How do I (29F) approach a talk with my distanced sister (39F)?
November 30, 2021 2:24 PM   Subscribe

My sister and I have been distanced for almost a decade, and have barely spoken in the last year due to a big blow out. She has expressed interest in sitting down to talk, and told me to let her know if I would like to. I am feeling confused on how to go about talking, since it seems everything with her goes south.

Last April, I posted about out falling out here.

Here are some relevant excerpts from that thread to describe the context:

"[My sister and I's] history is of course extensive and our family is pretty dysfunctional. Our mom was one of six children who all shared the same mom but different dads. Our mom did not know her dad. She grew up in extreme poverty, severely neglected and abused. She only received a 5th grade education. She met our dad when she was 18, our dad is a carpenter from an also dysfunctional middle class family, and they got pregnant with my sister on accident. They had her, got married, divorced a couple years later after tons of chaos, fights, abuse. Then, they got pregnant with me on accident; my mom claims our dad wanted abortions with us both, but they had me. I lived with my mom for a year but she had terrible mental health, I was sent to my dad's at one year old, and lived with him until adulthood. My mother was in and out of mental hospitals throughout my childhood and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and put on disability. She had alcoholism when I was young, I would visit her on the weekends and she would get so drunk and rageful and scream to me. I would have to call my dad or sister to come and pick me up.

Things at my dad's were not great, though. My dad, I think he might struggle with depression, and anger. He would be pretty neglectful and was frequently aggravated with the kids. When I was four, his girlfriend and her two daughters moved in. My mom hated my stepmom and dad, and would talk very badly about them when I would visit her. I didn't really feel I got any emotional support from my stepmom or dad at home, they would fight a lot, speak to each other meanly, my stepmom yelled a lot at us kids, would use threats, etc... Idk. I took a disliking to my stepmom. As I grew up I began to kind of distance myself from the family, staying to myself and staying quiet. I also felt that my dad took my stepmom's side instead of me, I guess I may have felt emotionally abandoned. My dad was also physically abusive to me a couple times, when I would "stand up for myself" to my stepmom, he didn't seem to have my back, so I just kinda shut down to them and retreated into myself.

My sister ran away when I was 6 and her 16. I don't remember ever living with her. She did several times do nice things for us as kids; she took us to a concert, the movies, ice cream, a carnival. But I remember feeling a real disconnect. She would be nice in front of others but when it was just me and her or something she would kind of be harsh and aggravated and maybe mean. She always says we were little brats. I have come to realize I think she resented me/us kids, because she was mad that we got a better life and better treatment (so she thought), than she did. But really, she doesn't know that, because when she would come over, my dad and stepmom would act differently than when she was gone. I remember now a conversation my sister and I had in my early twenties, where she said she thought that our mom treated me much better than her, and hates her for some reason. I said she is mean to me too, but that if I cut her off I guess she will be all alone. She also said that dad was really mean and abusive to her growing up, and told me about when he tried to throw her down the stairs, she thought I would be shocked I guess and have no idea, but I said yeah, I remember when he X and X physical abuse happened to me or my stepsister, I think my sister imagined everything was peachy when she left, and it definitely wasn't. She then said, well I guess he's calmed down now. I know that she is also resentful that our mom's disability money kicked in after she was 18, and the back-pay to me (my dad) bought my first car, and dad bought me a second car from my aunt. She didn't get her cars bought for her (that's the only monetary help I got). So maybe this is why I always felt she was picking fights with me, didn't like me, but it's not my fault.

Anyways, when I was in my teens, my sister started kind of inviting me to things with her. At the time I was dating this guy who was from a well off family and my boyfriend was going to school to be a pharmacist. I guess she thought things were looking good for me. She had had kind of a wild teenage time, but was settling down. I did 5k runs with her, trips. However, I remember on the solo trip with her that I felt it was really hard to be around her, because she was being really just hard to deal with, constantly aggravated with me, so I just kinda kept quite and tried not to piss her off. I remember I was reading in the car and she criticized me for not looking out the window at the scenery. During this time period she would make many critical remarks about me, what I was wearing, what I'm doing with my life, etc. I broke up with my longtime boyfriend and it was before a trip she was going to take us on. My sister was really mad about that and didn't want me to break up with him, although I just felt I really needed to from my point of view and she did not understand or respect my decision that was very hard to come to.

