Big sister knows best
April 18, 2009 1:58 PM   Subscribe

"You need to accept that I'm a control freak and do what I want you to do."

The above quote is an opportunity for me to sit down with my older sister and discuss her behaviour towards me. How can we do so without her getting upset or hitting me? We are both in our thirties.

I originally wrote a much longer AskMe post with examples of conflicts and family history, but it sounded like a list of Festivus grievances. If you need examples or background information, just ask.
posted by angrybeaver to Human Relations (80 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: poster's request -- cortex

You're an adult, tell her to STFU.
posted by kldickson at 1:58 PM on April 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Also, she hits you? If it gets to that point, I'd warn her you have the ability to call the police on her for assault.
posted by kldickson at 1:59 PM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: If it were only that simple. But I'm finding myself becoming slowly estranged from her, and I don't want that.
posted by angrybeaver at 2:00 PM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: Actually, she hasn't hit me for a couple of years now since she knows that I will get up and immediately leave, and she doesn't want that. But I'm still wary of her doing so.
posted by angrybeaver at 2:01 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you need examples or background information, just ask.

Can we please have examples or background information?
posted by iconomy at 2:03 PM on April 18, 2009 [15 favorites]

Well, weigh the options here. You're not responsible for her behavior and her behavior entails screaming and hitting you, yet you think it's as easy as saying something to her.

Control freaks are a certain breed of person, and I've dealt with a few - and frankly, you're going to really have to grow a spine and defy her, because only then will she gradually back off. (After an initial period of being really nasty.) Talk to her, but realize you're going to have to do some things for yourself.
posted by kldickson at 2:05 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

"You need to realize that whether or not you are a control freak, it doesn't matter, you are not going to control ME. So, deal."
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:05 PM on April 18, 2009 [18 favorites]

We need examples and background information to really make a good assessment of this. Do you have a throwaway email address?
posted by kldickson at 2:06 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: Taking a shot in the dark with the limited info - perhaps you could work with her to figure out what the things are in the rest of her life that she can't control and help her to more fully analyze and perhaps achieve control over those things. Maybe in the process of doing that she'll begin to better realize how unfair and abusive it is to essentially punish you and your relationship together for unrelated reasons.

Also - does her behavior constitute imitating one or both of your parents?
posted by XMLicious at 2:07 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

And perhaps she's under the mistaken delusion that it's less, er, 'damaging' for a woman to hit a man than for a woman to hit a woman or a man to hit a woman.
posted by kldickson at 2:08 PM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: She is very critical that I live simply and work only 30 hours a week. I make about 40K a year, she makes about that much per month.

I no longer accept gifts from her because I am continually reminded about her incredible kindness and generosity, or the gifts have very long hidden strings attached.

She gets very upset if my Blackberry vibrates and I answer it without asking her for permission first. If it is work related, I am allowed to reply. If it is personal, I am not allowed to reply unless I tell her who it is, and why I need to reply immediately.

We used to go out for dinner a couple of times per month. I would pick the restaurant and pay, and the next time it would be her turn to pick the restaurant and pay. However the last time, she refused to go to my favourite fish-n-chip place because it was beneath her standards, so we went to this other restaurant, and I still can't figure out how fish-n-chips for two people can cost $80.

Let's forget what I said about her hitting me. She hasn't done that for a couple of years, so it's not really an issue.
posted by angrybeaver at 2:21 PM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: In response to St. Alia and kldickson, I don't let her control me other than a few coping techniques, but I still have to deal with the unpleasantness.
posted by angrybeaver at 2:25 PM on April 18, 2009

The above quote is an opportunity for me to sit down with my older sister and discuss her behaviour towards me

This isn't about your sister's behavior to you, it's about you allowing that behavior.

You don't have to take anyone's bullshit, even if they are family. There are no magical rules that grant a family member to treat you like shit, other than those you make up in your own mind.

You should probably post that longer AskMe in the thread so people have a fuller idea of what's going on.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:29 PM on April 18, 2009 [8 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds to me like:

A> You've figured out what makes you happy in life in a way that is within your control, and she hasn't yet
B> She judges and expects to be judged on a particular set of social standards that measure value by hard work, being seen in the right places, and other similar aspects of "success"
C> She doesn't know how to cope with your not being interested in this, and furthermore potentially "dragging her down" with your own behavior that isn't adequate to her standards

I think your ability to change this is limited. To flip the situation on it's head, for you to ask her to be different is also controlling on her as much as her asking you to be different is controlling on you. Now, I personally subscribe to a free view of choosing lifestyle, and don't like the imposition aspect, but it sounds like you are also reluctant to let your relationship get more separate.

You need to set your own boundaries, and let your sister know that it is your life and you get to make those decisions. But, you also need to accept that at some point your behavior will be relaxed or 'unprofessional' or whatever enough that she spends less time with you, or avoids you. It is up to you to provoke the balance that you want.

I do encourage you to invite your sister to see the opportunity to let some of this go, and just enjoy being siblings, but without a willingness to make the tough decision yourself (to change your habits or take a stand) you will be left in a no-where and uncomfortable place.
posted by meinvt at 2:35 PM on April 18, 2009

"We need to talk about our relationship. I'm finding myself increasingly estranged from you, and I don't want that. You're my big sister. I love you and I want you in my life, but it has to be in a way that helps both of us grow, as individuals and as sisters for each other."

But saying the above requires you to follow through if she doesn't respond in a supportive way. (E.g., Drop out of her life for six months or a year.) She won't learn how destructive her behavior is until there are consequences, and you won't learn how to protect yourself, emotionally and physically, under her control.
posted by ochenk at 2:35 PM on April 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

You know, maybe estrangement isn't such a bad idea. You could concentrate on developing friendships with healthier people. You can't choose the people you're related to, but you can choose your friends.
posted by exphysicist345 at 2:37 PM on April 18, 2009 [18 favorites]

How can we do so without her getting upset or hitting me?

