Violent altercation with sister
May 24, 2018 1:26 PM   Subscribe

I had a fight with my sister. I am by no means innocent, I provoked her, and was definitely not good at de-escalating the situation. Nonetheless, she became physically violent, and I need to know if there's better courses of action than I have planned.

'm 21m, my sister is 20. Both caucasian, in Australia, attending the same uni. We fought physically a lot growing up, but when I entered my mid-teens my parents spoke seriously to me and since then it's always been one-sided physically. She's never really stopped resorting to violence, and has also used it a little outside of family if frustrated enough. She's often thrown cutlery etc at me even if nothing more but even that hadn't arisen for a couple of years. I'd hoped that as we were both adults she'd be afraid of consequences but that doesn't appear to have happened.

This morning, I was in the kitchen with my sister. I was joking around a bit, she was grumpy, I made a joke about using Lyft, clarified what homophone of lift I meant. It feels stupid to give so much probably irrelevant detail but I'd rather give excess than insufficient. I said "im referencing Lyft as in Uber", when she understood where the confusion had arisen she claimed I'd said "I mean Uber". I quoted back "I'm referring to Lyft as in Uber". She called me "a fucking liar, you said referencing". I said that was unreasonable, she disagreed and retired to her room.
This is where I get stupider.

I, decided if being stupid in the name of vicious petty revenge was how she was acting, I'd do it to. I 'tidied up', including some breakfast stuffs she'd splilled, but put away her lunch in the fridge as well and put her boots just outside the door.
When she returned, she was livid. She verbally abusive and then, when I wouldn't tell her where I'd put her stuff, just say I'd tidied things up a bit, she was physically abusive. She threw a couple of 1-2kg things at me, hit me with a vacuum cleaner tube, kicked me and punched me in the face. I was somewhat following her around the house while she ranted and searched, because I'm always afraid she'll damage my possessions instead if I leave. When I locked myself in the bathroom at one point, after a half-hearted attempt to break the deadbolt, she immediately went to my room and threatened to do as such, forcing my exit. After the first physical contact I kept asking her why she thought it was acceptable to hit me and threatening to call the police if she continued but she was not dissuaded. After less than 10 minutes all up, she noticed her boots through the glass door and left.
I know I shouldn't have kept provoking her by hanging around and running my mouth. I did use a gendered insult (b), which I apologised for immediately, doesn't make it better but it happened. Otherwise, I may not have been abusing her verbally as such but I was definitely calling the acceptability of her behaviour into question insistently, as opposed to just apologising, grabbing her stuff for her and hiding. I tried to remain calm. At one point I caught hold of her jacket, released it and then apologised for touching her.
I know I was a damn fool for 'hiding' her things as such by putting them in the fridge/outside the door. I know I practiced terrible de-escalation. I know I shouldn't have insulted her at all. I think I probably shouldn't have threatened to call the cops, but I'm new to being anti-police. I know I shouldn't have reacted in the first place, once that mistake was made I should have just told her where her stuff was and retired to my room.
Im terrified of how things will go from here. We both still live with our parents, she has the funds to survive being kicked out for a time but I'd be going straight to the street/ a service if one was available. The only friend I have I could stay with is her boyfriend, so not an option. She threatened to involve our parents and I'm petrified that if she presents the situation to our parents in the right light, combing it with telling them about the marijuana use problems I had last year or the like, things could go very badly for me. I'm recently unemployed, university is at a critical time in semester and I'm panicking a little bit. I have GAD & moderate depression and it's mostly under control (unmedicated) but I'm having a lot of trouble tamping down my worry right now. Of course I'll try and see my psychologist about longer term dealing with this particular issue but that's certainly not a possibility before I go home to a family dinner tonight.
I'd like to just pretend it didn't happen, excuse away the mess the house is left in if it's raised as an issue and continue life until I can afford to move out. If she raises this with our parents or my face bruises up that may not be an option. I know I reacted badly but I need some advice, I guess, on what I should do from here. How to treat this incident. I'm still a little shocked that she was so violent. I know I'm far from innocent though. Even if she says nothing I need to know how to face her when we both get home. Not that I want to reignite the conflict at all.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total)
Your parents failed by letting you physically fight each other as children. Your sister is traumatized and has neural pathways developed that make her "freaking out" or physically fighting you back now, almost simply inevitable.

If you are physically stronger than her, even if you don't physically fight her, there's an instinctual trigger you are setting off. This isn't about "growing up" or maturing out of the behavior as much as it's about the build up of trauma and pain. It's threatening AF to be physically in conflict no matter what age, but it sets a neurological tone if it happens in childhood. This is why childhood abuse of any stripe is so toxic.