After I dated that guy, I dated a different guy, and my sister didn't like him, I found out later. My sister told me she thought, what is she even DOING with him, told me she thought he was gross, I guess after I revealed that we did have some problems. She didn't want him at her wedding after I mentioned our problems, I was freaking out afterwards because I had been seeing him for a couple of years and he was excited for her wedding and I wasn't planning to end it with him. I told our mom about the situation and she called my sister up, and then my sister said it was fine to bring him. Ugh I regret the whole situation but in that moment I really was doing the best I could. I now know that she hates that he was in her wedding pictures.

My sister and I were on rocky terms, but I was her maid of honor, and I believe asked if she wanted help planning the wedding but she didn't. She is a super planner, type A, does everything herself. I then found out later that she was upset that I did not plan her wedding or baby showers as a sister should. During the baby shower periods, we were not very close, and I feel so selfish but it did not really occur to me until too near the baby shower that maybe I was supposed to be planning it or something.

Since my teenage years I have felt very uncomfortable around my family. I guess I just don't desire closeness, I really have been focused on building my own life and future, and am thinking about moving a good amount away, because I just think distance may help me, and give me excuses not to put myself through family functions where I feel like crap during and after. I am pretty much a loner. I live with my boyfriend now, have a good job, several pets that I adore, but I really am not a people person I guess. For years, I have dreaded family holidays, I feel bad about that. I just feel awkward at my dad and stepmom's. For years I really disliked my stepmom, felt she treated me unfairly, was fake, had contempt for me. Maybe I'm wrong, idk.

Over this quarantine period, I really started believing that my sister was a narcissist, and I feel bad about that. She set up a last minute family zoom call for thanksgiving, and I attended, although during that time I was going through a lot as I always feel I am and was detoxing off of depression meds and in a terrible mind state. I felt really awkward and did not say too much during the call, I actually had cooking to do so did that. I felt so out of it and like I was having a panic attack on the call. My sister texted me after saying it didn't seem like I wanted to talk to them and asked if everything was okay. I said yeah, I just didn't like zoom calls. I literally spent the rest of the day in bed, cancelled my plans, having an emotional breakdown about why I feel so awkward around my family, etc. Then, the next day she notified us of a zoom call for my niece's first birthday. I didn't end up attending but sent a present, and my sister was upset/mad, but I had had such a bad experience with the other zoom call and did not want to put myself through that again.

I was having a rough time and for the grand finale I was fired from my job of almost 5 years (first time being fired) last December 12th for being late. I had been unable to sleep and hated my job, trying to find another one during a pandemic, and really messed up. I was deeply ashamed and didn't want to tell anyone, but told my SO, mom, and best friend.

Last Christmas Eve, I met my dad and stepmom and my sister's to do a gift exchange. I was 25 mins late... And when my sister asked about my job, I told her it was good. I did not want to lie but was not ready to tell them I got fired or lost my job, so I did. My mom later told my sister that I lost my job on 12/12 and my sister was mad or upset that I didn't tell her or lied to her but offered help. But I wanted to find a new job all on my own to prove this to myself. I was doing so, and my sister sent me an article about improving my LinkedIn. I called her to discuss the situation, and she answered very rudely and with aggravation. She kept asking why I did not tell her I lost my job, and was being really rude and insulting, telling me I am not looking hard enough for a new job and should be looking 8 hours a day, making me feel like crap. I snapped and said well I didn't tell you because you can be judgemental and critical and nothing is ever good enough for you. So, she just went off saying how she has been the one that was there for me when no one was throughout my life, that I was always the most important person to her, that I have wronged her in so many ways, that I "lied in her garage" about having a job and had the audacity to just call her up and say this. She also said that I am a lost cause, and brainwashed by our mother to dislike her, and not smart enough to not listen to the brainwashing. I felt she was putting on a show, and after her rant and rave at me she decided to go and then send me several long and very detailed messages about how I have failed her, disappointed, betrayed. I told her I have the right to my own privacy, regarding not telling about my job loss. Then she deleted me from LinkedIn and Facebook, saying that since I was privacy and that I tell our mom everything, she thinks that's fair to delete me. The emails and the whole situation really messed me up emotionally, I was already having trouble sleeping, I was crying for days, very confused and distressed, all while unemployed and trying to keep my spirits up in my job hunt. (I found a good job by February, btw). It felt very inconsiderate for her to send me all the shaming emails when I was going through a really hard time.