Well, from your subsequent remarks, it sounds like you might be able to do it without any hitting, but it's hard to imagine a conversation like this that doesn't upset her. I just can't figure out a way to do what you're proposing without a blow-up ensuing.

I will, though, offer two pieces of advice that might get you closer to where you want to go.

First, you've got to think like a mercenary. If being cut off from you will hurt your sister a lot, then threaten her with a complete freeze-out if she doesn't change her behavior. She'll get plenty upset, but, in the end, she'll adapt. And don't be surprised if you have to make good on your threat, at least for a little while. Now, if the big chill won't bother your sister that much, then, honestly, I doubt there's much you can do to fix the situation. You've got no leverage.

Second, you can avoid the direct confrontation and fight the war in increments. Choose one thing that your sister insists on controlling. Say, for example, she calls you when she knows you're asleep and expects you to answer the phone without complaint. Politely but firmly tell her that she can't do that anymore. If she ignores you, turn off your phone after a certain hour, call block her, or just don't answer the thing. If she shows up, pounding on your door, tell her to go away or you're going to call the police. Then, if she doesn't go away, call the police. Believe me; once you've established that she can't bully you in this one area, subsequent battles will all be much easier.

In the end, the second approach will probably bring more misery. At the very least, it'll stretch it out over a longer period of time. But it would substitute lots of little blow ups for one big blow up.
posted by Clay201 at 2:37 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe you let her get upset. Let her have a tantrum like a three year old until she tires herself out. You need to lay down stark and clear guidelines -- respect me as your brother and let me lead my own life, or I cannot speak to you any more.

Unless you are leaving out huge amounts of relevant information about YOUR life in this AskMe (ie, she lends you money because you can't afford the things you want, she wants you in therapy b/c you have a drug habit that is destroying your family, etc), then as an adult, you need to not be afraid to walk away from this relationship if she leaves you no choice.

Make that clear to her, and let the chips fall where they may.
posted by modernnomad at 2:37 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: Actually, she hasn't hit me for a couple of years now since she knows that I will get up and immediately leave, and she doesn't want that. But I'm still wary of her doing so.

She's demonstrated that she can control or change her behavior - she stopped hitting you when you began to get up and leave when she did so.

So. The next time you're together and your balckberry goes off, and you need to see if it's work or whatever, just check it. Don't ask permission - why are you giving her control? - just do it. If she pitches a fit, get up and leave.

If she wants to go to a place that's expensive and it's your treat (and not her birthday or something like that), say no, you can't, sorry. If she pitches a fit, leave.

You want her to not control you, and there's going to be unpleasantness while you demonstrate this to her - I don't think there's any way around this.

Stop giving in to her. Stop caving on restaurant choices, and who you can talk to (although I do think it's not very polite to answer your cell when you're with someone else, barring certain circumstances), and whatever else you cave on when she demands you cave. She's clearly capable of learning, but teaching isn't going to be a lot of fun. Good luck.
posted by rtha at 2:38 PM on April 18, 2009 [10 favorites]

Note, you may wish to take some of the more indentifying info out of your profile. You can also request that the mods (available via the contact link at the bottom) either delete or make this question anonymous.

Have you sought professional help for these issues?

Do you understand this is not normal behavior, her or yours?

How long has it been going on?

Why do you put up with this?

How can we do so without her getting upset or hitting me?

You can't rationalize with irrational people.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:39 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: Without much thought, my first instinct is to retort with something like:
"OK Ms Control Freak, you need to take control of the outer boundaries of your influence, and realise that you're going to be disappointed if you continue to expect to exert control over me... If you want to demonstrate some fine control skills; be responsible for, and control your emotions as the reality of this sinks in."
You may want to rephrase this in a less provocative manner, or try something completely different.
posted by dirm at 2:40 PM on April 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Why would you want to change anything? You two have the perfect co-dependent relationship. She gets to control you like you were a child. You get to play the poor innocent victim. I suspect if you really want to solve the issue, in addition to addressing your sister's behaviour, you will need to examine the part you play in all this as well.
posted by GlowWyrm at 2:41 PM on April 18, 2009 [6 favorites]

"You need to accept that I'm a control freak and do what I want you to do."

No, you don't.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:41 PM on April 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Some common advice above states that I need to stand up for myself, defy her, and/or set my own boundaries. That's not the problem, I do whatever I want despite her criticism. It is much easier to just let her criticism roll off my back instead of provoking conflict, and avoid situations that would allow her to have control over my life. For example, she doesn't like my apartment, so she offered me a rent subsidy so I could find a better apartment. I told her that was very kind of her, but if she did that I would continue to live in the same apartment and save the money for a down payment; that was very upsetting to her. So no rent subsidy, no big deal.

meinvt, A, B and C are spot on. Yes I am very reluctant to let our relationship get even more separate as it would be devastating for my parents. Our family is very close and we regularly get together for Sunday dinner every week.

In response to XMLicious, thanks, your answer is very useful. No, her behaviour does not imitate our parents at all.
posted by angrybeaver at 2:55 PM on April 18, 2009

You teach people how to treat you. Just because someone is family doesn't mean they deserve your time. Like the saying goes you can pick your friends but not your family. If you don't respect yourself enough not to put up with this shit, she never will.
posted by nola at 2:56 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think that the fact that both of you are missing is that you can't control other people's behaviour, you can only control your reaction to it.

You are asking us how you can stop her acting in a certain way, without her taking a particular course of action (ie without getting upset or the two of you becoming estranged).

She is insisting that you must behave in a certain way because she doesn't like the way you act (ie checking your BlackBerry around her).

But the problem is that neither of you can have that sort of control over the other. You can only control what you yourself choose to do.

You have the right to use your BlackBerry as and when. She has the right to tell you that she finds it rude or whatever. If you don't care and want to exercise your right to use your BlackBerry whenever you feel like it, she has the right to leave or to refuse to spend time with you. What she isn't able to do is to say that you WILL spend time together, and you WILL NOT use your BlackBerry. Unless you allow her to control that.

