Advice: Step Away, Sister

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I have a real problem with my older sister, and—finally—I’ve gotten to the point where I am over it. When we were little, my sister “Ethel” constantly insulted me. She would call me names, make fun of my weight, point out every pimple, tease me that the boys would never be interested in someone who looked like me. Ethel would come into my room like it was her own and rifle through my closets, helping herself to my clothes and shoes, or she would take my CDs and “lose” them, or she would slip my favorite lip gloss into her purse and “forget” to give it back to me.

Ethel has since moved several hours away. I still live in the town we grew up in, and I only see her when she visits our parents. Now that we are adults…well, I want to say we get along better, but we don’t, not really. Adolescent teasing has given way to adult nagging, as though she can make me thinner/smarter/wealthier/with the right guy.

I’m in my early 20s, live independently, have a nice career underway, own my own house, own a car, have a good group of friends who support me instead of trying to tear me down. I like who I am and what I’ve achieved so far, but my sister thinks I can do “better” and won’t hear it when I tell her I’ve had enough, so I keep my distance.

My parents, of course, wish we were closer and have asked me to try, try, try. They don’t hear me when I say I’ve had enough, either. I have no interest in being her friend and having girl-dates with her when she’s in for visits. I certainly don’t feel like I need to go see her and be alone with her on her turf. But I don’t want to be disrespectful to my parents. Should I suck it up and keep trying with Ethel? Or is it OK to keep her at arms’ length?

Stepping Away Sister

Dear Stepping,

B&P: Before we say anything else we want to say, congratulations for getting your life together at such a young age. You’ve made good plans and grown into them. Whether or not your sister and your family can acknowledge your accomplishments, be very proud of yourself and keep building a community of friendship and support even as you build your dreams.

B: Ahh, family. Despite the Norman Rockwellian images of family we like to conjure up—gathered around the turkey, bright smiles, warm gestures, no drama—it’s often a minefield. These are the people who have known you the longest and, ironically, may not know that much about you. They may not know your political affiliation, your current job title or your favorite ice cream flavor but chances are they are intimately acquainted with your emotional triggers.

There’s a profoundly sad moment in the movie Home for the Holidays, that I think will help explain your feelings. The two sisters, constantly at loggerheads through the film, finally have the conversation that gets to the root of their problems. It goes like this.

Claudia: You don’t know the first thing about me.

Joanne: Likewise, I’m sure. If I just met you on the street… if you gave me your phone number… I’d throw it away.

Claudia: Well, we don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.

And therein lies the problem. You’re family, and you’re stuck with each other. And it can be hard to continually justify why you’re spending your valuable time and energy with someone who does everything she can to make you feel bad about yourself when your carefully cultivated, friendship-based, supportive urban family who genuinely likes you is just a phone call and a quick escape out the back door away.

P: Oh, this is so difficult, I’m so sorry. It seems that not only is your sister toxic and has been for a long while, but your parents also seem to have been indifferent toward the pain this causes you — and the disruption this ugliness causes in the family. Their expectation that you, who are picked on, should be the person who can, never mind should, make the situation better is a sad indication of their cluelessness. I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not actively mean, but they have certainly been passively mean.

B: Normally, I am an advocate for cutting one’s losses and stepping away from any sort of toxic relationship—partners, friends, co-workers if you can manage it (though that does get more difficult). If they’re bad for you, develop an exit strategy, and go. However! Family—and one’s nuclear family in particular—does have its own set of rules. Cousins? Cut ‘em out, let ‘em go, how often do you see them anyway? Aunts and uncles? Easy to create distance. But a sister…

Yeah, that can be tricky.

I’m not saying it’s tricky because I live in some kind of rose-colored ideal that one day, one day, you’ll both come to realize just how important the other is, and years of pent-up anger and dysfunctional interactions will fall away. I’m not saying it’s tricky because some day you may need a kidney, and she’s your best bet. But it’s tricky because you have parents you want to respect and honor; in your letter, it sounds like your parents are the only thing keeping you from kissing her goodbye forever. Chalk one up to yourself for that.

