building more of a relationship with my little sister
February 19, 2016 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever built up a relationship with your sibling when your relationship was previously distant? How did you do it?

I'm not sure what sister relationships are "supposed" to look like, but I feel like I know very little about my little sister's life. She doesn't update me on significant life events, maybe sends me the occasional snapchat, but that's about it. I don't know who her closest friends are, I don't know anything about her significant other, I don't know much about her new job. When I visit home, we usually have a good time baking things and venting about our parents' general insanity, maybe quoting our favorite movie lines together, but again, our "real" conversations are few and far between- maybe once a year if that. She is very sarcastic to almost everybody, including me, and that makes it hard for me to have a real conversation with her. My sister doesn't express interest in my life, either, though she's receptive, but not very responsive, if I tell her something. We are only one year apart (two school grades apart), so age difference isn't an issue.

My family was somewhat dysfunctional, where kids kind of fulfilled "roles," and that was probably also detrimental to our relationship: I was the overachiever firstborn, my sister was the forgotten child, to the point that it blows me away as to the extent that my parents kind of unintentionally 'ignore' or 'overlook' my sister, even when she sees them every day. For what it's worth, we also have a younger brother and we notice the same issue with him: he doesn't tell us about anything about his life, but he's a teenager, so it doesn't feel like as much of a gaping hole at this point to us.

It's not even so much that I know very little, but it feels like there is not much potential conversation with her that bothers me the most. I am not sure how to improve things. My feeling is that she's afraid that others will judge her, so she just doesn't say much of anything in general. In the past she has said that I (as well as my mom, who is, like me, a firstborn daughter who was the "high achiever" in her family) sound very judgey of others, especially with regard to achievements. I can see where she is coming from with that argument, and I'm working on it.

Now that we are out of grade school and done with college and have gone on different career paths, direct sibling comparisons matter much less, which is great. However, we have been long distance since I left home for college and then grad school, she's probably going to move soon as well, and it feels like there's not much of a basis to develop a sisterly relationship. Of course, I'd do anything for her, and I think she would support me if I needed help, but I just wish that I had a better relationship with my sister.

I'm not sure what I should be aiming for, but any suggestions on how to go about this? Any personal experiences you think might be relevant here?
posted by fernweh to Human Relations (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
To me, with sisters, you actually don't need to talk about the big important stuff. Leave the scary topics like work and politics and retirement and childbearing and all of that alone. What you can get with sisters, which is actually really nice, is fun and sometimes-rivalry on the surface and a deep unspoken bond underneath, where you don't need to delve into the sad or hard or scary stuff aloud.

In other words, bond with your sister over TV shows or silly new articles or cat videos on youtube. Let the rest come out later on when/if it's safe and necessary.
posted by quincunx at 8:37 PM on February 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

You ask what you should being aiming for but we're not you or your sister, so it's hard to give specific suggestions for goals. However, we can give suggestions for how to start a conversation with her. She may be very interested in sharing more of her life with you or she may not be: you can hope things improve but they may stay how they are now or possibly even get worse. Of course, I hope you two can get closer.

I'd start by calling her this weekend. You can leave a message if she doesn't pick up but I wouldn't just text because it's harder to gauge a reaction. You could tell you a much shorter version of what you wrote here, that you have been thinking of her and hope you two can get to know each better as adults. That you'd like to get to know her better as a person but also want to respect her privacy. And then I'd listen!

It's awesome that you two can enjoy your visits together: that is a very positive thing! I'd try to schedule another visit soon and ask her more about her. FWIW, if she hasn't told you the name/gender of her SO, I'd try hard not to make any assumptions. Sometimes siblings are distant due to family dynamics, other times due to personality differences, etc. However, when you described how you know so little about her life right now, I wonder if she's perhaps queer and not ready or comfortable coming out to you and your family yet. I may be totally off but I wanted to put it out there.