She has the right to be as nasty and revolting as she likes (not to hit, mind you, that's against the law, but you asked us to ignore that for now so I will). You have the right to decide not to spend time with her if she's going to be horrible and mean. But short of patiently and politely explaining the problem to her (which I advise you to do), you can't force her to stop her behaviour. You can only control your reaction to it.

You probably can't discuss the issue with her without her getting upset. Most people do not respond well to this kind of discussion. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it. You need to take a stand, and she's not going to be happy. That's the part that you can't control.
posted by different at 2:58 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Forget the talk. Use some basic animal training principles: reinforce positive behavior, ignore/disregard negative behavior. That may mean:

--hanging up the phone on her (after saying kindly but firmly, "Look, I really want to have a relationship but I can't talk to you when you're speaking to me in that tone of voice/trying to order me around like we're both still in elementary school/being abusive/saying crazy things etc.....why don't you call me back later when you're in a better place?")

--telling her, "I really love to go out to eat with you, but I can't spend more than $x-- you'll have to pick a different place or we'll just have to skip this week"

--telling her, maybe with a light laugh, "you know, I'm all grown up and need to be allowed to decide whether or not I can answer the phone myself-- if it upsets you if I answer a personal call, then maybe this isn't a good time to hang out and we should pick a time when I'm not expecting my phone to ring. Bye--let me know when we can reschedule...I want us to have fun."

Have a light sense of humor about it all. Be firm, and do not let her get to you. Does a competent animal trainer yell at an untrained animal or allow it to undermine his authority? Picture her as a chattering, screeching monkey (minus the ability to tear your face off, maybe) if that helps you keep a smile on your face and remain in charge. Be the alpha when it comes to setting your boundaries and enforcing them.
posted by availablelight at 3:03 PM on April 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

On preview-- you say you don't have trouble standing up to her, but you need HER to figure out that it's a lost cause to try and manipulate you. You do that by being consistent (i.e. good behavior on her part gets her your attention and time and strokes; acting out on her part gets her ignored).
posted by availablelight at 3:06 PM on April 18, 2009

There's a chance that your sister is showing signs of Borderline Personality Disorder. You may want to read up on that and see if any of the other symptoms match, but the impulsive rage at perceived loss of control is an indicator.

In any case, you may need to prepare yourself for the eventuality of estrangement, as it may be the only thing that works, and just hope it's temporary, as she regains her senses, and decides to treat you humanely in order to fulfill her side of the relationship.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:09 PM on April 18, 2009

... Why are you bringing your parents into this? They have nothing to do with it, do they?

Seriously, if it makes your parents sad, so what? It's your life. If you decide that it's ultimately best to cut her off or refuse to talk to her for a while or shave her head and call her Wacky McBumblefuts, it shouldn't matter what your folks think about it; they're not really directly affected by it.
posted by kldickson at 3:10 PM on April 18, 2009

She sounds really insecure.
posted by kldickson at 3:11 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seriously, if you're in your thirties and not living together, just lay it down.

"When you interact with me in that way, it makes me feel X, and I shouldn't have to feel that way in my life, so either you stop doing that, or I don't interact with you any longer."

Paraphrase at will.

It worked with me and my guilt-inducing mother. After 6 months of silence, she realized I meant it and changed the way she was approaching me.

Her manipulations have grown more subtle over the years, but I'm less afraid to enforce distance for my own peace of mind now.
posted by hippybear at 3:17 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

It doesn't sound to me like your sister respects you. Stand up for yourself and don't allow yourself to be treated in a way you don't want to be treated. Simple as that. Know that you can always cut her off and not have anything to do with her if it comes to that and make sure she knows it. She's treating you this way because you're letting her.
posted by gfrobe at 3:19 PM on April 18, 2009

You can see if making some changes in how you respond to things changes her, but you can't do much more than that.

You can refuse to go to her restaurant when it's your turn to pick one, and hold on to it being your turn until she goes to one you like. (I am assuming you choose restaurants that serve food she will eat, as your story about fish & chips suggests.) You can hang up on her when she starts judging you, or your job or your apartment. You can not answer the cell phone when you are with her, unless it's work related or you're expecting a new kidney.

If you see her once a week with your parents anyhow, that's not anyone's definition of estranged. When you are there, just say "That's an interesting idea and I will consider it" when she brings up things, since you do not want to start a fight or walk out on her in front of your parents.
posted by jeather at 3:25 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: I am very reluctant to let our relationship get even more separate as it would be devastating for my parents. Our family is very close and we regularly get together for Sunday dinner every week.

What I hear in these two sentences is that your parent's feelings and a calm Sunday dinner trump your feelings on the matter. I'm sure you realize that this issue goes far deeper than your sister's "control freak" nature.

We don't get to pick our families. Many people in our families are no one that we would even consider associating with if we had the decision. Well, you are over 30 years old now - you can honestly say that you've given enough time to the relationship with your sister to allow both of you to grow up and learn to deal with each other in an adult manner. Would you put up with this behavior from anyone else you know? Take control of this situation and stop accepting behavior that is hurtful to you.

DTMFA. Seriously. I think you really need to find a way to rewire your priorities. Try checking out some information on Co-dependency and perhaps even Adult Children of Alcoholics - there's waaaaay more going on here than you are telling us. If your parents don't like this, then maybe you can find another place to have dinner on Sundays.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:28 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

You may be a thousand percent more rational and understanding than her, but it sounds like you're both pretty good at pushing each other's buttons. I think that this relationship could use a little distance, maybe she'll grow up a little bit. Nothing dramatic, no ultimatums. Just put her in the discard pile for a while, until you have time and energy in your life to draw from it again.

It's rude of her to actively attempt to control your phone behavior, I think this shows a great deal of insecurity on her part. Basically she knows that you don't enjoy her company terribly much, and any time you spend talking on or twiddling with your phone she associates with your attention wandering and your being irritated or bored with her. Does she have many (any?) other close friends? How does she treat them? If you have any inkling, that gives you a specific plea: "Why can't you treat me a little more like you treat so-and-so?" That might at least get her thinking a bit.
posted by hermitosis at 3:30 PM on April 18, 2009

angrybeaver She gets very upset if my Blackberry vibrates and I answer it without asking her for permission first. If it is work related, I am allowed to reply. If it is personal, I am not allowed to reply unless I tell her who it is, and why I need to reply immediately.

