right back into this loop; I’m starting to get really on edge every time I get a message from him. And any boundaries I try to put around it are met with that “I’m the worst, I’m terrible, everyone would be better off without me” nonsense that on the one hand I know is manipulative, and on the other hand I know part of him genuinely believes. I’ve given up on expecting any support in return (even the ‘occasional friendly ear’ kind).

    I’ve been feeling really guilty because I’ve been pulling back a lot. He needs a lot more than I can give, and he’s not letting me just give what I can, so I don’t see what option I have…but I’m sure he’s either noticed or will notice eventually, and will be pretty upset about it whenever that happens. I needed a reminder that it’s OK to have boundaries, it’s OK to not give beyond what you want to give, and if the relationship fades as a result of someone else not respecting that, it doesn’t make me a bad person.

    1. I’ve been trying to give myself the same pep talk for the last couple of months. I have a friend who sees our relationship as *very* close, and it’s complicated by the fact that I allowed our friendship to escalate too quickly at first, which means that he now has the wrong impression of my level of commitment to the friendship. I’ve discovered that I dread hanging out with him one-on-one due to personality factors that weren’t obvious when we met and the enormous number of personal problems that pour out of him every time we talk. I’m trying to cut down on our level of contact while also trying to remind myself that (a) I can end a relationship even if the other person did nothing wrong, and (b) I can change my mind and decide that I don’t want a close friendship with someone I was previously close with.

      1. I think part of what makes it hard for me is that I would want a close friendship with my friend if we could go back to how it was a couple years ago–when they did have hard stuff going on, but we also did fun things and they were a friendly ear for me too when I needed it. But I think I need to acknowledge at this point that for whatever reason, that’s not likely to happen. While I could do an imbalanced thing for a while to support a struggling friend who needed extra backup, at this point it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to balance back out, and I can’t maintain that anymore. It makes me really sad but I need to look at the situation as it is, not as I wish it were or hope it could be.

  25. LW 1184 here – after the time of writing, my sister invited herself on a trip with my partner and I that was strictly intended to catch up with our friends. I needed it so I could pass on my bad news and have a bit of emotional support. Kinda unhelpful that one of the people making my time difficult was present. However, she managed to stay polite to me and my friends most of the time. Then, when she thought my partner was asleep in the car journey back, proceeded to argue with me about a boundary I had set with her earlier that week. She calmed down pretty quickly when she realised my partner was awake, but at least I now have a witness to her ‘private’ behaviour!

    1. Ugh, what a pain! If you think that’s something that might happen again, I’m pretty sure CA has other posts about dealing with people who invite themselves to your stuff. It’s super hard to draw that boundary and say “Actually, you’re not invited” but it can be done! Wishing you all the best in dealing with your sister!

  26. I almost wrote my own letter to Cap this weekend about my parents. I love this entry, but my problem is how to change my perspective on my parents? I just don’t….like or maybe even love them anymore. My mom used to be my best friend, but she has fundamentally changed and it feels like my Mom is already dead bc the best version of her is long gone. We live nearby but have nothing to talk about and after an hour with her I want to tear my hair out. In my personal and professional opinion she’s horribly depressed, she says she’s fine but is negative and nasty 100% of the time. I feel like I’m in a constant state of grief, I miss my old mom soooooo much. She’s reaching the end of her years and I’m not interested in cutting off contact, but I need to find a way to see the good in her now and I’m struggling so hard. Anyone else been through this? I would die for us to be closer, but I really can’t stand who she has turned into. How do I make the last years good?

    1. You can’t ever change her perspective. You can control your behavior. So what it is is a grieving process (for what you’re missing) and then doing the best you can with what you can do.

    2. Are in a position to make sure her needs are taken care of in terms of – health? physical support (if she needs mobility assistance for example)? insurance? finances? legal matters? pet sitting?

      If you are involved with any of that as her (I’m assuming adult) kid, then maybe making sure you’re on top of it can be your way to take care of her when spending time talking to her is so difficult. It can help you convince yourself you are doing the Good Child things when the old way you did that is no longer possible.

      1. Her health is declining but okay, not to the point where she needs help. The only thing she *wants* from me is time, but I have to grit my teeth to do it, which sucks because she used to be my hero. I want to cultivate an appreciative and merciful attitude toward her, but no idea how.

