"Hi, I don't hate you and I'm not pretending that you died."
September 3, 2018 2:17 PM   Subscribe

My sister and I don't really have a relationship right now. (This is a case of family ties dying from neglect.) I'm feeling guilty because I didn't contact her at all after the birth of her most recent child several weeks ago. How can I communicate in a way that says "I'm sorry about ignoring something so meaningful, that must have hurt" when our relationship feels really weird and I'm not sure how much either of us cares about improving it?

My sister and I (now both in our thirties) had a pretty normal brother-sister relationship growing up. She was young enough to always be in different schools from me and was much more outgoing, but we got along without major issues. We naturally drifted apart somewhat when I moved away for work, and then even more when she got married about a decade ago, and then more as she had her first two kids. Over time, our communication got less and less frequent until we only ever saw one another when I made it back to my hometown every few months for a visit or major holiday. We'd text each other "happy birthday" or "merry Christmas", but that was all. I was a bit sad about it, but I thought it was just a fact of life that siblings with adult lives who live in different cities will lose their closeness and no one was at fault.

I had no negative feelings at all toward my sister until she moved away from our hometown about five years ago. I resented the fact that our parents, who were already subsidizing her and my BIL's lifestyle with levels of money and logistical support that went beyond normal grandparenting, were now making twelve hour round trips every other weekend to babysit my niece and nephew. I felt punished for waiting on having a biological child of my own until I could afford to take care of it without help. My parents have now moved to my sister's new city, a place where they know absolutely no one else and conveniently bought the biggest house they have ever lived in with BIL as their real-estate agent, to be more involved in the life of my sister's third child.

In addition, I also met my wife just after the birth of my sister's first child, and she gradually took a strong disliking towards both my sister and BIL. My sister is just not her type of person at all, and she is very angry with my BIL for choosing to move so far away from his child from a previous relationship that it will be impossible to have a meaningful role in the boy's life. (This is very important to her as the mother of a child with an uninvolved bio-dad.) My wife is also even more resentful / judgmental of my parent's choices to move and support my sister than I am because she views them as conscious, willful decisions to be unfair to me, the person she views as "the good kid." My anger or bitterness level about the whole situation is about a five, but hers is around nine.

As you can imagine, all this has made family visits and holidays just super duper fun. My wife, stepson, and I will go see my parents, but we purposely plan NOT to see my sister or her family. We did not see each other at Christmas. (My parents had a very brief Christmas with my family as a pit stop on their trip to spend the holiday with my sister's family.) Neither of us even text each other "happy birthday" anymore. I have explicitly asked my parents more than once over the past few years if I have done something to offend my sister that I could apologize for in order to mend things, but I have always been told that she isn't upset with me about anything. I honestly have no idea how much, if anything, my sister knows about how I feel about the whole situation.

So, what do I want to happen? In a perfect world, my wife and I would let go of all the negativity towards my family, my sister and I would apologize to one another for not being in touch more often, planning family get togethers wouldn't feel like hostage negotiations, and I would have fun with my niece and nephew when I go to where my sister lives. In the real world, I'd like to send my sister a quick message (text? e-mail? phone call?) apologizing for not congratulating her on the baby and letting her know that I'm open to more communication if she wants it. That's the only goal that seems at all realistic.

I'd like some help writing that message and generally navigating this strange not quite estrangement situation. Thanks!
posted by Chuck Barris to Human Relations (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Just remember that a few weeks after having a child, you and your family dynamics are likely not top on her list of things to process. Maybe send her a card and a gift? I think all you need to say on the topic is something like “I’m sad that we haven’t been in better touch and I’m sorry about it and I’d like that to improve if and when you’re up for it.” And maybe follow up by text or phone call later on.

I think you can put aside all of your concerns about what your parents do (this is really none of your business) and keep your wife’s opinions out of it too. You aren’t likely to all end up as close chums but maybe you can just have a cordial here and now relationship with your sister directly.
posted by vunder at 2:38 PM on September 3, 2018 [28 favorites]

Pick up the phone. Make a start. Persist.

I didn't even read your wall of text, because it doesn't matter. If you want something, YOU have to make it happen. It may not happen even if you make an effort, but then you will know that the relationship failed in spite of your efforts, not because of your lack of effort.

Good luck!
posted by GeeEmm at 2:39 PM on September 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

For the immediate question, maybe just buy a nice card and sign with a little message like "Congrats on your new little one". Mail the card. It's ok that the card is late.