Some people are replying to this as though it said "check my cell phone," so I re-read, and it does indeed say "answer," not check.

Personally, if I were at lunch with someone and that person checked his or her cell phone when it vibrated, I would not be bothered at all. If, however, they answered a personal call from someone we were not planning to meet at this meal, I would consider this to be very rude.

During some professional or group setting, I can see it being acceptable. But one-on-one, or in an intimate group, I consider talking on the cell phone during the meal to be the height of rudeness, surpassed only by doing so at the table.

I am not your sister, and the two of you clearly have some stuff to work out amongst yourselves. But, to me, that behavior shows a direct and clear lack of respect for my time and lack of appreciation of my company, and people who show me that that is how they think of my time and my company rapidly find themselves enjoying neither.
posted by paisley henosis at 3:43 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, that should be check, not answer; although I do occasionally type out a quick reply. I use the Blackberry for email and SMS only, not voice.

This thread has gone in a bit of an unexpected direction and I need to digest some thoughts. Thank you for all the replies so far!

Also, I'm deaf. Is this relevant?
posted by angrybeaver at 3:59 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: Also, I'm deaf. Is this relevant?

Might this, coupled with the fact that she's older than you, make her think that she should "take care of you" and therefore tell you what to do?
posted by runningwithscissors at 4:11 PM on April 18, 2009

I think jeather's advice is the only way to have your cake and eat it too (although I bet it doesn't taste very good). When I encounter angry or controlling types, I resond with "I'm sorry you feel that way". You can expand it to "I'm sorry you feel you need to know who is calling me" and answer your phone. "I'm sorry you don't feel I'm making enough money" or "I'm sorry you don't think that personal time is valuable" when she demands to know why you don't work more. It is passive agressive as hell, and if you acted this way toward someone you have a healthy relationship with, they might be justified in smacking you upside the head. But it doesn't appear that you and your sister have a healthy relationship, despite your efforts.

On preview, runningwithscissors has a point, but until she realizes you don't need her to be anything but your sister, she probably won't change her attitude toward you.

Question: is she like this with all of her relationships?
posted by dogmom at 4:19 PM on April 18, 2009

I had a whole long answer set out and then on preview I found that several people had said the same thing, but better. I think availablelight, different, and modernnomad all gave fantastic answers.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 4:21 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: It is much easier to just let her criticism roll off my back instead of provoking conflict

And if you continue with this strategy she'll continue being controlling and critical of you. If that's ok with you, then no problem, carry on. If it's not, you need to let that conflict happen.
posted by ook at 4:24 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: All I originally wanted was a couple of tips on how to sit down and discuss this with her in a constructive manner. This AskMe has gone a lot deeper than that.

This article and to a lesser extent the BPD article linked above give me some insight into my sister's attitudes. Actually now I feel a bit sorry for her.
your parent's feelings and a calm Sunday dinner trump your feelings on the matter
This stands out. Family harmony is of utmost importance. (BTW, there's no history of alcoholism on anybody's part)

If I walk away from my relationship with her, then I also have to walk away from my parents.
posted by angrybeaver at 4:31 PM on April 18, 2009

Sorry, that should be check, not answer; although I do occasionally type out a quick reply. I use the Blackberry for email and SMS only, not voice.

Thank you for clarifying. Just for the record, I would find a short (emphasis on short) text message significantly less inappropriate than a verbal conversation. And checking I think is pretty much fine.

You know, not that you needed my approval…
posted by paisley henosis at 4:39 PM on April 18, 2009

If I walk away from my relationship with her, then I also have to walk away from my parents.

I think that this is highly unlikely. She might be the "star" of the family (just guessing from the subcontext of the data you've given), but you are your parents' child. They might not understand why you need to walk away, but they are not going to cut you off for doing so. Have you tried talking to them about how your sister makes you feel? Have you enlisted their help in getting her to look at her behavior? I think you are making some assumptions here based on fear - talking this out will help.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:54 PM on April 18, 2009

Oh, and by the way...

" Family harmony is of utmost importance. "

This is a standout characteristic of families with a history of abuse or addiction. It sounds like your sister isn't the only control freak in the family.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:56 PM on April 18, 2009

The Dance of Intimacy is a good how-to manual for dealing with difficult family members that you want to keep a connection with.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:16 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: Family harmony is of utmost importance.

This is a bug, though it often masquerades as a feature.

A parent who says, "You must take abusive behavior because WE'RE FAMILY" is setting you up for abuse. I find it hard to believe that she's not acting out what she learned at Mommy or Daddy's knee, as XMLicious suggested.
posted by palliser at 5:17 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think that sending a short text is just as rude as answering the phone. (Not checking who it's from, but reading/responding.)

From what you have said here, she sounds obnoxious, not abusive. I am sympathetic with feeling that having a relationship with your parents is more important than ending the relationship with your sister, and I don't think this is the wrong choice. I understand, too, that your parents would be very upset to see you lose all relationship with your sister for anything less than abuse, and that it would harm that relationship. Assuming I am correct and she's not actually abusive, I don't think that keeping her in your life is the wrong choice. This has been an issue in my life; MeMail me if you have questions.
posted by jeather at 5:49 PM on April 18, 2009

Sounds to me like a job for ding training.
posted by flabdablet at 6:23 PM on April 18, 2009

It think the fact that you're deaf is completely relevant, especially where checking the Blackberry is concerned. She may not respect, understand, or buy into Deaf Culture, and see differences between her world and yours as opportunities for her to take control. What strikes me about the phone issue is that it is an instance where the roles are can feel the phone vibrate, but she can't, so you are in control of the moment (albeit temporarily) since you are aware of incoming communication before she is. She may be so used to always being in charge of communication that she finds this switch upsetting and even offensive. Especially if you 'outrightly disobey' her natural authority by attending to the call before she is aware that something beyond her control has even taken place. This also makes me curious what the dynamic is when ordering food, dealing with hosts/waitstaff, etc. If the norm is that you have no autonomy, even in these small and simple exchanges with others, then she will find just about anything you do offputting.