        1. Is there any way that you can spend time with her and be doing something that takes the focus off and avoids the negative conversations you are finding so hard? Crafting, doing a jigsaw puzzle, looking at old photos, baking cupcakes, weeding the garden, anything like that? Or having manicures, watching a film, going for fancy afternoon tea, something that takes place in public with other people around?

    3. I second what Nanani says. Even if you are unable to do the hands-on, day-to-day care for your mother, you can “care at a distance” by helping her with the piles of admin that go with being an older person in our society, or by liaising with healthcare workers and being an advocate for her when needed. Those are important and necessary jobs in themselves, and will help to support your mother. This is what I did for my parents. It wasn’t the 24-hour service that my Mum in particular was hoping for, but before they died they both thanked me for my help.

    4. My Mom has dementia and it’s been getting much worse over the past three years. If I had met this person on the street, I’d have nothing to do with her. She’s negative about everything, gets furious at the drop of a hat, and will accuse people of crazy things. Most recently, she keeps harping on various people (an ever changing roster) who have recently stolen books from her (spoiler, they didn’t).

      My Mom left three years ago. I am helping my Dad care for a shell of a person who looks like my Mom and has some of the same memories. It still makes me mad and sad that I didn’t talk to her about some personal stuff before she left.

      I’ve learned to adapt my behaviour to what makes her happy (or at least, less unhappy). Talking about stuff she’s interested in, letting her ramble, not calling her out about her crazy-talk….it always hurts to do this, but I keep telling myself that she fed and diapered me, and now it’s my turn to take care of her. Pro tip, if there’s anything she likes, try to bring it up (my mom loves cats, so I have YouTube videos ready to go and photos of my pets)

      I don’t engage in the crazy talk (“oh Mom, I didn’t know that”) and I do my best to let it blow past me and not let it lodge deeply into my head and heart. Good luck. I hope you’re able to find a way forward.

    5. Do you tell her when she upsets you? If you have and it always goes horribly, that sucks. If you haven’t, it might be worth a shot. Maybe the way to see the good in your mom is to work toward a more balanced relationship, where your needs matter as well as hers.

    6. I have been through a version of this with my own mother. Her last years were made good in large part by her. She had a stroke and my husband and I flew to her and got her set up in a small group home with a caregiver she liked very much. We paid the amount needed over what mom’s Medicaid and SS check covered to keep her there, and gave her a monthly allowance, which was small but allowed her to buy sparkly shoes and jewelry from Walmart—her “platonic boyfriend,” as she called him, picking her up and taking her shopping once a week. She was now in a wheelchair and oddly it was as if she had been looking forward to these dependencies, to being taken care of, which she had not been as a child, and she was happy and grateful that I could and would do for her so willingly. She apologized to me for the kind of mother she had been and I reminded her of the way she had taught my brothers and I to love and care for animals—what a good dog trainer she had been, all the happy times with our dog, our cats, her birds, and assured her that I always knew she loved me, which is true, I did know, despite the mistreatment and her inability to think of anyone but herself so much of the time—which obviously did not need mentioning. By the time of her stroke I lived in Alaska and she in Vegas, so we related mostly over the phone. Her caretaker and she were both Democrats in a sea of conservatives, and they talked politics and made each other laugh, then shared that with me, and as politics had always been another safe place in our family, these became new good times. She had been a heavy smoker all of her life and so not did not last but a couple of years. I buried her next to my father and his mother in the San Gabriel mountains in southern California, not far from where I grew up. The years of her leaning on me as a child and then a young woman in ways she should not have, my fruitless attempts to gain her approval and make her happy, her hurtful indifference to my children and her general damned weird ways that drove me to distraction—all of that was gone. In the end I became the mother and she the child and all of the bitterness I felt was replaced with a feeling of having been able, finally, to help give her some real happiness. Some of this came from her need and my willingness, but some of it came from her turning her own selfish character around and treating me better as well. Had she not done that I still would have provided for her, but I would not have talked with her and neither of us could have eased the other’s mind.

    7. One hour at a time sounds like a very long time to speak with someone you don’t really like. I’m thinking maybe you need to set a shorter time limit, like 5 minute phone call or 20 minute in person coffee visit, and then you have a bunch of super-important imaginary errands and have to go, on the dot.
      Also, maybe you can find therapy or a support group for the grief? Grief is really difficult. Take care!

  27. I have a family member who is *very* similar to these sisters, but is currently in the upswing. Meaning they don’t need/want anything from me and are generally not heard from.

