I'm troubled by my relationship with my sister
November 11, 2015 10:39 AM   Subscribe

I asked this question a while back, and I found the answers very validating. The situation between me and my sister is complicated. I'm not sure how, or if, it can be resolved.

My sister has seemed cold and hostile to me for several months, ever since I stayed with her over a weekend last spring. Background: my sister lives about 300 miles from me, in a major metropolitan area. She moved there recently to be closer to family after she and her husband had kids. They come here a lot, so I see them pretty regularly. The visit I made is the first time I visited them there. Like her, I had also been living far from family, but I moved back to my hometown due to financial and mental health issues that I have mostly recovered from. However, the big city she lives in is the biggest city nearby, and I have had a long interest in moving there once I'm 100% back on my feet.

I had met someone online who lived in the same metro area as my sister, and we'd become very close long-distance. We wanted to meet in person. I'd been planning to visit my sister a little later, but bumped the visit up to meet him. We've now been together for eight months and have seen a lot of each other and we're very happy. But when I decided to meet him, I felt a bit awkward because I hadn't been to see my sister yet. I thought I should probably see her too, but my plan was to stay at a hostel so as not to impose on her. I didn't want her to feel used or like I was using her house as a hotel to meet someone from the internet. So I called her and asked if she knew of any hostels and told her I was going to be in town and would like to see her if possible. To my surprise, she told me I could stay with her and that all she asked was that I spend some quality time with her and the kids, and it sounded good to me so I agreed.

So I went, and during the time I was there she was rather overbearing about my now-boyfriend, grilling me on details about his life. I got the impression that she thought I was being flighty or impetuous about the relationship. That wasn't so. I had been single and working on myself for two years before I met him, due to having been with a narcissistic ex. I had other relationships prior to the narcissist, one in particular, with someone who wasn't good for me. I ended that relationship too. But it seems like my judgmental family members only see that I had a couple of unhealthy relationships in the past and that colors their whole perception of me. They assume ALL my exes are horrible and it's not the case at all. I'm still friends with most of them. There has been no recognition on the part of my sister or other members of my father's side that I've grown. And even that irks me; why is the only narrative of my life that is acceptable to them a redemption narrative?

But because I thought my sister being intrusive was a sign she cared, I didn't confront her about it. Instead, I bent over backwards to reassure her that the new guy seemed emotionally healthy and that if I saw any signs of abusiveness from him, I would run. I could tell she wasn't reassured. Looking back, I don't feel like she was being caring. Instead, I feel concern-trolled. While I was on my first date with my now-boyfriend, she called my cell phone and demanded that I be back at her house by 7 pm to tuck her kids in. I capitulated, even though I was having a good time. My date was super-understanding because I had told him my family was concerned due to my prior abuse, and also because he's aware of how dangerous it can be for women meeting guys from online. Plus, we had agreed on a second date the next day before I went back, if we felt attraction, which we did.

My sister also called on our second date and told me that it was late in the day and I needed to drive back home so I wouldn't be driving at night. My mom did the same thing to me, but later apologized for not treating me like an adult. I spoke graciously to both of them, and I left at what I considered a reasonable hour. I didn't get home until 3 a.m. but I have taken MANY cross-country road trips alone and I know my driving limits.

So after I got home, my sister started triangulating. She apparently told both my mom and cousin that she wished I had gone to Big City "just to see her." My mom and cousin seemed to take her side on this and think it was completely reasonable of Sis to say that, to them, instead of to me. I was floored, because she ostensibly knew the purpose of that visit and I had done everything she asked, including rush home in the middle of the date to read stories to my nephews. In fact, I visited earlier than I had planned and at that point, I did want to make some of the visits primarily to see them. But after the triangulating, and her coldness to me, I really don't.

She has never invited me to see her. She doesn't call just to chat with me, to see how I am. Our relationship has never really been like that. When she visits, she announces which parent they're staying with, and for the duration of the visit, everything revolves around the kids. She seems to feel entitled to my help with them. For example, at her last visit, I had just put a vitamin in my mouth and was lifting a water glass to swallow it when she barked at me to help my 2-year-old nephew wash his hands. I said sure, as soon as I swallow this, and she sneeringly told me to stop thinking of my own needs just for once.