P: Terri and I talked a lot about how you didn’t focus on your sister, but rather on your desire not to be abused by her. Congratulations. Because you can’t fix her; I’m not sure you’ll be able to talk to her about this. You’re doing the work you need to be doing for yourself: you’ve got work you like, you own a house, and you have good friends. You’re building a life. If you read us, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of getting the support you need. If you don’t have it in your social circle, pay for it. You need to figure out what role you play in your family and the ways you are and are not willing to keep the family working. If you want to maintain relationships with your parents and sister, or create new ones, talking to a professional who can help you determine a course of action is a good thing. Maybe that person will have suggestions for new tacks to take with your sister, or your parents. There’s nothing like a little rehearsal before you try new tactics. Afterwards, with your therapist, you can even allow yourself the opportunity to debrief.

If I were you, I would also be disappointed in my parents’ response now and over my lifetime. In a way, it sounds as if they see you as capable and mature, but it doesn’t sound as if they see her as mean and hurtful.

B: UGH! Pet peeve alert! It’s almost as though you’re being punished for being strong. Why do you have to take her abuse? “Because you can” is not an acceptable answer. Sorry. Had to interject.

P: They are not protecting you from her abuse. From your description, your sister’s actions are verbally and psychically abusive. Your parents’ failure to stand up for you deepens that abuse. This is another place a counselor can help you. You don’t want to confront everyone and everything too early as your work on this because that can really blow things up. You need to figure out how to make your family hear you, because so far what you’ve tried has not served you well, but you also have to guard against them becoming defensive and turning on you. You don’t want to let any of your family members tarnish your life and your very real accomplishments.

B: You never mention whether you spend any time alone with your sister when she’s in for her visits. Have you ever, one on one, sat her down and told her how you feel about her behavior? Or have your exchanges been more like: dinner table à she insults you à you eyeroll and tell her to knock it off? That’s an adolescent pattern reasserting itself, and if I were your parents I’d have a hard time seeing it as anything other than the behavior you’ve always engaged in. Maybe you should try taking her out for a cocktail, or inviting her to your house—alone, no parents—to have a long-awaited chat. And tell her, without drama, that her criticisms hurt you deeply. They make you put up walls against her, which then hurts your parents. Try saying, “I expect you to treat me like the adult I am, because I feel like you still address me as though I am 12 years old and you’re the big sister who knows better, instead of the peers we’ve become.” Try NOT to say, “Knock it off, Ethel! You’ve always been so bossy.” Those two sentences are worlds apart in terms of gravitas. Because people, and women in particular, are notoriously bad at actually asking for what we want (because who wants to make waves?), you may want to practice saying what you need to say to your sister in a mirror. Practice makes perfect. Then, the next time she’s around, actually say it to her.

If that doesn’t work and she doesn’t let up…at least you’ve had your say, and can claim that you’ve tried to build a bridge with your sister. If she continues to harass you over your appearance or what the heck ever, don’t engage in that conversation. It’s a common mistake people make, thinking they have to comply or reply to the questions put before them, instead of saying, “I’m done having this conversation, and am moving on.” Give yourself some control of the conversation. Simply remind her that you’ve already asked her not to badger you any longer about personal issues, but you’d be happy to talk to her about the latest movies playing at the local megaplex. I’ll back you in saying that it would be fine, after that, to maintain your arms’ length relationship with Ethel. Be polite, pleasant even, when she’s around, and then slip out the back door as soon as you can to meet up with the friends who support and nourish you emotionally.

P:  Whatever you do, remember that you have choices and that exercising those choices will give you power. She may continue to bait you. But you don’t have to play. It’s a sad thing if she does, but that will be her choice. It might be helpful to plan some fun things around necessary family visits — channel yourself some good old Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar —  not only does it give you something to look forward to, it also gives you a time when the visit is over. One thing you want to be sure about though, as you reduce your sister’s influence in your face to face conversations, you want to ensure that she begins to take up less time in your life with friends. She is who she is. I’m not saying you don’t get to tell stories, but you don’t want to waste your time reliving the discomfort.

 

Time for big sis to step back, or little sis is stepping away.

Time for big sis to step back, or little sis is stepping away.