    They’re in a good place right now and I think (maybe) this is a good time to try to establish a good (better) relationship with them.

    Is the advice the same? Boundaries are hard to think about when the person isn’t running head first into them. Is it ok to move boundaries depending on the how the family member is in that moment? (expecting to need sturdier boundaries in the future?) Or should you establish the *worst case scenario* boundaries when things are good and maybe they won’t even notice they exist?

    1. It sounds like you’re thinking of boundaries as flexible, changing things–which they can be, if the situation demands it, but often they’re actually pretty stable.

      Let’s say your boundary is “I really can’t handle more than half an hour each week of being this person’s dumping ground for venting about their problems; after that I need to either change the subject, or if they won’t let me do that, hang up/leave”. That might not come up at all when they’re in a good place, and might be a problem every single week when they’re having a hard time. But the boundary itself hasn’t changed–the difference is in their behavior, not your needs.

      1. Thanks! that’s a really helpful example. The boundary is static, but doesn’t always come up.

  28. I really want to write the perfect comment about family systems theory here, because my particular family system has me labelled as the Dramatic One who needs Help With Her Disaster Of a Life, and like: for a long time I believed that this was true and leaned really hard on family members for support without realizing how hard staying enmeshed with my family was reinforcing that role and making me cast myself as a disaster human.

    But every family is different, every Disaster Sibling is different. I think some of the LWs already understand how this kind of thing can build into a feedback loop where everyone is stuck in the same role forever. Boundaries and time also give your Troublesome Sibling the gift of a lower-energy family system and space to seek other support from people who did not know them at their worst. I’m not saying it’ll fix em (no one can ever fix anyone else and everyone should stop trying), but it does remove your own energy from potential feedback loops.

    I do want to say as a Disaster Sibling that when I learned to stop interacting with my family around my vulnerabilities I also learned that I am… not much of a disaster human by external standards. I had some maladaptive coping strategies that I had to unlearn! I have been in therapy for 11 years and will probably be in it for the rest of my life! It sucks that there are certain family members that I can’t have a healthy one-on-one relationship with. It REALLY sucks that even when I have built up a one-on-one relationship that is positive and honest and boundaries-riffic with specific family members I will still revert the second I’m around Ol’ Grandpa Gaslight. I am NOT proud of that. And I am NOT saying that “my sibling is having a hard time and has a hard life” is somehow all in the LWs’ heads. I am saying that if some of the trouble started within the family, family members are usually the worst people to really get involved with trying to fix it, and they might never get to even see much evidence that it’s getting fixed, and that doesn’t mean that Troublesome Sibling is doomed and will be unhappy forever. Boundaries are a gift to everyone involved.

    Anyway, if you, fellow commentators, haven’t googled “family systems theory”, give it a search. I found it really useful.

  29. Lovely to read over the Captain’s advice when it hits close to home. My older brother was an extremely volatile person when we were young, and my relationship with him was severely damaged by the fact that my parents put him “in charge” of me, and saw his abusive and controlling behaviors towards me as “protective”. Any time I complained, I was told that he was “just looking out for me”. It took a long, long time for me to understand that this was bullshit. In my late 30s now, I have very firm boundaries with my family, which will never be lowered. Even though all of them, to come extent, have done some work to become better people (my brother most of all), they still have a pretty messed-up re-written version of history in their heads. And unfortunately, there will always be well-meaning but clueless people in your life who will encourage you to mend fences, or “let it go”, or “be the bigger person”, and you’ll have to tell yourself over and over that they simply don’t know what they’re talking about. The Captain’s advice is stellar for all of these LWs, and I hope they can work toward maintaining a healthy separation from their toxic sibs.

    1. there will always be well-meaning but clueless people in your life who will encourage you to mend fences, or “let it go”, or “be the bigger person”, and you’ll have to tell yourself over and over that they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

      I had to explain to my own mother, who thank goodness has apparently never been around really toxic people, that NO I was not going to be forgiving my husband’s parents and his half brother, that I did not deserve to be treated badly, and that because they had never actually asked for forgiveness or in any way acknowledged to me or, worse, to their own son, that threatening to boycott his wedding two weeks before the wedding and telling him not to marry me because I was a golddigger was in any way unacceptable behavior and they were sorry they had put him/us through that (and through so many other things),* I was not even going to forget it.

      I have learned, though, that it’s better just not mention anything at all to my mom about this – she just does not get it.

      * Things that pale in comparison to some of the things I’ve read about on this blog, for sure, but still unpleasant things.