As kids, I was the scapegoat and she was the golden child. We've both been to therapy, and talked about this, and I thought we were cool. I even thought for a while that we were friends. I didn't realize she held some of the same stereotyped beliefs about me that our father and stepmother have. (For example, from my last post where she said my only friends were whoever my current boyfriend was friends with. I wonder if she also believes, as my father and stepmother do, that I've never had a bank account, have bad credit, and have never had a real/good job -- none of which are true, but they insist that it is. My father also gaslit me about being overweight when I never was).

I'm fed up with this dynamic. I don't feel emotionally safe with my sister and I'm dreading her next visit, though I do like her husband and love my nephews. Apparently she continues to complain about me to our mom, who says the complaints are "vague." My mom has since refused to participate in triangulation, which is good.

Since my relationship with Big City Guy is going so well, I'm hoping to move there in a reasonable time frame, maybe by this summer. I'm not sure how to handle my relationship with my sister if we're in the same area (two different towns, at least). I don't know how to talk to her about this. I feel like if she's mad at me for something it's on her to woman up and tell me. Our mom thinks it might be that in Sis's mind, my date was "just some guy from the internet" instead of someone I'd been talking to on a very deep level for about six weeks and already felt a close friendship connection with. But to me, that's just her assuming the worst about me like other family members do.

Am I in the wrong here? Was her concern legitimate, and did I use her, despite my best intentions not to? Am I wrong to think she should assert herself about it and should I be the one to bring it up? I don't want to reward her triangulating.
posted by Beethoven's Sith to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Don't talk to your sister about your moving plans. If it's a city, there's almost zero chance you'll run into her without planning it first.

Don't invite your sister over anymore, and don't bother to come just because she beckons you to your parents' house.

You get to determine how you interact with someone, and your relationships are quite honestly none of your sister's business. Don't look to her for validation about your decisions, and if you choose to keep her in your life on a regular basis, make sure you set strict boundaries about the way she talks to you and treats you.

RuPaul said it best, "Other people's opinions of you are none of your damned business." Just go on with your life, and if you want to see her, do so, but don't tie yourself up in such knots over what you think she thinks of you.
posted by xingcat at 10:54 AM on November 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'm not quick to suggest people cut relatives out of their lives. But to spend time with your sister you need to seriously stiffen your boundaries: how you allow her to speak to you or about you to others, how you jump to answer calls when you are otherwise engaged and then capitulate to unreasonable demands, how you let her tell you where to be, what to do, when to drive. None of that is okay. But because your dynamic is already established, it's going to take a lot of work to construct new rules for the relationship. And she may not be willing to adhere to those new rules. If that's the case, at some point down the line, it may mean a lot less contact with her. But I would do the boundary work before cutting her out of your life. A therapist would be so helpful in teaching you how to set and maintain firm boundaries.
posted by cecic at 10:58 AM on November 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I just want to let you all know that I'm already in therapy working on the boundary issue and I'm looking more for feedback about whether I did anything rude or wrong, whether my sister is out of line, or whether both of us are being unreasonable. Thanks!
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 11:02 AM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Make a theoretical box, put your sister in it. You have a hole in your boundaries, your sister fishes for your faults in it. Your sister has no self esteem, she constantly looks for validation through negative posturing about others, probably not just you. This is what she is.

Rules of your engagement.
1. Only talk about yourself with sis. Include no one else. No current events with regard to anyone else.
2. Develop a means to redirect conversation back to you, her, her kids.
3. Never discuss her husband (since you can't discuss your SO.) Never discuss any other family, just her, you, her kids, in the most positive light.
4. Leave when things strain, have a list of plausible excuses.
5. On a positive note, this might be what she wants, your old kid sisters relationship.

She seems very small to me, childlike, looking for parental approval constantly, rather than growing up. So narrow your expectations for the relationship, and love yourself well enough to walk away when it becomes taxing. Bad opinion is worthless in what is supposed to safe, intimate relations. It just reveals the limitations of others.
posted by Oyéah at 11:12 AM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

After what you've told us about your sister and your family, I am not surprised at all that you should have gotten into a prior romantic relationship with a narcissist. If your description is accurate, and I see no reason to doubt that it is, you haven't done anything wrong here at all. Your sister is really controlling and demanding and disrespectful of your needs and autonomy -- in short, she's narcissistic.