I really don't know what you should do. Your parents have you living together in a pressure cooker with zero safety valves. I feel badly for you and your sister.

If there are resources at uni or otherwise to help deal with childhood trauma, that is a place to start.

Bring air, light, and resources into your shared problem with your sibling.
posted by jbenben at 1:48 PM on May 24, 2018 [19 favorites]

A good start would be not intentionally pissing off your sister. Don't tease her when she's in a bad mood, don't hide her things and gloat while she looks for them. If you're serious about avoiding physical fights with her in the future, you can't begin to deescalate them until you've stopped escalating.
posted by milk white peacock at 1:55 PM on May 24, 2018 [54 favorites]

So sorry! Your behavior is understandable. Your sister’s, not so much. Seek support from a psychologist (not just a therapist). They can help you stay safe, cope, and heal. In the near term, avoid being alone with your sister. Your parents may be poor buffers but better than nothing. Be well.
posted by Kalatraz at 1:58 PM on May 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your parents will side with her, and never with you. It also sounds like they will not attempt to try mediate, or cooperate with any sort of plan to help the two of you develop a healthy relationship.

It also sounds like you're afraid of being thrown out on the street. I'm not certain this is going to happen immediately.

Anyway, you need to plan your exit. If it means leaving uni so you can work and pay for rent, so be it.

Speaking from experience, nothing will change between you and your sibling. This sort of incident will happen again, even if you decide to refrain from teasing her.

So, create a plan to move out, and execute. And if that's not an option, just spend as much time as you can on-campus.

I lived at home during university, and that's what I did. I left the house at 7AM and didn't return until 11PM or 12.
posted by JamesBay at 1:59 PM on May 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

Re-reading the last part more carefully.... you really created the entire conflict out of almost nothing.

Take responsibility for your actions and don't worry about her. I thought it was helpful to clue you in on what physical abuse in childhood does to a person. I missed the part where you acted out because you're worried about school. You instigated this when you sensed she was grumpy and vulnerable.

She was vulnerable and you went for the sweet release of a family fight to alleviate your troubles. Definitely seek help going forward to dismantle these very poor dysfunctional family-type coping mechanisms.
posted by jbenben at 2:02 PM on May 24, 2018 [15 favorites]

None of this is normal. It's weird that she reacted to a debate over what words you used, but I'm also wondering if that's only true in your retelling of the story. You then hid her things and followed her around the house while she looked for them? And she got violent? Which also seems like an overreaction, but I'm wondering if it only seems so the way you're framing things. It sounds to me like you bully her. You don't mention your gender, but I'm assuming you're male? If so, she could genuinely feel threatened by you, and acting violent may be the only way, in her mind, that she can get you to back off.

I think you know that you're provoking a reaction -- you said it multiple times in your question. Instead of focusing on her reaction, and on what you're going to do when you both get home, I think you should focus on how to behave differently, and how not to goad her into a reaction.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:05 PM on May 24, 2018 [20 favorites]

I can't offer advice on this, but I would strongly advise you to see what resources your university has on hand for you. This sounds like far too much to be dealing with as an individual, especially at your age. And it doesn't sound like you've been set up that well to have any sort of conflict free relationship if you are dealing with a sister hitting you with a vacuum cleaner even under verbal provocation.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:09 PM on May 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

This is preschool behavior.
Yes, she was wrong to resort to physical violence, but you went out of your way to do something that you knew would piss her off.
You’re both wrong.
You two need to not live together.
posted by blueberry at 2:27 PM on May 24, 2018 [24 favorites]

Im terrified of how things will go from here. We both still live with our parents, she has the funds to survive being kicked out for a time but I'd be going straight to the street/ a service if one was available. The only friend I have I could stay with is her boyfriend, so not an option. She threatened to involve our parents and I'm petrified that if she presents the situation to our parents in the right light, combing it with telling them about the marijuana use problems I had last year or the like, things could go very badly for me.

It sounds like she has all the power and likely knows it. It sounds like you are in a very vulnerable position. This is likely a large factor in why she felt free to assault you: She feels she can get away with it and is likely correct.

You need to start researching solutions that will get you out of this situation in the near future. Whatever mistakes your parents made raising you, you are likely a legal adult now. It is time to stop pointing fingers and start making plans to create a life of your choosing.