The bottom line is, she does not validate you nor respect you.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:53 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Are your parents aware of the problems in your relationship with your sister, or are you (maybe both of you) protecting them? Could there be some tacit - or explicit - arrangement between your parents and your sister that she was responsible for you in some way, and that pattern has persisted into adulthood where it no longer serves? I don't think your deafness has anything to do with it, unless it's related to your sister's thoughts about how she needs to take care of you.

I do second the Dance of Intimacy book suggestion; another book of Harriet Lerner's (The Dance of Anger) helped me get out of an abusive friendship.
posted by catlet at 6:59 PM on April 18, 2009

Clearly your sister is the one who needs to change here, but I'll also say that I find it incredibly rude when people start checking their phone and sending text messages during a meal, and I'm not a control freak. That's a separate matter from your sister's inappropriate control-freakiness.
posted by grouse at 7:01 PM on April 18, 2009

I read the responses and your return input. It all sounds like people are trying and you are trying to learn, etc. But, my take on this as a total outsider looking in is that you have no desire to change anyone's behavior, you are just looking for a way to manage during the times you need to interact with your sister. If that is the case, I suggest numbness. Have a few drinks when you are with your sister or smoke a J before hand or pop a valium. It is the coping mechanism of choice if you don't want to change the behavior causing the issue.

Fwiw, it is NOT family harmony if you are miserable and everyone else has reached detente. That will not last. Lastly, I cannot give you one good reason why, but I think your deafness plays into this in some way that you are not recognizing.

Good luck.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:37 PM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: THANK YOU! jeather for putting things into perspective. Her behaviour is much more obnoxious than abusive.

Be that it may be that family harmony is of utmost importance is a red flag for abuse and/or addiction, while my overprotective mother wielded her wooden spoon handily and my workaholic father could be emotionally distant; unless my sister and I have severely repressed memories and my parents have completely turned over new leaves, I will unequivocally state that there was zero abuse in our family. I will say though that it was very important for my sister and I to not argue, that arguments were not resolved, and that we are all incredibly repressed.
posted by angrybeaver at 8:34 PM on April 18, 2009

I just came to add my piece about Blackberries.

My job requires me to be on hand all the time to provide quick phone support and progress reports to my clients. And my clients tend to be the most disorganized, odd-hours working freaks you've ever seen. I've gotten calls at 3 in the morning "I HAVE A FLASH OF INSPIRATION GO CHECK YOUR EMAIL!!!". Really. I only have to work when they call, it's maybe 10-15 hours a week, but I do have to work when they call.

If you find it rude that I respond to them in a timely manner, I'm sorry. I don't know if your job is the same, but if it is, don't apologize to anyone for it.
posted by saysthis at 8:52 PM on April 18, 2009

PS I can't take credit for the "use animal training techniques" idea; it comes from this widely-read and amusing essay from the New York Times:

I followed the students to SeaWorld San Diego, where a dolphin trainer introduced me to least reinforcing syndrome (L. R. S.). When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn't respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work. The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away.

posted by availablelight at 9:12 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I dunno, wooden spoons and unavailability don't sound like a picnic to me, and "overprotective" is not unrelated to "control freak."

At the risk of being a bully about this (IRONY), I just wanted to press a little on the notion that only parents can do the abusing in a household.

I'm close with a family where the oldest son has psych issues and is aggressive with the younger siblings. I sometimes get the feeling that the youngest child is being employed as his therapy doll. I'm not sure it's so different, from his perspective, from being in a family where the parents hit him. In his home, where he's supposed to be safe, he gets hurt. His parents would never lay a hand on any of their children, but they're failing to keep them safe. I think people can be dismissive of inter-sibling abuse, but it can traumatize a child.

I'm NOT saying that's what your household was like, nor am I insisting that your sister is abusive (now that she's stopped hitting you, I guess); I just wanted to raise the idea that sibling friction can cross the line into abuse, and parental failure to stop it is itself troubling.

But in any case, I'm not sure it changes the good advice you've gotten upthread, to set firm boundaries and if she gets upset, let her get upset, and leave if she gets too obnoxious. It's just that sometimes, if you can put a reason to your anxiety at challenging her, it can make it easier to deal with.
posted by palliser at 9:30 PM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: Regarding the hitting, that's something that only cropped up in my late twenties (no idea why), and once I had decided it was unacceptable, I did manage to stop that behaviour.
posted by angrybeaver at 9:42 PM on April 18, 2009

You know what I just realized, sort of tangentially related to this? Just as with pain, the worst part of being nagged is the anticipation that develops from someone repeating the same acknowledged-and-already-dealt-with criticism over and over and over again. If a complete stranger made the exact same comment about you, or if it was completely novel input from someone you know, it wouldn't be so bad.
posted by XMLicious at 9:44 PM on April 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

angrybeaver: This may be a "fish don't realize they're in the water" kind of thing, but you do realize you do NOT have a normal relationship with your sister, correct? Without knowing her or you, but having only read this thread, I would have to assess that you are suffering under a very minor version of what that guy in Austria did to his daughter.

Okay, don't get all hyperbolic and freaked out on me... I'm not implying incest or that level of abuse and control. But your sister, where did she even get the idea that these are normal ways to interact with people? Does she do these kind of things when interacting with non-relatives, or does she single you out because you are 1) a relative and 2) deaf? (meaning there: you can't walk away easily, and you have a condition which holds you at a "disadvantage") Does she do all this stuff to your parents, too? They evidently support / encourage her behavior, at least enough to hide "hurtful information" from her (i.e. your inhalation habits).

Either she is deeply resentful of you / fearful for you (same coin?) and feels the need to do these things in order to protect you from yourself, or else she has some real narcissism issues and has no clear, real assessment of her place on this planet.