  30. My sister had I had a complicated relationship that kind of blew up when we lived together. We moved apart, took a year or so off from talking to each other, and slowly re-established contact from a place where things were better in both of our lives.

    When things were bad, I was definitely more of the chaser than she was, and I can’t be sure but I think I might have been more hurt by the whole thing (things my mom and my sister said to be me and about me at the time still sometimes spin around in my head, and I still mark the lows from that time as the most painful in my life).

    She took the first steps to re-initiating contact, and we slowly inched closer together, with her taking all of the first steps. Sometimes I get a little sore, like I wonder if she know really understands or knows how painful all of that was for me, and she just forgets? But mostly I’ve been cautiously accepting the steps closer, trying to stay vigilant around giving up too much of myself, and trying to leave as much as I can in the past.

    It’s been working, to the point where I could be the maid of honor in her wedding, and now I’m comfortable as a solid part of her support system. I love her, and it’s easy to fall back into long, enjoyable conversations with her. She was recently a big ally for me about addressing some other issues with past abuse in my family, and I’m so grateful. I think we’re in a place now that’s pretty good considering it could very easily have been lifelong estrangement.

    We got here slowly, with a lot of rebuilding of trust and a lot of both of us consistently following through with positive and respectful interactions. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that if the worst case scenario happened and somehow I was dragged back into something like what happened before, I don’t think it would be as painful this time around since I’ve put a lot of effort into protecting myself. And I don’t feel that that effort is at odds with my relationship with my sister as it exists today, which is a huge contrast to the guilt I carried around with myself before.

  31. I’ve a slightly different question but related to this, and I wondered if anyone has some advice.
    I have lost almost all contact with my little sister in the last six of months, not because her but because I decided to cut contact with my parents.
    She is a full-fetched adult but is very close to my parents, as she lives in the apartment above them and sees them very often.
    I have never been close to them, because they were abusive in differing degrees through out my life. I decided to cut of contact last May and it has honestly been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Since then things have also gone down hill between me and my sister, she has not addressed that this is happening and has now gone completely silent.
    I am not sure what to do, I want to keep the contact we used to have, not super close but friendly and fun.
    I know that she thinks that I exaggerate with regards to my parents and that I should just suck it up and be there. I am not willing to do this, should I just accept that losing her is a sad side-effect of deciding to cut contact with my parents?

    1. I think it depends partly on how much you’re willing to risk anything you say to her being also communicated to your parents. I’d start with maybe sending a cute thinking-of-you type card, maybe try a couple phone calls over the course of a month, and maybe invite her to get together somewhere that isn’t either of your homes at a time when you know your parents will be busy. But expect that your parents will be told about any interactions you have with her, and if she doesn’t respond to your overtures, there’s nothing you can really do. She gets to choose the parents over you even if you and I think that’s a bad choice.

      1. Thank you for your kind response and super helpful advice.
        We don’t live in the same country which has made distancing myself from my parents a lot easier but it is harder to keep in casual contact with my sister. I think sending her a card is a really nice idea, low pressure but thoughtful. I will start there and see how it goes!

  32. This is kind of how I feel about my mom. I had a perfectly adequate childhood with many happy moments, but I just don’t… like her. She’s negative, and jealous, and she deals with her severe anxiety by foisting it all on me and my brother. I know it comes from a place of love and concern, but that doesn’t change the fact that conversations with her are just not pleasant. I don’t want to cut her out entirely – she hasn’t done anything WRONG, really – but whatever contact I have with her is mostly out of obligation. Sometimes I think we should have a come-to-Jesus conversation about her negative attitude and seeing a therapist for her anxiety and whatever… but ultimately, the amount of angst it would cause is just not worth it to me. I feel a little bad about not… caring more? But it is what it is. I’m on board with Do Less 2019.

    1. I feel this.

      My mom is unpleasant in different ways, but she’s definitely not someone I would choose to spend time with if she weren’t my mom. I try to maintain the relationship by focusing on meetings where we are DOING SOMETHING (doing or watching a sport, for example) and the entire time isn’t soul-sucking conversation.
      Trying to fix mom = too much work and probably not effective
      Limiting how many shits to give = much more doable.