THE BIG SISTER recipe

  • 2 1/2 oz (70g) Cranberry Juice
  • 1 oz (28g) Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice
  • 1 oz (28g) Ginger Beer
  • 1 1/2 oz (70g) Citrus Vodka*
  • 1/4 oz (7g) Simple Syrup**
  • A few drops of fresh lemon juice
For the Garnish
  • 3-4 Sugared Cranberries, skewered, or a slice of lemon
METHOD
  1. To a cocktail shaker, add a handful of ice, cranberry juice, orange juice, ginger beer, vodka, simple syrup and a drop or two of lemon juice. Test to see if it needs a bit more simple. If so, add just about a 1/4 tsp more at a time.
  2. Shake 3-4 times. Pour over ice.
  3. Garnish with Sugared Cranberries.

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Dear Bartender and Priestess,

My sister, “Cindy” is driving me out of my mind. She is so irresponsible.

A year and a half ago we celebrated my father’s 90th birthday. My sister lived in another part of the country, so she took some time off work and came home, staying at our parents’ house as she always does. The day before she was ready to leave, Daddy died of a heart attack.

She called work and took a leave of absence, telling them she was staying with our mom to help her get settled. At first we thought it was great that she was there. It meant Mom had a chance to get used to Dad’s being gone and would have some help downsizing.

But, Cindy’s been home with her now for about a year and a half. It’s way past time for Mom to move into assisted living and for Baby Sister to go home. Mom isn’t getting the socialization she needs. Mom says she isn’t interested in moving out of her house; she wants to live there with Cindy. Cindy always takes her side. She also keeps insisting on being included in Mom’s healthcare decisions. The thing is, I’m a nurse. She’s not. I have her medical power of attorney.

I pay Cindy a salary out of mother’s pocket and we’re giving her room and board. She gets two days off most weeks, but complains if the other three of us can’t fill in on the times the nurses can’t be there on the weekend.

Last week Cindy’s former partner died. I’m sure she’s sad, but she hasn’t been with this woman for about 2 years, and it’s not like they were married. Hell, she doesn’t even believe in marriage. I can’t plan a schedule for the next month because Cindy doesn’t know when things are going to happen in Houston. Why can’t these people make a plan and just stick with it?

Cindy’s an artist and calls herself an “activist.” She’s almost 60. It’s time for her to get something steady in her life and stop leeching off the family. It’s also time for her to stop filling Mom with the notion that she can live at home. Mom doesn’t have a lot of time left I want her to be safe and not constantly reminded that Daddy isn’t here any more. We all live outside Boston (except of course for Cindy) and would make sure that someone visited Mom a couple times a week. There’s plenty of money to make sure she can be somewhere nice. And I’ll never need to worry about the scheduling.

Signed,

Tired of her interfering.

 

Dear Tired,

P: Wow, it must be tiring, being in charge of everything, including a few things you might not need to be. And even the things you’d like to have well organized are not necessarily going to fall into place.

I understand that you would like your Mom to feel better. You don’t say how old she is, but if she was happily married to your father a long time, grieving becomes a life-long process.

I’m not sure why you want to move her out of her home. I understand that it requires more maintenance, although there are programs that help with that, particularly in large cities. You say that there is plenty of money, so why not throw home-health aides at the problem?

I’ll admit I’m biased. Although my mom was in assisted living and then a nursing home, I spent (and was paid by my parents) a lot of time with Mom. I fed her twice a day five or six days a week. It was only later that I realized there was someone in my hometown that I could have had manage their care. I could have moved into their home and had support.

Mom had dementia and was moved a lot. Every single move was a very hard adjustment and she lost ground. You have a sister who is willing to be home and that’s what your mom wants. Why don’t you want that? You don’t say that Cindy’s not taking care of her.

B: I’m concerned about the idea of “downsizing”. Your father’s been gone for not that long of a time, really. He was 90 when he passed away, and I’m going to presume your parents married in their early-to-mid 20s. They have 60+ years of living put into their home. Why the rush to “downsize”? What’s the hurry? I’ve lost my father, too, and don’t feel any need to downsize my mother and distill the entirety of their lives together into…what would make you happy? One room? Two? I’ve watched it happen to other people, who have watched their belongings get carted out the door around them. And I remember one of them saying, “I can’t believe my daughter is doing this. I’m not even dead yet.”

P: Why don’t your Mother’s wishes carry any weight? Why can’t she have what she wants, especially if Cindy wants to give her that? My sister also had medical power, but because I saw Mom every day, and took her to the docs and to the emergency room — oh, yes, there are lots of emergency room visits with aging parents — she didn’t dream of making decisions without my input. Because I saw her every day.