I came to my nephew's birthday party in June at my sister's, it was VERY awkward and I felt out of place, but I felt intense anxiety about not going, because I felt like if I didn't go, people would ask where I was, and my sister would put it down as another transgression. When I was leaving, she thanked me for coming, said she never meant to be judgmental or critical, but if that is how I feel then my feelings are my feelings. Then said it might be just a misunderstanding, and then said maybe we can sit down and talk sometime. I said okay, but I'm not ready to talk now. We were both crying actually.

In the past when I'm around her, I feel like I cannot be myself, because I feel she is always seeing the worst in me, waiting for me to make a mistake, disappoint her, and she gives a lot of unsolicited advice. She has a lot of negative energy for me (maybe I do towards her too) I just ended up wanting to avoid her over the years. I have learned that I don't think I know what loyalty really is or how to demonstrate it, I don't want to think I'm a bad and selfish person but that is what this situation is making me feel like. I just didn't want things to end up this way, I avoided these relationships for so long and they are dying, and I feel like a bad person.

A couple weeks ago, my sister sent me an invite for my niece's birthday party, she is turning two. I couldn't make it as I'll be out of town that weekend, and she gave very short notice. My sister said to let her know if I would like to sit down and talk. It's been almost a year since the big blow up. I ruminate about it a lot, the situation gives me bad dreams, and I can't seem to put it behind me.

I guess before I never really thought about what ideally I would like our relationship to be like, I just felt that she was kinda mean and judgemental, and I just never felt comfortable around her, and accepted it as that. I thought hey, I can just put up with family on holidays. My sister was offended when I told her that it's normal in my boyfriend's family to mostly just see siblings on holidays. But I guess, I don't like being a nobody aunt to my niece and nephew, and it really does break my heart how my sister feels, probably lonely and rejected, I know she's been through a lot. And I guess I always saw her as very capable and successful, so I didn't think she needed me, and I also didn't want her infringing upon my life, because she has such confidence and I have a lot of self doubt, and she makes me feel like I'm wrong for having the thoughts and feelings I do. But I also felt that I can't really express my feelings to her because she doesn't like intimacy. I just don't know how to be around her. I feel like when I am trying to just be myself, I annoy her, don't say the right things, am socially awkward, she tries to pick fights and sees the worst in me, and does not see what my boyfriend and friends have seen and respected in me. idk.

I do feel like I want to have a talk with her, because it does eat me up inside and I can't seem to get over being on bad terms, but I don't know how or what to communicate with her.

What do you think?
posted by anon1129 to Human Relations (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I really don't think it sounds like your sister would be in a place to listen to whatever talk you can have with her.

Do you know what you want, if it's more specific than "get[ting] over being on bad terms"? Because this is a lot, and it's clearly weighing on you heavily, but it's not clear what you're hoping to come out the other side with. If you can figure that out, I'd then prioritise thinking about how to get those things without a heart-to-heart with your sister.

Basically, do you think you might get something out of describing all this detail to a therapist? There's several episodes in this story where it sounds like you're having responses that are significantly more intense than you'd like.
posted by sagc at 3:06 PM on November 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: In response to sagc (I don't know how to do a real reply)

That is what I feel like, I feel that she does not listen to me or accept or respect my perspective, she can be very invalidating. When we had the big blow out over the phone, I really was just wanting to talk, clear up things, but she got super offended, I feel like talking to her or being around her is a minefield. She told me that she is sick of walking on eggshells with me and she is done, in her email, basically cutting me off then, and then backpedaling a few months later. She sees herself as the big hero sister, and anything different that I might experience her as is just wrong and not fair to her....

I guess before all this happened, I really was just fine with not having a close relationship at all since she is very difficult. I do now see what she wants, but she is always disappointed with her family, she wants me to be who she wants me to be, not myself. She wants me to look up to her and be my mentor through life (she has said she felt like my mentor and enjoyed the role), I find that suffocating my independent thought.

i guess I need to figure out what I want...