    2. This is also me and my mum. She was a decent mum but always went more towards judging than understanding (my introversion and love of gaming, for instance). We live on different continents now and talk regularly (once a week). I never felt we were that close, but a turning point for me was when, during a visit, she said I was a disgrace to my new city of residence because everyone else was dressed so smartly and I was … not (I am a jeans + t shirt kind of person). I was extremely upset and pushed back, hard. Since then the overt judginess has ceased and my mum feels like I should forgive and become closer to her, while I feel like I’m just done with the entire relationship. I do wish her well, I just don’t want to be around her.

      Despite being ok with the current level of engagement, I think about these things a lot. I feel guilty because I had a good childhood but I still don’t love or like my mother. I feel she would like to be closer because that is how it is “supposed to be”. She has said I am wrong to still be upset about our previous conflicts and has accused me of lying / suggested therapy for me so I can be less anxious around her. I wish she could see that we’ll never be truly close and that attempts to push/guilt me won’t exactly help my anxiety towards her.
      For now I will continue to be pleasant during our weekly talks (as long as she is), redirect her away from negatively monologuing and not commit to an in-person visit.

      Anyway, I am relieved I am not the only one in this situation. Jedi hugs to you, Joielle and Nanani, and thanks for sharing! Thank you, Captain, for providing your thoughtful advice and a space to discuss.

  33. 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

    *in tears* here’s to optimism, then, and here’s to safe way out.

    Because THIS TIME it will work out better.

  34. I wasn’t actively trying to fix things with my sister, but they went from awful to very enjoyable indeed and I can recognize many of these strategies in our — for want of a better term — reconciliation. As very young adults, she and I were roommates and, through a series of unfortunate events (we were both immature assholes, and she was sick to boot), I wound up on the hook for her share of the final month’s rent and the entirety of the move-out and clean-up responsibilities. The experience soured our relationship for several years. Our reset was my leaving the state for college and her finally getting medical treatment. We had our structure to rebuild on (in small doses) when we attended family gatherings for various birthdays, graduations and holidays. Gradually, we began to genuinely enjoy each others’ adult company. We did some rec center-type classes together, which was a wonderful way to establish trust and spend time together as a pair. Over the years since we’ve become very close. She even housed me, my husband and our then-newborn for a few months last year after a family crisis.

  35. I often say I loved my grandmother, but I never liked her. The two are not linked and one emotion does not require the other.

    I had a mother who set Boundries and refused to allow anyone to bully us into a relationship just because we were related to someone.
    One of my great aunts landed in the hospital. She was surprised and pleased I came to visit her because, as she said, she knew I had come because I really cared about her, not because somebody made me come.
    Love is not a duty.

    1. The first time my mother said to me, regarding her brother, “I love him…but that doesn’t mean I have to like him very much,” was a revelation. I’m glad to see someone else here has already made that point.

  36. I just want to say, Captain, thank you for this. It was extremely healing to read.

  37. Re: the above comments on forgiveness: I found the book “How to forgive you? The courage to forgive, the freedom not to” helpful in that it describes forgiveness as a process that involves you and the the person and discuss how to move forward (acceptance and coming to terms, rather than forgiveness) if the other party does not take responsiblity for their hurtful actions or make any attempt to change)

  38. Thank you for this post, Captain. I feel like although it’s regarding family, it’s fairly applicable to a situation I have with a friend who I’d like to be a “small doses” friend.

  39. Thank you for putting in the recurring, and consistent, ‘which I feel guilty about’s – it helps…. followed beautifully by the “then I actually have to interact with him.” I agree, their words ping your inner “but-what-if-this-time-demon.”

    Has anyone read “Boundaries Where You End And I Begin: How To Recognize And Set Healthy Boundaries,” by Anne Katherine M.A.; or tried the Terri Cole Real Love Revolution Boundary Bootcamp? Boundaries used to be so hard for me… Personal growth can be frustrating when looking at your own issues (like codependency or that do-gooder feeling of supremacy for ‘helping’). Maintaining firm boundaries takes a lot of practice, but it is SO, soo… sooooo much better than living in their sunken place. You know that place, that after-we-interact-I-feel-icky-feeling. Now I get a wave then they send a hook-and-jig-text, but it’s NOTHING like when I was stewing in their “stuff.” And when the guilt resurfaces during their ploys for attention… I get to do something fun! ANYTHING other than replying – get my nails done, go for a walk, go for a swim, read a book, write in my journal, make bad art that turns out sorta ok. Anything… other than going back to “how things used to be” – which is all they really want.

    Excellent, thorough and empathetic post. My absolute favourite so far – saved for further reads, and re-reads, and comparing with my past and now-self. Thanks Captain!