I'd recommend that you come up with some techniques for keeping your sister from railroading you and/or minimizing contact with her until such time as she shows some growth -- and don't hold your breath on that one. And I'm very happy to hear that your relationship with the new guy is going well. This sounds like one of those cases in which the person who's looking to her family for healthy and equitable relationships needs to build a solid non-familial support network, because the family well is nearly dry.
posted by orange swan at 11:21 AM on November 11, 2015 [13 favorites]

I think you need to stop answering the phone - especially while you are on dates. And honestly, the offer to let you crash there should not have had so many conditions. I'd just do the hostel or hotel thing next time, and not even tell her about it. Part of enforcing boundaries means learning you don't have to tell them or get approval from them for these things. It is worth trying to reset the terms of your relationship because she is family, and also getting practice stating and sticking to your boundaries is an excellent thing in general.
I strongly encourage you to read up on the subject at Captain Awkward, who will provide you with undeniably reasonable and pithy scripts and catch phrases as well as strategies for families who trample your boundaries and try to enforce these roles. Loads on gas lighting too. Good luck, I used to be you. Wish I had known about the Captain when I was younger.
posted by TenaciousB at 11:25 AM on November 11, 2015 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I think even in a healthier relationship there would have been some hurt feelings and tension with this visit. You hadn't visited her in the city yet and then only made concrete plans to go there when you wanted to see a guy. She offered to put you up knowing the real purpose of your visit, but likely still hoped that you'd end up mostly focusing your visit on her family.

I don't write any of that to excuse her behavior (some of which was pretty lousy), but to point out that these things are complicated. You had a situation in which she was hoping for a different type of visit, and her hurt feelings then got mixed up with the troubled parts of the relationship. Unfortunately, the way this visit got arranged fed into her pre-existing beliefs about your relationships with men. I don't see anything in your story which suggests you did anything rude or wrong, but I think she may well have been genuinely upset that visiting her and her family wasn't as big a priority for you as she wished were the case. All that being said, her controlling behavior was not an appropriate way to deal with you and whatever feelings she was experiencing (I can't imagine calling my sister and making similar demands), and you may need to look into techniques to deal with that behavior as noted in comments above.
posted by Area Man at 11:36 AM on November 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

Leaving aside all the childhood baggage (I'm not saying you should), is it possible your sister is jealous of your life? You sound sure-footed, content and relatively care free especially in regards to what you can do with your time, whereas she's tied down to her children and clearly structures her time around all their needs.

That said, it does not excuse how she treated you and I don't think you did anything wrong. I wouldn't stay with her again and I might not even mention that you're moving nearby. That might not be feasible if you try to maintain your relationship with your nephews.

Definitely stop answering your phone during dates.
posted by purple_bird at 11:37 AM on November 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Overall, I think you did everything you could, and any problems she has are because of the narrative she's constructed.

I could see how she'd be bummed you made the trip for someone besides her. But again, that might also just be her feeding into the narrative she's got running in her head rather than true heart break. For the record, even if it was sincere I'd think it a bit silly to say anything about it. If she was bummed by this she should work on creating a better relationship with you.

I 'm not entirely clear as to how much time you visited and then spent with now-boyfriend vs. her family. Even if it was on the short side, though, that's still on her for not explicitly stating what she expected. You also made it clear why you were visiting in the first place, so you didn't spring it out of no where.

I don't think you were silly for believing the grilling was a sign she cared. Even with all her other faults, it might be her way if showing concern for you. But that doesn't mean you have to indulge in it, especially with all the other crap she dishes out. I would only think about it as an exercise in developing boundaries (how do I wish I had answered), regardless if what you think her real motivations were.
posted by ghost phoneme at 11:45 AM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Your distilled questions-
I'm looking more for feedback about whether I did anything rude or wrong, whether my sister is out of line, or whether both of us are being unreasonable.

1. You didn't do anything rude. The only thing you did wrong in your visit to sister's city was to go against your correct instinct to stay at a hostel.

2. Yes your sister is out of line.

3. I wouldn't say either of you are being unreasonable but there is a gulf between you.

A lot of this boils down to family dynamics and sister being accustomed to being the center of attention and getting her way over you. She's self-centered (which is fine to an extent, we all need to keep our best interests at heart) but more than that, she's in a completely different place in life than you and thinks her 'stable' life is superior to your life minus husband, kids, house, etc.