I have been seeing a therapist since the summer. The first thing she asked is if I ever thought about my sister's persective, she said I can decide she is a B word and move on, or think about her POV and talk with her, and she also said I should decide what I want out of the relationship.

I guess I just don't know what is realistic to want. I will think about it.
posted by anon1129 at 3:18 PM on November 30, 2021

Best answer: It sounds like
- you care about her and know that she's been through a lot
- you feel sad being on bad terms with her
- but you do want to talk with her, but "don't know how or what to communicate with her"
- and you're scared about the relationship would getting even worse if you talk
- and so, you don't know what to do

What are your needs?
- to talk, but not right now
- to talk, but in a way that you feel safe (phone? zoom? short emails?)
- to feel heard? respected? accepted? not judged?
posted by many more sunsets at 3:23 PM on November 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

How would you feel if this talk was mostly your sister talking to you and you validating her? Sometimes you have to show other people that you see them before they can see you.

One example that stuck out - when she told you that your dad tried to push her down the stairs, did you acknowledge that before you told your side of the story? Like, “I didn’t know that, that’s terrible“? Is it possible for you to get curious about what her experience was like and let her talk until she’s done before you tell your experience? It’s common to want to trade stories back and forth, but it sounds like it’s not working in this situation.

I’m not talking out my ass here, a week ago I was visiting my mom and she was weirdly hostile to me and I said something sharp back. And then I took a couple breaths and found her and told her that I didn’t want to have a bad visit, I just didn’t understand why she said x. And then I got a whole story about a couple of different things she’s upset about that don’t involve me or x at all, and I understand her better. It’s hard! But I hate being on bad terms with her and this helps. And I also accept that I’m probably going to be the one with better emotional skills in this relationship (thanks to therapy) and in my case it’s worth it to do that work even if she can’t reciprocate.
posted by momus_window at 4:47 PM on November 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

Has your sister done any therapy herself?

Another option is to tell your sister that you aren't ready to discuss the past with her right now, but you would like to have a conversation about what you both would like to get out of your relationship moving forward. (You may need to redirect the conversation to stay on topic). In general it can be hard to have difficult conversations in the absence of trust, so perhaps you may want to build up a rapport with her before tackling tough matters.
posted by oceano at 4:57 PM on November 30, 2021

This sounds like something where it's really worth building up some of your own emotional skills and figuring out some of your own reactions before you go in. Understanding the reactions you're likely to have can help you notice them before you spiral into old patterns.

It seems like you probably fear and interpret bad judgment from her in ways that are intense and totally hidden from her (if you're acting normal or distant on the call, but then having a panic attack later, she doesn't actually know about the panic attack). And she's maybe trying to have a specific ideal of a trusting sisterly relationship and getting annoyed when it doesn't just happen (takes work, for everyone, but especially if you didn't have good role models).

Some things you might want, all of which would take some strategy and practice with your therapist first:
- to see each other once or twice a year and be able to be civil, maybe including your niece
- to have a real conversation about your parents and childhoods where you try to understand each other and find some common ground (and not, like, compare your reactions or debate what the "right" thing to do about your parents is)
- to be able to talk to her without a panic attack
- to be able to *imagine* talking to her without a panic attack (these things probably involve weakening the fear of her disapproval)
posted by Lady Li at 5:08 PM on November 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: this is very simplistic and for that I apologize, but the two of you chose opposite coping styles for surviving abusive parents and are now both using those same styles on each other, to very counterproductive effect. she gets confrontational and refuses to surrender or back down in the face of conflict (perceived by you as bullying, I think) and you retreat and shut down or become uncommunicative in the face of conflict (perceived by her as lying, childishness, or something along those lines.)

it is hard to throw away a style of relating to people that worked for you in the past. and your respective styles did work for both of you, insofar as you are both still alive and in some sort of relationships with other people. but neither of you are your parents and neither of you deserve to be treated the way you had to treat your parents for survival.

you don't like to be pushed around and criticized and "mentored" against your will - nobody does. but your sister's personality style doesn't feel controlling to someone whose natural style is to be forceful in return, to not move when shoved. that doesn't mean you ought to be more like her. but you do have the freedom to be; it is allowed. you aren't powerless with her and you won't be (can't be) punished for contradicting her or arguing. being silent and absent is not the only way to protect yourself.