The family dynamic that you describe sounds pretty challenging and upsetting. Maybe talk to a therapist. Someone objective to help you sort out your feelings. In my own experience it's been helpful to decide exactly what actions I'm willing to perform in the maintenance of family relationships.
posted by valannc at 2:42 PM on September 3, 2018 [9 favorites]

My wife is also even more resentful / judgmental of my parent's choices to move and support my sister than I am because she views them as conscious, willful decisions to be unfair to me

I don't understand what their excessive support of your sister has to do with you or with fairness, but she's right that they made their own choices. So neither of you should blame your sister for your parents' choices, even if they were bad choices (which is not that clear.)

Similarly, you made your own choice to distance yourself from your sister and that isn't your wife's responsibility. You don't have to convince your wife to like your sister in order to maintain your own relationship with her. If your wife hates her so much she can't even stand one holiday visit per year, just go visit your sister without her. It's no insult to or betrayal of your wife to like and stay in touch with a person she doesn't like. She may have good reason to hate your sister's husband, but so what? Neither of you have to like him in order for you to wish your sister a happy birthday.

It sounds like you are struggling over what ought to be a very simple act of outreach ("congratulations on the birth of your child, here is a token gift, sorry I've been out of touch recently but I'd love to see you next time we're in the same city") because you bear greater responsibility for the distance but don't want to acknowledge it or risk saying a polite formula when it might be (mis)construed as a real apology. and really, you don't have to acknowledge or apologize if you're both willing to pretend it didn't happen. checking through your parents to see if she's mad at you, when you know perfectly well you're the one who's been avoiding her because you and your wife are mad at her/hate her husband - why do that? If she knows, she's being gracious; if she doesn't know, let it lie. Maybe she doesn't even feel it as an estrangement and will respond to an overture without seeing a lot of meaning in it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:43 PM on September 3, 2018 [26 favorites]

I don't blame your wife for being judgmental about BIL moving away from other kid -- that sucks and I get it and I'd probably hold it against him as well.

The other stuff -- I would let it go.

Remember: Your parents are free to spend their money and time as they like. My parents have helped my younger sister with large sums of money. I don't hold it against them. I don't want or need parents' money (even though I live a very simple life and don't make a lot of money, my husband and I are able to support ourselves) and they get to spend their money as they choose.

You create an awkward, distant relationship when you and your wife are stewing on how others live their lives. I've been there -- judgmental and self-righteous -- it creates hard feelings and resentments that serve no one. Family is very important and unless they are abusive and intentionally rude, I would try to mend the relationship. There should be some loyalty to family. Even to your BIL who does not see the error of his ways, or maybe there is something more to it that you don't understand.

Try to muster some goodwill and remember that humans are pretty much trying their best to be happy and do the right thing. We are all stumbling along trying to love and be loved. I would extend a sincere apology asap.
posted by loveandhappiness at 2:46 PM on September 3, 2018 [14 favorites]

Step 1 is to realize that - if your post here isn't leaving out something that your sister did wrong to you - the current level of non-contact is your doing and not some mutual "just sort of happened" thing. You have anger at her that is not warranted by anything mentioned in your post, and you have therefore pointedly avoided seeing her even when you were geographically close.

Maybe she is nice enough that she would, despite that, welcome an overture without an apology (an apology not just for missing the baby's birth but for acting for some years like she did something bad to you). But many people would not be that nice.

So, my suggestion is to get to a place where you are ready to give a more thorough apology.
posted by sheldman at 2:50 PM on September 3, 2018 [26 favorites]

it's not actually appropriate for your wife to be pressuring you to ostracize your sister because she disapproves of your BIL's choices vis a vis his ex wife. I love a high horse myself, but that's wildly out of line. It's not ok to intentionally isolate loved ones from their family.

Send your sister a little gift and a card that says "congratulations on the baby, thinking of you." You can make a big apology later if you want; making the small and appropriate gesture now opens the way for a real reconciliation down the road, whereas ignoring her now is a great way to make it much harder to achieve later.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:30 PM on September 3, 2018 [56 favorites]

Best answer: Just start doing those little things that you want to be doing. Don't wait for permission. Send the nice card, send the birthday text. Act as if. And then keep doing your work to be ready for a bigger conversation or a "Hey, I'm coming to town, it's been a while since we connected and I'd like to rectify that. Are you free for lunch?" or similar bigger-than-usual-but-still-not-extreme relationship step. I think it's okay to let the bigger conversation be separate from acknowledging the new baby. For the baby I'd just send a simple message with a brief acknowledgment/apology for being late in this particular case, and include the fact that you look forward to meeting the baby.
posted by ramenopres at 3:47 PM on September 3, 2018 [25 favorites]

Send a card and a gift, as others are suggesting. Say you'd like to see the new baby next time you're in town.