The problem is she can't seem to respect you or have any interest in YOU as a person. THAT is unreasonable and it clouds all her interactions with you. I suspect all her friends are young mothers like her, her worldview is small at this time in her life, etc. Which is perfectly fine, but she doesn't get to judge you as lesser for the sin of not following her every direction in your own life and *gasp* being single w/o kids. (Though if and when you do marry and have kids, your husband will be a bum, your kids will be little out of control brats and any mothering you do will be wrong.)
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 1:02 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

You haven't done anything wrong, in fact, you've been quite generous toward your family and they're repaying you with the same old abusive behaviors. Your sister sounds emotionally unhealthy, manipulative, cruel, and controlling. You're not being unreasonable in wanting to distance yourself from her and this dynamic. You're having a healthy reaction to being subjected to the unhealthy behavior of others. Keep working on your boundaries with your therapist and good luck!
posted by quince at 1:13 PM on November 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think it was a bit disingenuous to ask your sister about hostels in her city and then be surprised that she invited you to stay. Going forward, I wouldn't tell her about your travel plans unless you are setting aside a specific amount of time to spend with her and her kids. Does your new beau have any interest in meeting them?
posted by Ideefixe at 1:36 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I didn't want her to feel used or like I was using her house as a hotel to meet someone from the internet. So I called her and asked if she knew of any hostels and told her I was going to be in town and would like to see her if possible.

From the content of this and your previous question, I can't help but notice this bit.

You can exert some control over your encounters with your sister by not relying on her for information. In this case, try internet searches for information rather than her. Asking your sister for advice may seem like an action that reinforces her conception of your needs.

This is an area where you can cut back on contact without cutting out contact. Keep your contact social only, not anything resembling a transaction. Rearranging the above, something like this even may be helpful:

I didn't want her to feel used or like I was using her house as a hotel to meet someone from the internet. So I called her and told her I'd be staying near her on dates X-Y-Z and would like to see her if possible.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:37 PM on November 11, 2015 [14 favorites]

You did nothing wrong aside from jumping into shark (sister) infested waters without a steel cage of boundaries around you! She sees your insecurities and weaknesses as chum in the water and she goes after you. Your choices are either to stay out of the water entirely (meaning stay away from her) or build a sister-proof cage of boundaries around you. But protecting yourself and making your own decisions and choices isn't rude or wrong.
posted by cecic at 1:40 PM on November 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

You can't change other people, not how they think nor how they behave; you can only change your own reactions to them. So change how you reacte to their questions, and make yourself a new rule: never give them details about your life (your job, where you live or where you're thinking of moving, your hobbies, where you have gone or are going, etc.), your boyfriend (how you met him, what he does/where he lives, etc.), your job or anything else.

None of that is information they need: your family --- and most definitely your sister --- just want to use that info as additional ammunition against you, not because they actually care about you.

When they ask, give them bland no-answer answers. If they keep pressing, literally walk away --- you've tried over and over, they'll never change, so just stop giving them informational ammo. Yes, they'll be pissed off, but that really won't be much different than how they treat you now, will it?

(And hell no you aren't your sister's unpaid babysitter/servant!)
posted by easily confused at 1:43 PM on November 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

- You moved back home because you were having a hard time with financial and mental health issues, and started dating someone long-distance at that time. Things might be/have been objectively awesome, but I can see your big sis worrying about the timing, and maybe second-guessing things because of your recent dating history, i.e. your last ex. (These bad relationships - how far in the past were they?) 2nd your mom that your sis probably believes online relationships in general are suss (since your mom said that; your sister probably said as much to her). (Maybe a generational difference there.)

- 2nd what people have said about the fact that you hadn't visited her to that point, & that while she hadn't invited you (small kids?), you didn't reach out either. Is it possible you were reflecting & maybe reinforcing the big sis/little sis relationship by expecting her to lead? There might have been an opportunity for you to change the narrative a bit (I don't know, but maybe).

- 2nd lateafternoonhotel & ideefixe - you asked sis for help, there (again reaffirming, albeit unwittingly, the asymmetrical dynamic). Informing her of plans made would have set the tone (probably started a different argument, but it would have been you asserting yourself vs. acting like little sis). In asking, maybe, she thought you were hoping for her to invite you? As much as she hoped that you'd visit (2nd Area Man on that), despite the explicit rationale being meeting your bf?