you perceive her as posturing and playing hero, but it sounds to me like she's also hurt that you react to her the way you react to your mutual parental figures when she went to great effort as a teen (child) to get out of that environment. doesn't mean she succeeded, and it is probably humiliating and threatening to be shown by your reactions that she didn't entirely succeed. but she did try.

you have enough experiences in common that she should be able to understand if you tell her that you need distance because due to history, continual conflict with blood relatives is bad for you, plain and simple. she might not react well, she might yell, but she should understand. you could take & express that position, if you felt it was best for you.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:24 PM on November 30, 2021 [20 favorites]

It sounds like you do know what you want -- to not really talk to her much or be close to her, and to see her on holidays only. That seems totally reasonable to me and is how many many families operate. I think you're letting your desire to please her confuse the issue for you. It's sad if she doesn't have the close family relationships she would like, but as her much younger sister, it is so SO not your responsibility to give those relationships to her.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:15 PM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here are a few examples of your sister's behavior.
"...I remember on the solo trip with her that I felt it was really hard to be around her, because she was being really just hard to deal with, constantly aggravated with me, so I just kinda kept quite and tried not to piss her off. I remember I was reading in the car and she criticized me for not looking out the window at the scenery. During this time period she would make many critical remarks about me, what I was wearing, what I'm doing with my life, etc. I broke up with my longtime boyfriend and it was before a trip she was going to take us on. My sister was really mad about that and didn't want me to break up with him, although I just felt I really needed to from my point of view and she did not understand or respect my decision that was very hard to come to.

"So, she just went off saying how she has been the one that was there for me when no one was throughout my life, that I was always the most important person to her, that I have wronged her in so many ways, that I "lied in her garage" about having a job and had the audacity to just call her up and say this. She also said that I am a lost cause, and brainwashed by our mother to dislike her, and not smart enough to not listen to the brainwashing. I felt she was putting on a show, and after her rant and rave at me she decided to go and then send me several long and very detailed messages about how I have failed her, disappointed, betrayed."
Here are a few examples of how she (and other family members) make you feel.
"Since my teenage years I have felt very uncomfortable around my family."
"Over this quarantine period, I really started believing that my sister was a narcissist, and I feel bad about that."
"In the past when I'm around her, I feel like I cannot be myself, because I feel she is always seeing the worst in me, waiting for me to make a mistake, disappoint her, and she gives a lot of unsolicited advice. She has a lot of negative energy for me (maybe I do towards her too) I just ended up wanting to avoid her over the years."
".... give me excuses not to put myself through family functions where I feel like crap during and after"
I'm getting very controlling, narcissistic vibes. It does, from what you've described, seem like she can't "see" you, but is frequently angry you are not meeting her ideals and expectations without having the grace to recognize the strengths you already have or the anxiety you clearly feel. You describe her somewhere as "difficult." In my experience, and from what you're saying about her, that's a polite term for an emotional bully. Narcissistic bullies have no empathy, and see no perspective other than their own because they always see themselves as the victims. Neat trick that, which can totally fuck up your head.

As a rule of thumb, I'd say that family members should treat you at least as respectfully as your friends do. When they don't, there has to be a whole *lot* of trust there to recognize the behavior was a one off. But you don't trust your sister, and apart from erratic invitations and related expectations she hasn't, at least as far as you've analyzed it here, spent any time trying to see things from your perspective, or had any pattern of positive behavior toward you.

I would work on "listening" to your feelings and not make any efforts toward a rapproachment without clear boundaries about how she can/cannot speak to you. Although it can be helpful to analyze what kind of sisterly relationship you, personally, might want, it'll only screw with your head if you confuse whatever family desires you might have with the reality of a person who may not be capable of providing *you* with the sister you need.
posted by Violet Blue at 9:10 PM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You are saying a lot of things about how this is on you -- you don't desire closeness, you aren't wanting to be around people -- without taking a big step back. I think it's time to take a GIANT step back. Look at the chaos and abuse you grew up with. Look at how you felt emotionally abandoned by your mother and father as a child. Look at how the parental figures in your life talked to and about each other and to and about you and your sister.

Now, look at how your sister is behaving towards you. It seems to me like she is behaving in some of those same ways, and it's generating in you some of the same responses: a desire for approval and connection, yet an understanding (at some level) that she is unable to give you the love you need.