Either way, she sounds like a crazy person who would be best avoided or have her presence minimized in your life. I'm sure suggesting family therapy would be out of the question. It sounds like she would turn on the Douglas Sirk drama if you even suggested it.

/amateur therapist
posted by hippybear at 9:58 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I must observe that the list you provide contains several complaints that appear to be about aspects of her personality which you dislike rather than controlling or manipulative behavior.

I can sympathize on those other points - the ketchup thing is certainly snobbish - but if you were to have a confrontation with her over the controlling behavior it would probably be best to leave aside discussion of the other stuff, otherwise it will just look like a general bitchfest on your part. The conversation you initiate to try to moderate her controlling behavior should be easily distinguishable from general griping.
posted by XMLicious at 9:59 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: I read this thread and didn't think I had anything to add until you posted examples of the things your sister has done. While you're checking out psychiatric disorders, take a look at Narcissistic Personality Disorder. There used to be a support group for victims of persons with NPM which, I think, used to be called sociopathy. Sorry if my spelling is off. Reading your list of things your sister does brings back unpleasant memories and left me a bit shaky. My mother has NPM, and I was dumb enough to marry someone just like her. Also unlucky enough to have one child like them both. Apparently this trait can run in families, but, whether it's learned or inherited is debatable. Tell me if this sounds familiar: extremely self centered; better than anyone else in the world, no one measures up, regardless of education or position; entitlement; ruthlessness when they want their own way - lie, cheat, steal, fake emotion, whatever it takes including plotting and waiting for just the right weakness in their opponent to appear; threatening, belittleing behaviour; extreme love of money; generously giving something with a plan in mind to later reap several times the value of what was given. I could go on, but you get the general picture.

My solution: draw a line in the sand and be willing to die for it. I left my husband as he was, and from DD's description, still is utterly impossible. He's working on his second doctorate so he can tell people to call him Dr.Dr.x (no, I'm not kidding) and has turned into a label junkie who won't buy a shirt under $300. He also has no friends as people just don't like him. I gave my mother the same kind of choices you give a small child: you can do this or this, you pick. I was only available for those two options, nothing more. Take nothing from these people, they'll think they own you. As for DD, I keep firm boundaries. Have to if I want a quiet life as she'd take my last cent and then complain that it wasn't enough. Fortunately, the rest of the family is normal.

So, figure out what you're dealing with, brace yourself, and go for it. What have you got to lose. BTW, if your sister has NPM, she will most likely behave beautifully with your parents so as not to ruin her image as the beyond perfect daughter.
posted by x46 at 10:32 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Regarding the stolen scarf, the ketchup on tables, the refusing to learn ASL/use the TTY relay/looking down on people that only know sign/disparaging your girlfriend's family income ... she's a stuck-up, spoiled bitch who feels bad about herself and is distancing herself from those same feelings by fully committing to the idea, brought up by meinvt, that a high-paying job and extravagant lifestyle are the indicators (internal and external) that's she's successful and happy. And you know what? If she can live with that, great. You don't have to. You sound very happy with the way you've built your life. Mavel Tov.

While having a million dollars in the bank (hopefully well invested and not just in one account, but that's another AskMe) is laudable, it's one more way she can raise herself above everyone else and shit on them from her high horse. It's little more than a security blanket, one that she can pull close around her when things don't go her way or she wants to bitch about the house she "deserves". The need to impress upon others that's she a kind and generous person is one way of making herself feel good. Repeat it enough times and it becomes true, part of your personal narrative. Is she actually generous, does she give to charity any of that 500k/year she makes?

The food ordering (let alone insisting you switch dishes!), self-centered nature of event planning, the insistence and lack of respect she gives you about Christmas plans, the hypersensitivity to other people's smoking and drinking -- this isn't _just_ about being a control freak, this is narcissistic.

Go to that last link and look at what the DSM4's criteria is. For her, I tally: sense of entitlement, interpersonal exploitation, lack of empathy, preoccupied with unlimited power and success, and arrogance/haughtiness. Obviously, there's some salt to be taken and I'm not her psychologist but this should give you some insight into her disorder. It's even evident in her quote: "You need.... that I what I want." This isn't an affirmation, it's a demand and one she has no place to make.

What kind of work does she do? No need for specifics, but my curiosity is peaked. Her disorder can be seen as part of our culture writ large, and good for you for being happy not to play that game.
posted by now i'm piste at 11:27 PM on April 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: OP: I'm sure your sister has some good aspects to her. Remind yourself of them from time to time, but don't use them to excuse the bad. Think of it as applying some balance that she lacks.

On preview: Damn you x46. But only for bringing up NPD quicker than I did.
posted by now i'm piste at 11:33 PM on April 18, 2009

I know someone just like your sister.
posted by Maisie Jay at 11:53 PM on April 18, 2009

arguments were not resolved, and that we are all incredibly repressed.

This is still dysfunctional, so it's possible that you may find books on Adult Children of Alcoholics useful for shedding light on family dynamics. The source of the dysfunction is different, but the effects on self-image, and the behavioural norms that the kids internalize (and carry into adulthood), can be very similar.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:17 AM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yowzah. Before the update, was thinking my sister could often enough be in this realm, though not to the pre-update levels. Perhaps not coincidental that sis is the eldest of three, I'm the youngest. Also perhaps not coincidental that I have related to (high-achiever, higher than me) sis that it's been a long time since we were 8 and 11. The family refers to dealing with her as Planet J. There's what she wants and thinks... and it stops right there.

Anyway, have you thought about putting thoughts on paper and sharing them with her via that medium, perhaps with one or more of the above-mentioned books? Agreed, though, that being trying to be rational with the irrational is like trying to teach cats to sing opera.

On some level, at some moment, seems like she has to grasp that her behavior and expectations are about 80 bazillion miles from healthy (and normal).