Whatever happens, I wouldn't press but rather stay upbeat and show that the door's open. You could always step up your communication a bit more, like email her a new recipe you find or text her a photo of something that reminds you of her. You are both still young so there is a lot of potential for a deeper relationship over time: this is just the beginning of the next chapter. I wish you luck and success.
posted by smorgasbord at 8:38 PM on February 19, 2016

As the eldest sister and a high-achiever, it took me a long time to get out of the "second mother" role to my sisters, but I'm mostly cured, and my relationships with my sisters are extremely strong. Treat her like any new friendship - like quincunx said - keep it light, keep it fun, don't offer advice unless she asks, praise her and compliment and just be there. Over time, she might start to open up, bit by bit, but if not, that's okay. You can't force it, and any relationship is a good one. I count my sisters as some of my best friends, but we still don't tell each other everything.

And start to ask for her advice and help. Be vulnerable but genuine. Fashion advice? Help with pop culture? Movie or book recommendations? Something about her field you don't know?

Keep it light, keep it easy, keep it fun and accepting.
posted by umwhat at 5:27 AM on February 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I had kids. It gave me something to talk about with my brother other than a shared history of distance. Not suggesting you have kids to fix this, but do look to engage your sibling in something that's new and doesn't have years of baggage.
posted by bfranklin at 5:29 AM on February 20, 2016

Honestly? I'd stop trying to be her big sister. Don't give advice, don't offer any kind of judgement or opinion, in fact ask her for her advice. Treat her like an equal and a friend.

Keep things light but if you want to really change the dynamic, come to her with a minor problem and let her assume a power role by seeing if she can help you. As long as she's always seen as younger and lesser with you being the teacher there will always be a power imbalance.

As a younger sibling, it grates even in middle age to always be viewed as having less to contribute and having an opinion that's not as important because I am one of the youngest (of seven kids, mind you!) Start treating her as an autonomous adult and stop viewing her a little sister that you have to teach and I promise your relationship will improve. You may even learn things from her.
posted by Jubey at 6:40 AM on February 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm the sarcastic younger sister who as an adult has never lived in the same city as my sister. When your only shared time is short visits back home surrounded by family, conversations understandably lean toward family gossip and light and superficial topics. If you really want to get to know her, find opportunities to spend time together. Shared time. That's they key. Conversations will deepen if you create times when they can. Invite her to visit you for a weekend. Go on a road trip together to a concert, show, or to see some distant relative. Going forward, look for chances to come up when you can be together. Whenever there's a family wedding, funeral, graduation, new baby, etc., invite her to travel with you and share a room. When you're in the same town, ask her to go out for a drink or coffee, just the two of you. Doing those things will not only give you ample time let meaningful conversations evolve naturally, but will also let her know that she is important to you and that you value your time together.
posted by MelissaSimon at 7:57 AM on February 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been working at creating a closer relationship with my older sister and younger brother and one of the things that has helped the most is calling each of them once a week. I've got a reminder in my calendar to do it. With my sister, who will also call or email on her own ~monthly, we talk about little things going on in our lives--how work's going, how our partners are, what we're cooking for dinner, how our hobbies are, what interesting things we've done lately (a concert, a great new book, a party, etc.). With my brother, where I do 95% of the reaching out, I have to put in more effort to get the conversation rolling, asking him specific questions about his life and how things are going, but every couple of conversations we hit one of those easy conversations where half the references are favorite movies and we're telling each other what comics we should read.

It's a slow and ongoing process, but it's doable. If you forget one week or have to shift days, just make sure you recreate your routine. The weekly conversations are much easier to maintain if I've been having them. The first several weeks may be stilted or awkward or short, but as you talk, you'll have more to ask about, more you remember you want to say.
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:22 AM on February 20, 2016

Similar dynamic in my family. What has changed it is getting a lot older, having the shared life experience of kids, and my going to visit for two-week trips (we live on other sides of the world) and sitting up and talking to each other late into the night. We're almost 3 years apart in age, but now that we're in our 40s, I no longer think about this as significant or meaningful or that I have some eldest thing that I have to do.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:09 PM on February 20, 2016