It sounds like you've spent a lot of time thinking about this, and how you should behave. It seems totally reasonable to me that you don't want to spend any more time around the people who were supposed to love and protect you, and who hurt you so deeply. I think you maybe want your approval. I don't think you will ever get it, because I think you all are likely to be stuck, when you are together, of acting out some of the very same patterns of behavior that your parents and stepmom modeled for you.

I can't tell you the right thing to do right now. You've been hurt a lot, and I think you have a lot of healing to do. I get that you want to be part of your sister's children's lives. I wonder if it might be better if you take some time to heal and grow before you go back into regular contact. It's fantastic that you are in therapy. I think that's a great start.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:48 PM on November 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

She also said that dad was really mean and abusive to her growing up, and told me about when he tried to throw her down the stairs, she thought I would be shocked I guess and have no idea

Maybe. Maybe she thought you would be horrified and concerned for her, though. Even though she is the older one, she may wish for a protective sister to worry about her and question her and be passionately, high-handedly angry on her behalf and boss her around and look after her. She can't have that, just like you can't have the calm, nonjudgmental, peacefully supportive sister you might prefer. but she might want it.

because you do display compassion and tolerant forgiveness for others when talking to her, even for the mother that harmed you both, even though it is presumably painful for her to hear:

I said she is mean to me too, but that if I cut her off I guess she will be all alone.

It is easy for strangers and outsiders to read something like this and see deep trauma behind such determined self-sacrifice directed at those who hurt you most, but it's probably a lot harder for her to be understanding of such detachment when her abuser's faults are (seemingly) shrugged off, but her own are not. she's too close not to take it personally. I think that you read her as expressing superiority over you in a lot of instances where she may be feeling wounded by an equal.

You say a couple of times that she doesn't like intimacy, but then you describe her as sharing some very painful and intimate things that you responded to with flat factual statements. you do not owe her disclosure and heightened emotion! not at all. but if you choose to withhold them in order to protect yourself, it's important to know that's what you're doing. If nothing else, it makes it easier to predict what will set her off.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:44 PM on November 30, 2021 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe you could write something instead of the meet ups and zooms which clearly are uncomfortable experiences for you. Something that acknowledges the painful ways each of you endured your natal family and how that figures in what’s happening now. Even if it’s just for yourself to assemble a sense of why the dynamic is so triggering, yet also making room for compassion.

We had a terrible family experience. Violent, immature parents who acted out their crap. They put us down. They made so many things miserable.
You’re the oldest, so you got it toughest. You feared for your safety when our father threatened you physically. You felt a sense of responsibility for us younger kids. You put in the effort to try to be a kind of parent that you shouldn’t have had to be, or feel you should be - because you were a kid. It’s unfair.
It’s affected our relationship because one side of the sibling-trying-to-compensate-for-poor-parents model is turning up, offering outs from that home as we grew up; the other side is angry, having a propensity to shame and lash out. I don’t like experiencing that and it upsets me deeply.
We had a *different* time from each other in that home and in that family, but we both are suffering as we try to make lives outside of it..
Whenever I have to deal with family things, I am in anxious distress, often tears, for many days. Sometimes I can’t even get to work because I’m stuck emotionally. When I have anything happen to me that’s hard to deal with, I feel I have to cover two bases with my emotions: how the situation actually feels for me, and what my family will make me feel like if they know about it.
I am struggling like you are to make sense of how to be a comfortable adult when I was raised in that environment.
It’s hard to talk about it, even to the person who knows the truth of that home, because we seem to be still fighting it out..
I’m doing the best I can. I think we’d get closer if we were able to find solidarity in this trek towards resolving ourselves given the hand we were dealt.
posted by honey-barbara at 2:10 AM on December 1, 2021 [5 favorites]

This sounds so tough. I feel for you both. Have you thought about suggesting joint counselling or family therapy as a condition for the conversation she wants to have? It seems like you'd really benefit from having a professional mediator.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:27 AM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Considering which comments you marked here as the best answers to your question, it seems you're in a place where your deepest need of the moment is to be validated that it's okay to be angry with your sister, it's okay to keep her at a distance, it's okay to be gentle with yourself as you work through your anger and hurt, it's okay not to force yourself to be close with your sister.