    Song suggestion: K.Flay – Giver (I prefer the Seattle Sessions version).

  40. If they want to be closer they can do the relationship heavy lifting. Whining at someone to be closer to you while not doing the necessary work is… kinda… not cool?

    Work here would be: listening to you, taking an interest in you when times are good, thinking of something you would find fun and seeing if you want to do that thing, doing the work of thinking of what you want based upon their knowledge of you (knowledge which is usually gleaned by listening to what you say).

    I was/am someone who wanted to be closer to my sister and was willing to do the work but because of personality/past history she didn’t want. The best things I did was a) to accept what she COULD give and not ask for more and b) make all the favors I would do for her a GIFT. If I would be resentful if she didn’t reciprocate then I wouldn’t do said favor.

    These are choices your siblings have. Did it hurt? Yes but that’s nobody’s fault. The universe just put incompatible people in the same family, it happens.

  41. Speaking as a depressed sibling who sometimes asks for support from family when I’m feeling low, is there a way to avoid being the Difficult Sibling and asking for too much from people when when I’m feeling low? My family have always stressed that I can reach out, but recently when I mentioned to my mum and sister that I was having a hard weekend and would love a phone chat about frivolous things if anyone was available they both felt a ton of pressure and really panicked (because they were both busy and just couldn’t make the time that weekend). It took most of that afternoon for me to calm them down and convince them, that no, I wasn’t in a deep crisis, just having a bad few days depression-wise and it was totally okay for them to say no if they couldn’t help/had other commitments. This situation really worried me – I had really done my best to use my words, ask directly for what I needed and stress that it was fine to say no to me…. and I *still* managed to put them under intolerable pressure. It got me wondering if there really is a low-pressure way I can ask for help from family and friends.

    Is there a way I can better manage this and encourage friends/family to set and maintain the boundaries they need with me? I have a really great therapist who I try to go to first with any sustained period of negative feelings, and I do my best to keep busy/maintain an acitive social life so I have lots of distraction from depresseion. But with the best will In the world, therapy is only an hour a week and it can’t be my whole support system. And I’d really like to have some friends and family on Team Me and to be able to ask people to help me meet my emotional needs sometimes (with the caveat that they can always say no).

    1. Hi AndrewsSister, here’s a possible but unfortunate thing: You could be doing all this exactly right and your mom & sister might not be able to give you what they promised or what you need. You can have depression (and that impairs you in certain ways) and your family might be terrible at dealing with simple requests and skip to being weird about it, no diagnosis required. What I’m getting from your post is that they might do better with “in the moment” texts than planned “I’ll need support this weekend” requests ahead of time (less time to build up worry for them) but, again, they might not, and your needs are still your needs? Talk it over with your therapist next time you go, and maybe approach it from the idea that you’re probably doing this just fine, you’re not messing anything up, there is no “more low key” you can be, but your family has shown you that they have certain limits, so how do you take care of yourself around those limits. ❤

      One practical thing from this post that might help – could you schedule a weekly (or monthly to start) call or group text or Skype with your mom and your sister without the framing of “I’ll need support” and as more of a “Let’s make sure we catch up and don’t lose track of each other” framing? My spouse has a weekly phone call with his mom for at least the last 7 years, it can last anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour, they wish each other Happy Sunday and catch up for a bit every week on Sunday nights. Sometimes it’s about support, sometimes it’s just chitchat, sometimes one or both party is busy and they just text or leave a voice mail and try again. The ongoing sustainable ritual of something like that might get you more support (and put you in a position of giving support) over time in a way that asking for support in times of acute stress & being turned down b/c the other person is on the spot might not. Does that make sense? It may not work, but it may be worth a try.

  42. I definitely want to second the recommendation for finding one or two safe topics to stick to. And note that it can sometimes even work to repair a relationship a bit.

    My parents divorced when I was 15, my father and I had a very strained relationship for a while, and then I discovered the secret. We talked about baseball and cats. Because we always agree with each other on baseball and cats.

    We have a few more safe topics now, we can even talk about heavier issues some, but we’ll never be as close as we were before the divorce, and if things get tense we can always go back to cute and funny stories about cats.

  43. I absolutely love this paragraph:

    “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…..”

    I don’t currently have faaaaaamily issues— but I’ve had plenty of friend issues. “Friends,” as in our circle of friends, are our chosen family, and can. E just as difficult in that way as real family can be. There is a person in my circle of friends that I cannot not see sometimes because it would cause too much strife for the group.