Therapy might be helpful to work through your feelings about your family. If you want to have a relationship with them, you'll have to find a way to deal with your resentment and probably set some boundaries (internal and perhaps external).

One possible way to look at the situation with your parents is that they are sticking close to the vulnerable grandchildren with the less-than-completely-responsible parents, in case/because they are needed. They know you can handle yourself and are making the best decision they can in a situation they consider non-ideal. Just one interpretation based on the info provided.
posted by bunderful at 3:51 PM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

How is it unfair to you for your parents to be loving, involved grandparents to your nieces and nephews? What are they taking away from you by doing that? Are they supposed to avoid seeing their grandchildren because you don't have a child yet and so it isn't fair for them to devote time and attention to your sister's kids?
posted by Ausamor at 3:51 PM on September 3, 2018 [22 favorites]

(It was lightly implied that the grandparents aren't showing nearly the same level of interest in his stepchild.)
posted by puddledork at 4:17 PM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

A nice card and gift sounds perfect. A baby is a lovely, positive thing to reconnect on, so I think this is perfect for you. After that, just call, or text, or email and see where it goes. If she responds positively, that's wonderful.

I understand why your wife might be angry, but it seems she is stoking anger in a situation that is not entirely hers to stoke. I know lots of people don't like their in-laws, but also understand that it's not really their relationship to interfere with unless it's abusive. (Sounds like it isn't?) We don't know what happened in other people's lives, and that includes your BIL, and it never feels good to hold on to resentment about things, esp. those not directly related to us. And it may not be fair, and it doesn't feel good, but sometimes parents treat kids differently because they have different needs.

I also think it's totally understandable to resent your parents, but as you've written it, it doesn't sound so crazy or that they are being forced to do anything they don't actually want to do. People are INSANE about grandkids. When my neighbor's grandkids leave after spending a week with her while their parents are away, she cries and says "think of all the minutes I don't get to see them!" (She sees them almost every day, but is lonely and they fill her life with joy.) This sounds like something to hash out with your parents, not your sister. Are they happy?

Good luck! I think it's wonderful you're being so thoughtful about this.
posted by heavenknows at 4:23 PM on September 3, 2018 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Send a small present and a card absolutely.

Secondly, let go of your resentment, it's not good for you, honestly. And your wife especially is being very inappropriate. She doesn't get to make these calls about your family and family members, at least certainly not to that degree. And like, I get the judgment about an absentee dad, but she knows nothing about your BIL's relationship with his kid, his ex, or his divorce. It is not her place to judge. She doesn't have to get along with your whole family, and you don't have to pick sides. It's not an either/or scenario.

For your own resentment, consider who will look after your parents when they are super old. It won't be you, living miles and miles away, it will be them. Also: did you ask your parents for support? They may have given it just as freely to you.

More broadly, parents will have different styles of relationships with their kids, giving and taking different things. Tallying up a balance sheet will always lead to disappointment and resentment, score-keeping in general is very bad for relationships. Love your parents for their relationship with you; build a relationship with your sister (if you want) that doesn't have anything to do with your parents. Accept that your Brother in Law doesn't have to be your friend, but you do have to be friendly, and you should be able to be friendly.

There's a fair bit of passive language in your post, this isn't just something that's happening to you, you are making choices and playing a role in this, too. Not contacting your sister after the birth of her child is a choice, think carefully before making it.

Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 4:42 PM on September 3, 2018 [32 favorites]

You don't have to address the issues that are making you delay. Send a gift - gift card, diapers, books or music are always good. And a card. The issues might benefit from their own Ask.Me or therapist. I deleted the art about how money played out in my family; it brings out the absolute wort n people is all I can say. I probably need to post my own ask.me.
posted by theora55 at 5:51 PM on September 3, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the advice. I'm going to send a card and a gift with a message similar to what has been suggested here.