It sounds like you don't live close to each other? How about just texting her daily? Text her something that would make her laugh, or reminded you of her. Once you've established that habit, you can start talking about things that are happening in your life, and she may reciprocate.I think the key is to be in constant light touch -- you're not going to go from your current relationship to deep sisterly talks overnight, but if you're in the habit of talking to each other regularly about your daily lives, that leads to deeper intimacy. If somebody isn't in your daily life, there's not much that seems significant enough to share when you do talk to them. Like, you're not going to tell her about what that annoying guy at the gym said to you today if she doesn't even know you belong to a gym. But when you are chatting about everyday things with someone who knows what your life is like, that's what opens the door to how maybe that guy at the gym annoys you so much because he reminds you of your ex who you never got over, or whatever.
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:29 PM on February 20, 2016

I am in a similar situation with the youngest of two sisters. We also had a somewhat dysfunctional family life growing up and I took on a "father figure" role with my sisters. Especially so with the younger of the two who is 6 years my junior.

After multiple reflection sessions, I realized that I was being overly critical of her because of the aforementioned "father figure" mantle that I wore in our relationship dynamic. Because of this, it spurred within her a desire to try to live up to my expectations of her. That wasn't always a bad thing, especially when we were younger, but now that I am nearly 30 and she in her mid-20s, I think a sibling relationship is more likely what we both need from each other. Here are the steps I've taken to change the relationship dynamic.

1) I actively pursue get-togethers with just the two of us. I leave my wife at home and take my sister our for brunch, coffee, hiking, etc. It's just us.

2) When we are together, I try to be as un-critical as possible. That is, I try to ask as many questions as possible and try not to give advice (this is often very difficult). I can tell it's working when she's wearing a huge smile and is talking a mile-a-minute about something she's passionate about. Even if I hear something that makes my "Give Advice Now!" klaxons ring, I suppress that alarm and simply ask her "why?" or ask her to elaborate. I remind myself that she's old enough to have her own opinions and make her own choices and I'm here simply to support her if she asks for it -- but not to show support/advice down her throat. I try to talk about myself more, as well.

3) I try to have a text-based chat with her nightly -- be it through Google Chat (my preferred medium) or text messaging (her preferred medium). I ask about her day and we just shoot the 'stuff').

4) I try to find common ground with generic media -- we talk about podcasts we both like and tv shows we both like. We make recommendations and chat about past-consumption. We talk about hobbies we have in common -- hiking, biking. Likes/Dislikes we have in common. Etc.

In general, I find it takes a conscious effort to change my perception of our relationship (and hers). It takes awareness of the social cues that trigger old-relationship habits. It takes the willpower to excercise stopping the reaction to said trigger. Finally, this willpower grows over time so the more exposure you have with the new-relationship dynamic that you'd like to instill, the easier it gets.

Good Luck.
posted by TimBridge at 9:07 PM on February 20, 2016

Be really mindful that what you say, any criticism you make or any advice you give, is loaded for her. It immediately puts her in the place of the younger one who may have been under your shadow whether she liked it or not and whether you meant it or not.

Get to know her outside your home context. At home it is easy to slip into familiar relations and roles. Instead, try to invite her to your home for a few days or go visit her when she's moved out.

See if you can bring her into your group of friends as an equal. In my family, all siblings' friends are shared friends, which means we see each other more as friends than other groups of siblings might.

This is a relationship built up around small conversations, only when you have that can you venture into deeper ones occasionally. My siblings are in regular contact over whatsapp (individually and as a group), and snapchat might be a way in for you two to get to the point where you automatically think 'I have to tell / show Sister that, she'll find it equally hilarious / infuriating'.

She may not be interested or ready for a closer relationship with you. That may be just how it is, but I urge you to keep the door open. As your parents age, or as she finds herself out of the protections of home, she may need that open door.

I urge you not to leave your brother out of this either, and to try and build both an individual and a shared relationship with him as an equal. My sister is 12 years younger than me, and we are very close. Admittedly, it's often not easy to have one on one intimacy when a teenager is involved, but I would really make the effort to get to know him outside the home environment.
posted by tavegyl at 1:50 AM on February 21, 2016

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