- She strong-armed you on your first date to get you home, because she was worried. (I believe that she was probably sincere in that concern, whether founded or not.) But: this was a total power play, way out of line. Same thing with the driving excuse on your second date. I bet she thinks your driving's fine - she was just manufacturing reasons to get you home (because she was worried) and exploiting the power differential in whichever way it made sense to her. Which also aligns with the narrative of you being powerless & lacking control & competence in basic life skills; that would be offensive to me, too. (Tucking the kids in, also a cover.)

- Vitamin/handwashing, meh, yeah, she's probably super kid-focused and overtired, and didn't want whatever gross stuff he had on his hands to get all over the kitchen (and probably knew that would happen). Probably resents your freedom to take vitamins. She snapped - not the best thing, not the worst thing imo (if you guys got along better, but you don't).

- As far as whether she's entitled to auntie's help, that's a cultural thing, I dunno. (That would be an ok expectation in my world.) Also depends on the quality of the relationship, for sure.

So, my thought re "who's wrong" is, it's a little of column A and a little of column B. (But no one's really "wrong" as such imo. It's habits/narratives/feelings colliding - up to you both to settle on whether you want to work on changing things to whatever degree makes holidays easier or give up or take a break.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:31 PM on November 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

(sorry, when I say "no one's wrong" I mean everyone's got their reasons. Sister = overwhelmed & probably yeah playing out big sis role with worry BUT didn't do great with the bossing you around and undermining you. You = could have done things a little differently & weren't wholly generous, because hurt. Everyone playing out their roles.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:41 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you read the famous Ask-vs.-Guess thread from several years back? I say this because there are quite a few hints at an extremely dysfunctional "Guess" dynamic in this question and your previous one: Guessing is an excellent way for families to end up mutually convinced that they're all collectively insane and evil despite all having the best of intentions.

I'm not sure that your family does have good intentions, by the way. It's just that I can see some fairly obvious ambiguities in what you describe everyone doing, such that if nothing else people may have done some extremely hurtful things while being quite certain they were on the side of the angels.

In any event, never again give your sister a chance to offer/cajole/guilt you into staying at her place. At least, not until you've reached level 10 in boundary-enforcement.
posted by SMPA at 6:01 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh FUCK THIS NOISE. You are so not in any way shape or form in the wrong here. Your entire family is full of adult babies who needed to grow up two thousand years ago.

Reading this made me angry and tired on your behalf. This is not normal. This is not acceptable. This is abusive, stupid nonsense.

Are you financially independent? If you are not, all of this kind of makes sense. If you are, for God's sake get these immature people out of your adult life ASAP.

Do not move in with new flame, nor throw away a good job and independent life for him. But do not do that for your family, either.

Get a good job, your own apartment, be totally financially independent (even if you end up kinda poor) and then date who you want and stop responding to this asinine nonsense.

You are in no way wrong here. Just to reiterate. So much so that it is a waste of time to even contemplate it- or rather an outright theft of your time and your life which rightfully belongs to you.
posted by quincunx at 9:42 PM on November 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

You get to decide for yourself whether or not you did anything wrong (I think you behaved like a normal, considerate adult). I think she's being unreasonable but she gets to decide how to express herself so she can complain if she wants to.

Family dynamics ebb and flow. There are times when the people who can change will, and they'll be open to working together to make things better. There are times when those same people will retreat back into a bad dynamic. Right now you're the one changing and growing while she's back in her old role. It's natural for her to want to fix that disconnect by pulling you back towards your old ways, but it sounds like you're getting stronger. She can feel you resisting and it doesn't feel good.

It would be great if she could call you up and say, "You're drifting away from our relationship and I feel scared," or, "I feel threatened by the changes you're making," but, based on what you've written, she doesn't have that in her right now. She's reaching back into her old toolkit to deal with her feelings by complaining behind your back.

So my take on things is that her behavior isn't really about the guy or the trip at all. I don't think there's anything you could have done that would have made her happy. If you focused on her family during the trip she would probably complain that she had to entertain you the whole time. If you weren't dating anyone she would probably complain about that. Don't worry too much about the specifics of her complaints. Do feel free to let her stew in her own tedious, predictable juices.

Go forth and enjoy your hard earned personal growth. Who knows, maybe she has more in her and someday she'll come back around to being your friend.
posted by balacat at 4:08 AM on November 12, 2015

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