B: Agreed. Your desire to leave your sister out of your mother’s medical conversations is, quite frankly, alarming. If you’re a nurse, then you know that communication and information are paramount in providing medical care. What do you gain by not having your mother’s primary caregiver as up to speed on her medical information as possible? Other than some odd sort of gloating right that you know more than Cindy, so ha ha Cindy. I am not sorry that I don’t understand this.

And what’s with the question of socialization? Does Cindy lock your mother in her room and never talk to her? Because your mom saying, “No, I don’t want to move, I want to stay here with her” tells me she likes the arrangement. Do you think Mom needs bingo night? Does your mom even like bingo? It feels like your idea of socialization is more “put her with people her own age (who she neither knows nor cares about) so she can mark time until the big sleep” and less “leave her with one of her children, who she loves, and who is offering her services as an end-of-life caregiver”. If you think Mom needs a bingo night…offer to take her to bingo. See how it goes.

P: This feels a lot like sibling rivalry here. Make sure that in your fight you leave enough room for your Mom’s well being. And I can say with assurance that 1-2 visits a week will not compensate for the comfort of her daily interaction with your sister. And as fine a home as you find, they will not love your mother the way your family does. If Cindy’s willing to do this work of love, give thanks and pamper her.

And really, what is it about your sister that you don’t like? I’m presuming her name is Cindy for a reason. Is Cinderella a family name or just a position? Her estranged partner dies and you need to know when the funeral is rather than asking her if she needs some time off and does she want to come to dinner? (And oh, btw, activist is a real word and doesn’t need the quotes around it.)

B: Your reaction to the death of Cindy’s partner (former partner, someone who was clearly very important to her) saddens and upsets me. It’s really too bad that she couldn’t die according to a more convenient timetable. For you. Though that seems to be at the core of your issues in this question. Your mother isn’t finished mourning quickly enough. Your sister hasn’t moved out in a timely fashion and is, furthermore, delaying your mother’s resigned exit out to pasture. And now, with Cindy’s partner up and dying on you, you may have to muddle through a few days that are loose and unscripted. Normally, I would sarcastically state that that was unfair of her to do that to you, but I wouldn’t want you to think I was serious.

P: Cindy works five days and has to cover the couple of hours that you guys can’t make work during the week? Are you kidding me? What makes you think you’ll all make time to see Mom when she’s in the home and you’ve packed Cindy back to Houston? If Cindy’s staying there — oh right, living at home with your mother — do you pay her for eight hours or round the clock care? If it’s only eight hours, you’re getting a steal.

B: Ann, it can be difficult to have someone you treat as an indentured servant, when you actually sort of don’t want that servant around.

P: However much we love our parents, it’s exhausting to be present. Recognize that. Support her as she does this very hard work. And you need to work on getting over the sibling thing, as it’s really unattractive.

B: Again, we agree. If your baby sister is 60, then you’re…pushing 70? Isn’t it time to put down whatever burdened you with all this anger? For your mother’s sake, if for nothing else. You’ve put her in the middle of your personal feud with Cindy. Why do you think it’s OK to use your mother as a chew toy as you rehash some lost but not quite forgotten rivalry?

P: Look, I have to believe you want the best for your mom and you’re worried. But you can’t control people’s aging process. You put her in a home and they’ll keep her alive, but not necessarily living. Stuff and familiarity is so important. She keeps her rhythm and not the institutions rhythm. She has someone who loves her living there all the time.

She has you who must love her, although, you might want to put more of that in the way you talk about this. If managing your mom is too hard, pass it on. Hire someone. Or let Cindy do it. Put your Mom and Dad’s money to good use. Let her live as large as she can in her home. Everyone wants to die at home. Sounds like your mom’s got the resources she needs to manage that. Why not make that dream come true? Certainly she helped you realize your dreams.

And whatever you’ve got going about your sister, you’re old enough to get over it.

Repeat after me: Relax. Have a nice glass of warm milk. Easy, now.

Repeat after me: Relax. Have a nice glass of warm milk. Easy, now.

Got a problem? Email us at bartender priestess (at) gmail (dot) com. Human non-spambots, remove spaces, insert proper punctuation. All questions will remain confidential. 

Want to know more about The Bartender and The Priestess? Go here!

Thank you for reading. Now go tell all your friends about us. {{{heart hug}}}

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