And it is okay. It's absolutely 100% okay.

You need to take as much time as you need to heal and to soothe your hurts. You can keep your sister at a comfortable distance from you, staying in contact only enough to be polite (if that's what you prefer), not attending any birthday parties or family celebrations. Let your sister know that you're working on healing some childhood wounds and you want a little distance for now. If you are feeling kind, reassure her that it's not going to be forever, and you just need a few months or a couple of years to figure yourself out. Then take your distance. Keep away from your triggering family for as long as you need to while you work this out.

That's the really important part: WHILE YOU WORK THIS OUT. Distance is not the ultimate solution to your problems, not on its own. You won't magically resolve the trauma of your history of childhood abuse merely by staying away from your family members. You really do have to seek out help from a therapist and DO THE WORK.

The point of this work is not to find a way to have an easy and close relationship with your sister, though that can be part of your work eventually. The main point is for YOU to be at peace with who you are and where you came from. The main point is for you to understand the story of your life, give voice to your anger and your struggles which are making life in the present so difficult for you, so that you can be happy and feel fulfilled in your everyday life. A kind of magic happens when you heal yourself - when even one person in a dysfunctional family system does the work to heal. Everyone around them feels the effects of it. It shakes up the family system, forces everyone to deal with you on your new level. There is a growth that spreads to everyone from you. They will never be fully healed without doing their own work, of course, but I think you'll find that just by you doing the work, they will start working harder to reach you at the new level that you are on.

Do it for you, and maybe it will help make your whole family better. Even if it doesn't, you will have the ultimate prize which is your own healing and your own peace of mind.
posted by MiraK at 5:11 AM on December 1, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: In your story I feel like I see some sympathy for your sister, despite how she has not done right by you in the past, and that you would like this to work better and think it's possible but don't necessarily know how to make yourself heard. Some joint sessions with a family therapist—a professional who can help you both be heard and set appropriate boundaries—would probably be far more helpful than a talk on your own.
posted by grouse at 6:28 AM on December 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If I, tomorrow, woke up and found out that I was you, and your sister was my sister, and I was feeling absolute dread at the prospect of taking her up on what some people might plausibly read as some kind of olive branch for reconciliation, here's what I'd do with that right now:


Not one goddamn thing.

If I've been given some kind of opportunity for reconciliation and the thought of the actual conversation involved was giving me the fantods, what I would do with that feeling is honour it and tell myself that I am completely within my rights to put that conversation off until I wasn't feeling that way any more. And if it so happens that I never did feel that way any more then I'd simply never have that conversation, and I'd remind myself that it's actually completely OK to be OK with just how genuinely sad that outcome would always be.

The thing about grievous wounds is that they just take a long time to heal. Some never do, though the scars left by most will eventually become so much a part of who we are that they cease to trouble us much.

It doesn't sound to me like that's where you are with respect to your sister. Not yet. And it's sad about the nieces, but until you are in a position where you can envisage being in the same room with your sister and not taking anything particularly mean or hurtful she might say to you to heart, there's really very little you can do about that.

But that's all it is. It's sad. It's a sad situation. But it's not a disaster, and it's not an opera-worthy tragedy. It's just sad. And your nieces have years and years ahead of them and it's overwhelmingly likely that at some point you will end up having a decent relationship with them. And if they ever ask you, hey auntie, how come it's taken until we're this age for you and mum to get around to talking to each other? You can just tell them the truth, which is that it just took a long time for you to be ready to do it. They'll accept that, because it's the truth and what else are they gonna do?

The point of going no- or minimal-contact with difficult people from your past is to give the wounds they've inflicted on you time to heal properly so that you gain the perspective to see both yourself and them as mere human beings crawling about on the face of this planet and doing the best we can with what we have, and come to know in your guts that nobody has more of a right to tell any of us how we're to live our own lives than we do ourselves unless we've actually gone insane enough to constitute a clear and present threat to our own safety and/or that of others.

You wouldn't run the Boston Marathon with a broken leg that hadn't finished healing. There's no need for you to reconcile with your sister unless and until doing so is something you feel good about the idea of actually getting done, rather than dreading. From what you've written, it sounds to me like that time is not yet. And again, that might be sad but that doesn't make it inappropriate or otherwise wrong.