I would be working on arranging other housing and finding a means to not live with her anymore.
posted by DoreenMichele at 2:29 PM on May 24, 2018

I understand where you're coming from. I am an older sister who was not allowed to retaliate when my five-years-younger sister hit me... so I spent a lot of time figuring out ways to 'punish' her without physically touching her, by provoking and annoying her. I did this because I felt it wasn't fair that she "got" to hit me and I wanted to even the score. This seemed like the only way to get some form of justice for myself.

Needless to say, this was super unhealthy and immature, on both our parts. I moved away for college when my sister was still in middle school, and after a couple of years we got past all that bullshit and became close - so it is totally possible! But you have to stop the provocations. You are perpetuating an unhealthy dynamic.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:34 PM on May 24, 2018 [18 favorites]

I provoked her, and was definitely not good at de-escalating the situation.

You didn't just not de-escalate. You escalated the situation. It sounds like you both behaved terribly, for whatever reasons. I suggest checking for mental health resources at your university so you can learn how to actually de-escalate and to control your impulse to make everything worse.

I'm not saying her behavior is OK, but you are a contributor. It's possible that she would act the way she does not matter what, but we don't know that.
posted by FencingGal at 2:35 PM on May 24, 2018 [10 favorites]

Her behavior is unacceptable. You may have provoked her, but there is no excuse for assaulting someone. I’m kind of surprised that people appear to be putting your behavior on the same level as hers.

Just because you’re siblings doesn’t mean it’s legal for her to punch you in the face. Avoid setting her off and being alone with her. Talk to your parents and explain that you had to physically hide from her while she was on a violent tirade. If anyone moves out, it should be her.
posted by delight at 2:41 PM on May 24, 2018 [28 favorites]

You're not a saint, but you know that, and nothing you said or did justifies her kicking you and punching you in the face.

However. In the immediate term, this is not helpful. You need to keep things calm until you can put longer term plans into action. So apologise to her. Don't take the opportunity to tell her how what she did was wrong (even though it was). Just text her, pm her on Facebook, whatever. Don't let things fester.

While you are at uni, go to the SRC and find out what services they offer in the way of counselling and housing assistance. You are not the only uni student who needs help with these things, there will be services. There will be other people looking to share house. You can't move out today, but you can start the process.

While you are sorting this stuff out, see the counsellor. Be at home as little as possible, keep your interactions with your sister and your parents to a minimum. Study at the library. Pack lunch and dinner and don't come home till late, then go straight to bed. Exams give you the perfect excuse.

After you move out, you'll have the space to really dig in to counselling, figure out what you can do to be safer, to heal. This will not involve telling your sister how messed up she is - she has her own work to do but it's hers and you don't get to set the pace. But if things don't improve, you may want to go no contact to protect yourself. You can figure all that out later.

Finally, Lifeline is not just for people who are suicidal. Call them. 13 11 14.
posted by Athanassiel at 2:44 PM on May 24, 2018 [18 favorites]

Just explain things got out of hand due to school stress and it won't happen again. Hopefully they wont kick you out.

You re looking for fights in the face of an insult. Your only friend is her boyfriend? Seems like you feel really invisible and unloved, to the point where negative attention is better than nothing. I think you need more support, more therapy, maybe meds, less stress.

I wish you peace and self love.
posted by charlielxxv at 2:55 PM on May 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Text her right now that you're a damn fool and you're sorry you teased and provoked her. And that you take this seriously and are looking into counseling resources. Ask her to meet with you at school so you can apologize in person.
posted by at at 3:32 PM on May 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Punching in the face, kicking etc are a different magnitude from teasing or hiding someone's boots. Your teasing was frustrating, childish and annoying, and clearly for your sister, even enraging. Physical violence is still not OK. I really don't think it's OK just because a woman is hitting a man -- certainly if it was the other way around, and you were hitting her equally hard or lightly because she goaded you, people would be appalled in a different way.
Ages 21 and 20 are not so very far off from teenagers that you can easily regress if your situation doesn't change. What's more scary is that siblings who are decades older than you can also regress to childhood outbursts with each other if they don't change something.
It is true that it can be financially difficult for a college student to move out in many circumstances. But keep your eyes on the future and plan. You will have to start thinking of your home not as your childhood home but as a place you are living for now to save money while you plan for the future. Consciously treat your sister like a housemate, not like the kid who you fought with all through childhood.
posted by velveeta underground at 3:46 PM on May 24, 2018 [31 favorites]

She should not have hit you, even if you were provoking her. You should not provoke her because it could trigger something the both of you will regret. There is no power in tweaking anyone, and there are no rewards for winning or losing spats. It will just drain you, use up your focus and mental resources, and create regret. Please don't go there.