At some point well down the road, I'd like to just directly ask my sister why our relationship is the way it is and what she wants it to be. I don't think I did a great job of communicating in my post that I've felt somewhat sad by how little we interact with each other since well before she moved (in fact, before I even met my wife). She's never mentioned to anyone that she's bothered at all by the status quo, so I have no idea how that talk would even go.
posted by Chuck Barris at 6:32 PM on September 3, 2018

Why are you letting your wife dictate the level of involvement with your extended family? She’s choosing to hold resentment over other people’s lives and actions that have absolutely nothing to do with her. If she wants more to do with your parents, why isn’t she making the effort, why is the onus on them?

So your sister isn’t her kind of person, big deal. It costs nothing to be civil. You turn up to family functions, you make small talk. What you don’t do is decide to have nothing to do with them altogether. And you, why are you resenting your parents for wanting to spend time with their other grandchildren?

It appears that this rift is started and stoked entirely on one side and all either of you have to do is have a change of attitude and everything could be better but you’re so caught up in inventing new issues that aren’t even there. Life is short, you only get one family and you don’t know how long you’ll have them for. I think you both need to grow up a bit and extend the hand of friendship.
posted by Jubey at 6:34 PM on September 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

Look, you openly state that you resent your parents' choice to move closer to your sister and BIL in order to be more involved grandparents to your sister and BIL's children. You said your wife openly dislikes your sister and BIL and is even more resentful and judgemental of your parents than you are. You avoid seeing them even during the holidays. I am not sure why you wouldn't have a distant relationship in this situation. Like, even if your sister hasn't picked up on the animosity--and she almost certainly has--you've been actively dissuading the relationship through your feelings and actions.

I agree with other posters that if you want to repair things you have to start small and work your way up. But you should also maybe sit and ask yourself why you're confused about the state of your relationship given everything you've said, and contemplate whether you're willing to change about yourself the things that have influenced the deterioration of this relationship. You're going to have to learn to let go of the harsh feelings--and you'll have to learn to navigate the space between wanting a relationship with your sister and your wife's animosity.
posted by Anonymous at 7:36 PM on September 3, 2018

I'd like to just directly ask my sister why our relationship is the way it is and what she wants it to be

I don't think you should do this, unless you're prepared to be un-offended when she says "Because your wife hates me and seems to actively hate our whole family, you never spend any time with me, stopped calling me, and went out of your way to avoid me on holidays."

I'm saying that you, directly, put out enough "back off" vibes (with able assistance from your spouse!), that she may well just be responding to them. She may be thinking "Chuck clearly doesn't want me in his life, I'll just chill, he knows where I am if he needs/wants me." Hence why your parents say your sister feels there's nothing wrong. From her perspective, there may not be.

Also, your sister has two kids, that will be her number one priority. Once you have kids, other family stuff tends to take a real back seat. My appetite for drama with my slightly neurotic family (I include myself in that description!) has really, big time, reduced since I've had kids. This has sort of resulted in an estrangement, and you know what? I'm just too tired to deal with it. I have other things I want to concentrate on, pour my emotional resource into. I'm content to just let it be, and see what happens, I don't want to be dwelling on it any more. It's possible your sister feels the same way - knows something is wrong, does not have the will to deal with it atm.

So what should you do? Be the change you want to be. Send her a text with a photo on it next time your doing something interesting. Reach out to catch up for lunch when you're next in town. You don't need to have a big cathartic showdown/drama. Show her you want to stay in touch, give her reasons to stay in touch with you, see what happens then. You might be surprised,

Best of luck
posted by smoke at 8:32 PM on September 3, 2018 [20 favorites]

I think a lot of what what I will say has been covered. I have a similar family dynamic except without all the angst. I have one sister too and we are both in our 30s. She is younger with two kids, me one kid. This is how I look at it, in case that’s helpful.

My parents moved across the country to be near my neice and nephew. Cool! I didn’t have a kid then. Why shouldn’t they retire and spend time with their grandkids? I didn’t have any yet and maybe I never would have (I do now, but I didn’t know that then). I’m happy that they’re happy.

I only see my sister twice a year and we text occasionally. We both have really stressful busy careers and families and we live 5 time zones apart. I don’t turn it into “oh my god we have to have a big talk.” Sometimes I feel guilty so then I send her a text. But overall the relationship works fine for us. However I don’t actively avoid her at holiday time...why do that? Just stop doing it. If you want to communicate more, why not just do it and see what happens? I don’t think you need a “big talk” about it unless she doesn’t respond to your overtures.