    So, all the suggestions Captain have for the faaaaamily applies here as well.
    There was another “friend” in a different , less-close-to- me friend group, who I cut off. There was no social cost to me, so why not? The cost came later when she committed suicide. After her death, I learned how cherished she was in the circle, and I learned much about her I never would have known otherwise. I know absolutely that I had no cause in her death and could not have prevented it if I had been closer to her. But I also have a deep sadness that I never “left the door open.” A woman in this social circle remarked that A’s death was a reminder “to be kind, to everyone.” I think the suggestions here help is to be kind, by not shutting anyone out. THANK YOU!!! ❤️

    1. A linguistic change here, that I think is pretty important to friends and family and really anyone affected: Died by suicide. Commit implies a crime, and that’s just kind of rough language to use. (I’m struggling to internalize this change myself since I’m so used to the other phrasing, but having had it pointed out to me, I really agree with the point)

  44. Long time reader, first time commenting…

    I do think there is a certain kind of unconditional love that flows from parents to children. It has to, in order for the kids to survive, especially through the sociopathic asshole stage known as toddlerhood. I think this form of love can be especially strong in birthing moms – having carried, birthed, and (often) nursed these new beings into existence, the bond of love towards them is very primal thanks to hormones and biology. (Obviously this is not a given for everyone and I’m not trying to diminish non-birthing parents, I just think it is a thing that happens. If you think this is BS, consider how easy it seems to be for so many dads to eff off and start a new life/family and how relatively few moms do the same. Also consider how much trouble step moms sometimes have bonding with their step kids.) Even if my kids grew up to be serial killers, while I’d be devastated I think a part of me would always love them. Oxytocin is a hell of a drug, y’all.

  45. I spent my entire childhood and years of my adult life revering my older sister, and desperately trying to be Very Very Close to her, at least in my head.

    I finally let it go in a giant whoosh one fine day, when I was listening to her talk about a bullshit racist prank she and her husband had pulled on his brother. I looked at her and thought, “Why do I care about this person in any way? Why do I care what she thinks of me? Why do I care whether she ever thinks of me at all? Would I ever choose to spend time with her if we hadn’t accidentally been born to the same parents?”

    I didn’t need to ghost her or cut her out of my life — I simply stopped doing all the work of reaching out to her and maintaining our relationship. Since she had never bothered to do any work on our relationship at all, it withered with amazing speed and died with very little further suffering. I don’t know if she even noticed; the main thing I noticed was the incredible sense of lightness and freedom. My brain was finally able to stop trying to justify the years and years of shitty behavior I’d let her dish out on me.

    Most of all, I stopped believing that our failure to have a healthy relationship was my fault. It was not my fault and never had been.

    I swear my sense of self-esteem grew three sizes that day.

  46. I need to let things get cooler between me and my sister.

    She’s perfectly capable of arranging her life around the dog she sometimes looks after, but she won’t ever make the effort to care for her nephew who she knows is struggling.

    This sucks. She’s so cool and I love spending time with her, but it hurts too, because she’s not there for me and she wasn’t compassionate to either me or the kid when (recent traumatic event) happened.

    Sad. But at least I can come to terms with it now, I guess.

  47. Just wanted to add a HELLZ TO THE MF YEAH affirmation to this excellent advice from the Captain. I have a family member who would explode, make wild judgmental accusations, impose silent treatment & staredowns, etc. I finally told them very explicitly that going forward, any time they did those things, I would immediately end the interaction & exit the context. This worked great, and at this point they don’t even try that shittio anymore. With intrusive, impulsive, boundary violators, I think it is helpful to lay out very explicit if-then rules: “If you behave like A, I will do X; if you behave like B, I will do Y”.

    There can be a tendency to get a response like “You are giving me an ultimatum, and I don’t respond to ultimatums”. I responded to that with “It doesn’t matter what you call it, I am simply stating facts about how I will react to the way that people treat me. I’m not trying to control your behavior, and I’m not at all telling you what to do; I’m only telling you about my decisions and my actions.”

    It can work! And our relationship is a million times better now.