Sometimes two people don't get along. Stay out of her way. Don't touch her stuff. Don't correct her. Don't provoke a fight, even if she is going out of her way to bait you.

I have dealt with people who try to drag you in, hoping you'll compromise, and then feel guilty as you look bad. I just ignore them, and I find it liberating. If you can give yourself personal power by not getting dragged in, you will feel better and stronger.

Good luck.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 3:53 PM on May 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

"'m 21m, my sister is 20."

Pretty sure the OP is male and a year older than his sister, there's a power imbalance there since these fights go back to childhood. The OP used to hit his younger sister. This is why I explained his sister went immediately into fight or flight mode (in this case, fight mode) because that was a form of self-defense she used in childhood against her older sibling. And I ultimately blamed the parents.

No one should hit anyone else, ever. There's a lot of literature and scientific study about childhood trauma and physical abuse.

I'm not willing to tell the OP that as he seems to believe, once the OP's parents told him to stop hitting his younger sister, that automatically squared away all past physical violence with her and her nervous system responses. We know from experience and scientific study that's not how trauma works. It's a vicious cycle until everyone in the system gets help, gets out of the system - or both.
posted by jbenben at 3:53 PM on May 24, 2018 [17 favorites]

Christ I never want to take relationship advice from some of you. This was full on domestic violence caused by her and I can feel in your words you shaking internally with fear. She's old enough to control her actions and nothing in her childhood justifies her brutalising you over something petty and juvenile. If your parents can look at your facial bruises and side with her I trust your instincts.

These people should be actually qualified to help you, big hugs, you're 10 times stronger than me to get help and I really wish you the best.
posted by CyborgHag at 5:57 PM on May 24, 2018 [30 favorites]

She should not have hit you, full stop.

I am sorry you feel like your parents will throw you out. I feel like there's a huge backstory here that I am missing like why did they allow this when you were growing up and how come you think one mistake will get you put on the street.

Regardless, here's what I suggest.

1. Get in touch with your sister and tell her "I really don't like how things got out of hand. I never want to have that kind of argument. When we're both calm I hope we can talk about it and come up with a plan together so neither of us has to go through this kind of day again."

2. a The plan should involve a stop word. You guys need to have a word where you agree that as soon as the other person says that word, you separate to different rooms until everyone is calm. Like eggplant or something.

2 b. Regardless, you need to stop having to win/provoke her etc. Let me say again: Her behaviour is inexcusable. But you are contributing to a cycle too here so stop that part at least.

3. Yeah, it is time to start finding resources outside your family for this and for other goals. Plan your exit.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:45 PM on May 24, 2018 [13 favorites]

posted by delight at 7:50 PM on May 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Seconding everything warriorqueen wrote, but also: try to get counseling together with your sister.
You are both adult, yet you are both behaving like small children. Your parents should have helped and guided you out of this behavior at least a decade ago. Now it is too late for them to do anything, you are on your own, and you both need to take control of your lives.
If I were you, I'd see this shocking event as an opportunity to figure out how to grow up, together. This isn't easy, I know from experience. My brother and I are also very close in age, and also grew up without proper parenting and had to figure stuff out on our own, and we have both struggled. It helps to have each other, though.
This last weekend, I was taking care of two little kids who have lost a parent, and who have some difficulties at school, among them that they have not yet learnt that violence is unacceptable. They were fighting as little kids do, and I realized that part of the problem was that they forgot to empathize with each other. They acted without thinking about how the other person would experience their acts. So we had a talk about that after I'd used my serious voice. I guess that will be part of the talk you guys need to have, too, and you need to be your own adults, or get a counselor to help you.
posted by mumimor at 1:45 AM on May 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

What your sister did is clearly family violence. But you should be aware that in some Australian states, the legal definition of family violence goes beyond assaults and includes verbal abuse and bullying behaviour.

You need to get out of that house ASAP. And you and your sister both need to seek professional help. Find a counsellor. Your student union will be able to help you find one.
posted by robcorr at 5:25 AM on May 25, 2018

Sibling relationships can be very testy without even trying. When you sense yourself wanting to stir the pot or be mischievous toward her, just... Don't. Go do something else. It will be better for both of you until you're able to live in separate places.
posted by wondermouse at 6:32 AM on May 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would encourage you to be proactive and find out who to contact at your university about their student counselling service. Every Australian university will have some sort of free service for their students.