It sounds like your wife is actually the one being a bit of a dick and unduly influencing you to feel animosity toward your family for...not much really. My brother in law is a not-great person too (worse than yours) but I don’t hold it against my sister and her family. I can be civil to him when I see him.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 8:39 PM on September 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

1. Stop keeping score with your sister and your parents. It is never going to get you what you want.
2. Have you shared with your parents your frustration/annoyance/desire to see them more?
3. Your wife should not be ostracizing you from your family, not matter how much they suck. That is your job if you choose, not hers. If she does not want to see them, she doesn't have to. You can travel there on your own.
4. Go to Amazon right now, buy four gifts: one for baby, one for each kid, and one for your sister. Send a box with a note that says, "We miss you and can't wait to meet new baby."
5. Start checking in more often - set a reminder for once a month to send text/call/e-mail and do it.
6. Find a counselor to talk to about this. It sounds like there is some stuff in there worth diving into.
posted by Toddles at 10:09 PM on September 3, 2018 [8 favorites]

I'd like to just directly ask my sister why our relationship is the way it is and what she wants it to be

Seconding smoke's good advice to not do this.

From your question here, it seems fairly obvious why your relationship is the way it is, and it's very much your choices that have made it that way, as well as hers.

Asking her the above questions casts yourself kind of as the victim of the situation? Don't do that. Take responsibility for your part in it, process that yourself and do the processing work without asking her to do it for you (be kind to yourself though, we all have relationships that didn't turn out quite like we planned later in life), and then work on it - quietly, and diligently, until things start looking more the way you'd like them to.
posted by greenish at 3:21 AM on September 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'd like to just directly ask my sister why our relationship is the way it is

I mean, I think I have some clues:

I had no negative feelings at all toward my sister until she moved away from our hometown about five years ago. [implying you do now?]

I also met my wife just after the birth of my sister's first child, and she gradually took a strong disliking towards both my sister and BIL.

My wife, stepson, and I will go see my parents, but we purposely plan NOT to see my sister or her family.

Distance begets distance. Most people are somewhat clued into dislike, and they're definitely clued into the fact that someone is not making any bids of affection toward them.

You seem to be looking for a magic bullet, something to "apologize for." The truth is that family relationships aren't just close by default until something messes them up - they're relationships that require work to create and keep intimacy. Work like birthday wishes, being there for them, keeping up with their lives, helping with mutual family things, whatever.

You also seem to be bothered that she may or may not be bothered by the status quo. Maybe it's worth digging into that a little bit more.

You're not powerless here. You're trying to make other people dictate this relationship or tell you what it is. That isn't how relationships work.

I also find your wife's behavior absolutely unacceptable, by the way. It's not okay to isolate loved ones from the people they care about. She may really dislike your sister and BIL. I can relate, I love more than one person whose family is outright abusive toward them. I resent those family members tremendously, but my focus is on supporting the person I care about and expressing that resentment to them doesn't actually help anything (there's a sort of "ring theory" to my approach - I focus on supporting inwards and dumping my frustration outwards). Your wife is not helping you or your step-nephew by expressing open dislike and isolating you from your sister and BIL (in fact, quite the opposite - particularly if it means that sister/BIL are less likely to visit your hometown and therefore his kid).
posted by mosst at 9:13 AM on September 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

As you can imagine, all this has made family visits and holidays just super duper fun. My wife, stepson, and I will go see my parents, but we purposely plan NOT to see my sister or her family... I have explicitly asked my parents more than once over the past few years if I have done something to offend my sister that I could apologize for in order to mend things

You visit the town where your sister lives and purposefully plan not to see her? And you're wondering what you did that might have offended her?

My sister-in-law brought her family to visit the small city we live in and didn't tell us or try to make plans to see us. I'm not sure how that visit, or your visits to your sister's town, are supposed to communicate anything other than "we don't like you." Well, fine. That was eight years ago and I've had nothing to do with them since.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:39 AM on September 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your problem is with your PARENTS. You are envious and resentful of the time, money, and effort they have spent on and with your sister's family.

Please talk to someone (other than strangers on the internet) about this. This is poison, and if you ever want any kind of relationship with your sibling and family that isn't ruined by resentment, both you and your wife have to unpack these issues.

I know from my own family that unspoken resentments and purposeful avoidance will break ties like nothing else.
posted by 41swans at 4:20 AM on September 5, 2018

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