I wouldn't bet the moon on her saying yes, but maybe worth asking that she and you go to siblings/family counseling together--as part of relating the frustrations, that her behavior is profoundly difficult to the extent that you are wondering if your best interests are served by dramatically less interaction with her.
posted by ambient2 at 3:34 AM on April 19, 2009

Wow. A lot of people have said great things already, and just to give you another immediate and general impression upon reading your Festivus list: your sister is clearly ill.

I prefer to have compassion for these type of people (as opposed to pity), but unfortunately she is an adult and needs to take personal responsibility for her illness if she wants to try to overcome it. I feel even greater compassion for you, who can only watch this progress from the sidelines, really.

The best thing she could do for herself is to see a doctor. Is there any way you could get your parents on board for such a suggestion?
posted by sickinthehead at 6:49 AM on April 19, 2009

I know this sounds really mean spirited, but if she has NPD, you're wasting your time taking her to a psychiatrist as she'll know more than they do. Well, not really, but she'll believe the rest of the world is at fault, not her. And, if NPD, then protect yourself first. OK, I've been badly burned, but those of you who have never dealt with people like this find it hard to believe how awful they can be. If you do write something, make it fact based, not a 'you hurt me when you' type of document.

If it's some other disorder, there's hope. And, for all you sakes, I hope that's the case.
posted by x46 at 7:45 AM on April 19, 2009

Response by poster: What's normal? I met a man in the park who also wore hearing aids and we got to talking. He said the saddest day of his life was when he could no longer hear the birds singing. I simply shrugged and said that I've never heard the birds.

I am not going to make a psychiatric diagnosis of my sister or make any assumptions based on an Askme thread. This is an example of how Askme threads can potentially do more harm than good.

I am also not going to abandon my sister. For better or worse, we're family.

My two biggest regrets are that I was not there for her when her marriage broke up, and I was not there for her after 9-11. She was working in New York at the time and was and still is traumatized by the collapse of the towers.

I will send a short email to my sister mentioning the original quote, and ask to get together to talk about it. When we get together, I'm not going to even mention the control-freak behaviour as at most it is a symptom. My goal will be to destroy one of her most strongly-held beliefs -- that our family is so completely non-dysfunctional. I've never bought into that belief as strongly as she has, and this thread has completely disabused me of that notion.
Oh come on sister, don't you remember our fantastically horrible arguments and fights while we were growing up? I was the favoured child of all the grandparents and aunts and uncles. Don't you resent me for going to one of the top private schools in the country while you went to a public school? Didn't it bother you that our great-aunt left me everything when she passed away, and that helped pay for my high school and university education? And so on.
It will be a breakthrough if I can get her to admit that just like every other family, we do have our dysfunctions. And then we can move forward, I'm not sure where, but it will be forward.

When I talked to our parents about my sister hitting me, they did not see that as a significant issue. Of much more concern to them was that I said that I did not want to be around her. Dad's response was that if that was the case, he wasn't sure if he wanted to be around me; and mom cried and pleaded with me not to break up the family. So yes, there is no question in my mind that if I walk away from my sister, my family walks away from me. Palliser's quote ("You must take abusive behavior because WE'RE FAMILY" is setting you up for abuse.) merits some serious thought.
posted by angrybeaver at 9:17 AM on April 19, 2009

So, it sounds more like she's mentally ill than anything else. Assuming she did stop hitting you, and that you're not leaving out things, she doesn't sound like she's abusive. If she is being verbally abusive, you should consider an entirely different strategy than I am suggesting here, mostly involving cutting contact with her to a bare minimum, and insisting on more support from your parents. Okay, so, that said.

She sounds sad, and lonely, and uncertain of her choices. You need to figure out which order you want to fight things in. This situation has been building for years and years, and it's not going to go away easily or quickly. Let's say you want to fight the ASL alphabet first. You then walk away or hang up whenever she insults ASL, and pretend you no longer remember your made up alphabet. Or you want to fight the meals at restaurants first: just claim to your waiter you do not know what you want to order until your sister has already ordered, then just choose what you want, and when she wants to switch, tell her you're very sorry, but you really like yours and you do not want [ingredient in hers] tonight. You can fight two at a time, even, but I'd do it bit by bit. As long as she doesn't become abusive -- physically OR verbally -- then I don't think it's necessary to get your parents to side with you. That said, having a friend see what she's like might give you someone who will commisserate with you, and that can be nice.

Some things you need to let go. If she's insulting poor people, or against restaurants with ketchup bottles on the table, just move on. It's not your problem. (If she's insulting your girlfriend, that is your problem.) "I hear what you're saying"/"That's an interesting point of view"/"I hadn't looked at it like that"/"I will consider what you told me" -- the point is to avoid a fight, not try to prove to her that she's wrong.

Even if she has NPD, you can have some sort of relationship with her, though severely curtailed. You might also choose not to, but I respect feeling that family is important and worth extra work, and there's no reason you cannot choose your family of birth.
posted by jeather at 9:36 AM on April 19, 2009

Of much more concern to them was that I said that I did not want to be around her. Dad's response was that if that was the case, he wasn't sure if he wanted to be around me; and mom cried and pleaded with me not to break up the family.

Lots of people went into a bunch of stuff about family dynamics, and the like... I understand your desire to keep close with them, I am not going to get into that. But, with the statement above, what if you had said that you didn't want to be around here when she behaved as such, rather than her? Making this more of an issue with the way the two of you interact rather than an issue with her as a person might be more palatable to your parents.
posted by kellyblah at 9:43 AM on April 19, 2009

Yeah, now that I read your update, and x46's and jeather's latest comments, I think you're dealing with the mentally ill here, and your parents are probably as bewildered as you. The easiest path, for them, is catering to her.

It sounds like you're doing what you can -- living your life despite her criticisms and demands. One thing you might think about doing is to let go of the idea that there are some magic words you can say that will change her. For instance, this thread was based on the idea that we could help you come up with talking points that would fix this without getting her upset. That is probably not possible.