It will be confidential and they will listen and then be able to refer to you specialised help. They will also be able to help you with strategies for minimising stress and anxiety around assessment, refer you to study or academic skills support, help you through the process of applying for extensions for assessment and exams, etc as well as provide short-term loans, food banks or referrals to organisations who can provide emergency cash for moving out if you need it (source: I have worked and studied at a number of unis).

You can also provide this counselling information to your sister if you feel safe to do so as you note she also attends the same university.
posted by latch24 at 6:12 PM on May 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Her behavior is unacceptable. You may have provoked her, but there is no excuse for assaulting someone.

This. You did not deserve to be violently attacked no matter what you did.

I agree with other people that you need to go to your Uni counselling service and also see what other services your Uni offers. Your uni should probably have a student welfare officer. There may be a housing officer who could also help.
posted by daybeforetheday at 6:35 PM on May 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

You remind me of my brother. He used to beat the crap out of me and once my parents finally impressed upon him that he must stop he invented a thousand more ways to disrupt my life and make me feel powerless, stupid and humiliated. I mean I read your post and started to feel sick and powerless and enraged at the description of you taking her stuff and then physically following her taunting her as she searched for it. I have no real advice. I've seen him three times in the last 15 years. He has never met my husband or children. I don't miss him.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 1:41 AM on May 26, 2018 [13 favorites]

Here's some immediate and practical solutions that I would offer to my own children experiencing these difficulties:
-You appear to be exceptionally good at hiding things in obvious and logical use places, and your sister exceptionally poor at locating these things in those places. Hide or "tidy up" your own possessions and you won't have to follow her around to make sure she doesn't damage them. Do not ever touch or move hers again.
-The deadbolt kept you safe in the bathroom. Install one on your bedroom door.
- You are not her parent or psychologist. Never again "call the acceptability of her behaviour into question insistently."
- In fact since she is both working, attending school and has a boyfriend, she should be out of the house enough to avoid her entirely and not interact with her at all, either directly or indirectly, until a time that you can also behave consistently acceptably.
-If after doing all of the above, you still experience physical violence uunprovoked in any way whatsoever, follow through on your threats to call the police and immediately leave the home and stay in a shelter if need be.
Or to put it into parent terms:
"Keep your hands to yourself, mind your own business, worry about what you're doing and focus on that instead of what your sibling is or isnt doing, you'll get picked on enough at school as is don't bring it home with you, treat others how you'd expect to be treated," and in this case I'd also be inclined to add, "if you can't say anything nice to your sister, don't say anything at all."
posted by OnefortheLast at 2:27 AM on May 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's another part of the dynamic that hasn't been foregrounded as yet, obviously because the violence is pretty shocking. That is the initial conflict (on top of the archaic ones) and what feelings you're left with now which are dominated by your fear of parental reprisals and punishment. I'm sure this pattern is also archaic, that on top of sibling rivalry you have real fear of your parents' reactions later.

So your sister violently assaulted you, and you kicked it off verbally. Like Showbiz-Liz, that's a classic elder sibling move and very familiar to me too. You get your power by goading, wordplay, passive aggression and doing the same thing you did as a kid; she gets hers by using means you're forbidden to use, and it sounds like she also got a habit of dobbing you in and getting kicks from that punishment cycle too. It's power, and it's also childlike manipulation to exert even more control. She also benefits from the social idea that unregulated screaming and fighting of a woman on a man is less 'serious' or threatening than other way around.

Right now, recognise something in yourself about this, your conflict style shaped in family life, and do some searching reflection, and forgiveness of this tendency. You're beating yourself up now too, and are desperately afraid of reprisals. This is a terrifying feeling, I know it well. Let yourself accept that part, the terrifying wait for punishment is part of other parts of your life - addiction, fear of failure, low resilience - awaiting abandonment and repudiation is a terrible cycle.

Take some deep breaths when you start panicking about the imagined punishment ahead. Maybe she will say something to them, maybe she can spin it some way to win even more power. Maybe she won't. If your parents start repudiating or punishing, the best thing to do is own that you two siblings are having problems shifting kid patterns, that you recognise it's a two person (4 if we count your parents who've produced this dynamic in their parenting of you two) problem and you are taking responsibility for your part. But, it's now an adult problem between the two of you and you need to sort it out without fearing their reactions too. Can they give you time to sort it out, and give advice if either of you asks for it. Tthere is no way that your sister gets to punch you in the face and all those other things she did. Feel strong in saying that aloud if there's a punishment cycle with your folks. You're definitely in the right about that.
posted by honey-barbara at 1:33 AM on May 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

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