  48. I really didn’t get on with my sister when we were growing up – its took adulthood for us to become friends and, similarly to what some other people have said, I tend to hear more from her when she’s having tough times. When she was doing a job that made her unhappy on a daily basis, I became a wailing wall for her and felt very stressed. In the end I had to say, ‘I’m not talking about this anymore because its not helping – all I’m doing is enabling you to stay in this shitty situation by taking just enough edge off for you to cope, when what you really need is to feel bad enough to make the efforts to get out of it”. It was difficult to say, and I’m sure very difficult for her to hear… but within 2 months she had got herself another job, so it was worth saying!
    One recommendation I have for spending low-stress time together – we live near enough to each other that we could join the same cinema club – now we have a weekly ‘date’ where we can catch-up with each other, but only before and after the film… and if there’s nothing else to discuss, then we always have the film. I’m really enjoying this and it keeps the link going whether things are running smoothly or not.

  49. I believe in unconditional love because I’ve experienced it with my children. I don’t know how anyone gets through the toddler years without it. When your kids are behaving toward you in ways that would qualify as abusive in any other relationship (hitting, kicking, biting, leaving bruises/drawing blood, screaming in your face), and they’re literally little sociopaths because their brains haven’t developed the capacity for empathy yet, it’s unconditional love that gets you through – that and lots of parenting books and blogs.

    1. Sure, but you know that if they do that as adults, you don’t have to put up with it, right?

      1. Of course. And I don’t put up with it from my kid either, but I also don’t kick him out for it, because he’s 2. My point was just that I think unconditional love can exist between humans, though it’s totally fair to say it’s not a valid concept in adult relationships.

  50. I just want to say thank you so much for this post. I’ve been a reader for a few years but haven’t commented before. I have an extremely difficult relationship with my own (homophobic, right-wring, generally unpleasant) sister, one that’s made worse because my parents want to triangulate between us all the time and insist that I “respect her beliefs” when she’s literally calling for people like me to cease to exist, and that I have to still try and preserve this relationship becuase my sister has kids and “of course you want to be part of the kids’ life.” The hard fact, which I was able to confront after reading this post, is that there’s no relationship to preserve; she keeps not bringing the kids over when I’m in town visiting my parents, and when I did see them for the last time three years ago they did nothing but scream, hit me, and try to destroy my belongings. They are also now beginning to imitate her religious rhetoric that says people like me shouldn’t exist.

    I’m sorry for my sister and her kids but we basically have nothing in common anymore except our parents. Now I think I can start accepting that instead of just wishing endlessly, fruitlessly, that things were different.

  51. Sounds not unlike two of my brothers.

    Any excuse or no excuse at all to throw an adult tantrum. If their behaviour is questioned, they double down and everything is always someone else’s fault (usually mine, apparently).

    To an extent I prefer the screaming over shallow civility. At least when there’s screaming I know what reality is. When I’m greeted with “hi sis, what you watching on TV?” my stress levels go through the roof.

    It’s not a greeting. It’s a greeting from someone who is extremely emotionally abusive and thinks I should take it, but be friendly when he wants to. It’s evidence to other family members that he’s not so bad.


    And of course our mother has certain traumas herself, that mean she interprets low/no contact as silent treatment and therefore an aggressive act.

    Ugh ugh ugh.

    There’s a letter in me about this. Unfortunately while I feel no guilt and little sadness about the situation – my only feelings are frustration, anger, and a sense of injustice – I WOULD feel guilt about being public. And on one occasion I told a trusted friend some details and he, knowing I can be argumentative, responded “But you provoke him, don’t you?”

    That made me… Wary of getting into by detail with anyone.

  52. I have a sister who is just thoughtless and mean to me and to my dad. I’m never sure if it’s out of viciousness or just the inability to understand that other people sometimes have different likes and interests than she has and that’s okay. I’ve chosen not to make any more effort to get along with her, because experience has shown that it doesn’t get me anywhere. If she wants to have a relationship with me at some point she’s going to have to do the bare minimum of treating me as civilly as I treat the customers in the store where I work. I am not holding my breath for this eventuality.

    Since she lives in a different state, I don’t have to see her or interact with her 99% of the time, so my main issue is scripts for third parties when the fact that I have a sister comes up in conversation. I definitely don’t want to be that person who will go on and on at the drop of a hat about how wronged I have been, because honestly her behavior isn’t worth all that mental real estate, and also most people don’t want or need to know all the details. I have been defaulting to “we’re not close” with acquaintances or casual friends and “she’s not very nice to me” with closer friends or if the acquaintances start making noises about how important faaaaaaaaaaaamily is or whatever.

Comments are closed.