A useful perspective might be: "My sister is difficult; neither I nor my parents really know how to deal with her; they love both of us, but it's easier for them to ask things of me than of her because she doesn't respond well to that; I love them all, but I have to live my life the way I think is best." And then individual situations would be dealt with in the way jeather laid out above -- does this interfere with my integrity? if yes, challenge it; if not, let it go.
posted by palliser at 10:04 AM on April 19, 2009

My two biggest regrets are that I was not there for her when her marriage broke up, and I was not there for her after 9-11. She was working in New York at the time and was and still is traumatized by the collapse of the towers.

Yes, so were a lot of people. We dealt with it, in one way or another. It's not your responsibility to be there for her for every traumatic thing in her life. Is she not an adult? I love my sister, and would do anything for her, but at the end of the day, we are two autonomous adults who happen to have the same parents.

It seems like there is some interdependency between the two of you, that clearly needs to be addressed, or you risk living this pattern for the rest of your life.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:18 AM on April 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

Just because someone is family doesn't mean they don't deserve civil and respectful behaviour. Does your sister treat her friends as poorly? The keeping-the-family-together reasoning works only so well, especially when it's just one person trying to do that and the rest of them (your parents included) just enable the unreasonable behaviour. Not acknowledging and validating your feelings and overlooking her behaviour does just that. You don't need to make a decision tonight and make it official by telling all the family members that you are 'distancing' yourself from your sister at the crack of dawn. But at the same time, you don't have to participate in things you don't want to. Draw your boundaries and stick to them. You cannot go to place X coz its expensive? Tell her and stick to it. She still wants to go and wants to pay for it? Nope. When she gets that, go to the next point. Is she doesn't, well, you cannot afford it in any case so maybe she can ask a friend to accompany her. She wants you to order B coz she is ordering A. Nope. Maybe she can have B the next time you are there and so forth. Know where you eventually want to be as far as your relationship is concerned, does your sister want to be in the same place? If so, she has to meet you half way. Because that's the only way how things work. If you cannot communicate all this explicity without your sister or parents becoming melodramatic, then don't. But do what you want to do - not because you are being passive aggressive or such but because that's a small step towards being treated and respected like the adult that you are. And for the love of God, date whom you want to date! Do you seriously envision yourself living all your life catering to the whims and wishes of your sister? Finally, please do not mistake distancing with abandoning. Those two things are very, very different.
posted by xm at 12:12 PM on April 19, 2009

posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:54 PM on April 19, 2009

I am not going to make a psychiatric diagnosis of my sister or make any assumptions based on an Askme thread. This is an example of how Askme threads can potentially do more harm than good.

I am also not going to abandon my sister. For better or worse, we're family.

Those are both fair.

What you can do, then, is decide exactly where your boundaries are - not just with her, but with anyone -- and make those boundaries clear bright lines in the sand that you enforce. And enforce them across the board.

What this does, first, is it impersonalizes what's happening with your sister -- you're not objecting to that treatment because it's your sister, any more, you're objecting to that treatment if ANYONE treats you that way. That's just the way you're wired, so c'est la vie. But enforce that shit -- if she does something that crosses your boundary, just calmly say that you don't let people treat you that way, and if she keeps doing it you're going to end the phone call/go home right now/etc. And then if she still pushes that, say that you'll talk to her later and do what you said you were going to do (leave, hang up, whatever). You're not abandoning her, you're just enforcing the fact that you have particular standards when it comes to the way you expect to be treated.

Secondly, it also lets you decide what does and what does not affect you, which can help you pick your battles. Not that you don't have the right to be bothered by petty annoying shit she does, but it can put it in proper perspective; there's the petty stuff that it makes sense to seriously object to, and then there's the petty stuff that you're better off dealing with by just rolling your eyes and saving up for "who's got the weirdest family" stories with your friends.

The worst case scenario if you do this is that you get to the point where you and your sister are civil but not close; but it sounds like this may even be an improvement over your lot now, so there you go.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:09 PM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I was in New York on 9/11 as well. Lots of people managed to process that without becoming meanies, so don't let that make you feel obligated to anything. It's copmassionate of you to have wanted to "be there for her" then, but...honestly, there are a number of subway ads going up now discussing services for people still trying to cope with 9/11, so if she really is traumatized by that she does have options.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:12 PM on April 19, 2009

There's a lot going on here and lots of thoughtful answers. I tend to concur that your sister has some kind of pretty intense personality disorder happening. She's either ill or just a huge bitch. The two of you (and hell, your parents, too) have years of really unhealthy ingrained habits and codependent manipulatons that it's possible, but no doubt terrifically difficult, to unwind.

So (even though it's really not what you want to hear) I just wanted to pass along something it took my therapist a year to get through my hard, Southern, family before all else head after we went round and round discussing the truly fucked up relationships I had with a few truly fucked up family members: Just because they're your family doesn't give them the right to hurt you. Some people are just toxic, period. If you've made a good faith effort to deal with them in a healthy way and they won't let you, you've got a choice to make. You must choose whether you value your own mental and emotional health or theirs more.

If you choose theirs then you've got to accept that a little piece of you will die if you keep dealing with them. If making that person happy is more important to you than being happy, go ahead and let that happen. But stop expecting them to change and stop expecting to ever feel better.

If you choose your own health, the you may have to accept that you can't have that person in your life anymore. That decision will cause pain, but when its less than the pain of having them in your life, its worth it. You'll feel guilty; you'll feel sad. You'll mourn not so much the loss of the person but the loss of the dream of the loving person you wanted them to be. It's hard to separate yourself from a toxic person, but sometimes it's the only option.

It's super, majorly dysfunctional to excuse forever someone's behavior just because they're family. Family should love you more and treat you better. Not use that connection as an excuse to abuse you. You are not obligated by either love or blood to submit to abuse. Healthy people don't do that. I don't know that you're at that point yet with your sister. There are certainly steps you can try to take before it gets there. Your whole family will have to change a lot of old, familiar behaviors to save this relationship. That will be very hard, but very worthwhile, work. But if that doesn't happen, try to value yourself enough not to waste your life on the suffering they cause.
posted by mostlymartha at 1:24 PM on April 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

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