If your sister actually genuinely is offering an olive branch here, that might well be because having ten years more under her belt than you do, she is now that much closer to being ready to do this. But again, that doesn't mean you have to be, or that it is realistic for her to expect you to be. Check in with yourself again when you've reached 39 and see how you feel about it then.
posted by flabdablet at 6:31 AM on December 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am (in behavior/personality) your sister, and I agree 100% with queenofbithynia.

It took me a long time (though I am younger than your sister) to confront the fact that I was very angry at my younger sisters; not just because things were “better” for them (they did get a bit more financial help and support than me, but not by much) but because I felt a tremendous pressure to make up for my parents’ faults. I invited my sisters on trips, helped them with job applications, bought them winter coats and boots when they didn’t have them for school. I learned to drive (even though I hate driving and would never have gotten my license otherwise) so that I could take them places— not places of obligation, but for fun, to show them that they were cared for and there were better things out there. I bought them concert tickets, brought them to the movies, etc. I was in some sense trying to model a normal, peaceful, middle class lifestyle for them, like the one my friends had. Because I saw that my friends’ parents seemed to want to make their children happy. Something I desperately wanted for myself, but the only power I felt I had was not to procure that for myself (that was hopeless) but to try to give it to my sisters. I solved most of my own problems on my own— my parents were not attentive and I had no older siblings.

I was bossy, sometimes angry, gave unsolicited life advice. I worked so hard to get my own life together and get out and frankly hated seeing how the influence of my parents resulted in trauma and low expectations. It was not fair to my sisters, who are obviously independent people. But to me it was like waking up in a boxcar with a slew of little ones crawling around and realizing I was the only person they had, as inadequate as my 14-year-old parenting was. (At the same time my parents had gotten a divorce and I was trying to “help” my mom out of her new physically abusive marriage.) It is a feeling of overwhelming responsibility for someone more fragile than you when you yourself are in no way being looked out for. It feels like there is nothing more important than protecting a smaller child— nothing, not your job, life, future career, etc. Even when you’re furious at that sibling, or being taken advantage of by your parents, or whatever the hell is going on, there is an intense feeling that you are the only one standing between disaster and normalcy. (I even briefly converted to Christianity and started taking my sisters to church in some kind of literal Hail Mary to know my family would be safe in the long run no matter how profoundly I failed.)

My point is that all this responsibility— which is typically felt by the oldest sibling— creates a great amount of self-abandonment and later, rage. Because you are never focusing on your own age-appropriate development. You become a hollowed out “gifted child” (in the Alice Miller sense), adept at meeting everyone’s needs (because you can abandon yours so quickly and thoroughly when you feel the stress rising). It is an instinct. You forget who you are and when someone else still has an internal core of personhood, because they did not have to self-abandon to the same degree, it feels like a foreign concept to you. You become angry and jealous.

I don’t think your sister really believes you had it so much better materially; but she feels you didn’t have the burden of having a younger sister who you were terrified for and preoccupied with protecting. This is in no way “fair”; naturally you had your own struggles. But for years I felt like I was in the worst possible position in my family— without the respect, love or reverence a parent would receive, but also burdened with the adult responsibility of seeing the situation more clearly than a younger sibling and trying desperately to protect them while still meeting your my needs, all on my own. It frankly sucks shit. You can’t rely on anyone. No one cries or says “oh my god” when they find out what happened to you. You just shove it down so you can be there for the more vulnerable ones. And one day, everyone is an adult and you realize you still feel like a fake parent and no one sees you as vulnerable (because you have become so profoundly self-sufficient and self-abandoning) and you are furious, because it’s like you flushed decades of your life down the drain and no one saw it happen. The first time a therapist called me “resilient” and “saw” what I had done for my sisters, I started sobbing uncontrollably. It’s like a secret you can’t tell anyone because no one cares— no one has ears to hear. It can be extremely painful.

None of this is to say you have to put up with your sister’s current behavior. It is on her to realize what she’s doing to other people and work it out in some form of therapy. She clearly feels grief, as evidenced by her crying, but that is not enough to heal the relationship on its own. I would recommend The Drama of the Gifted Child to her if I knew her personally. It’s a short book about this self-abandoning process, which makes you highly self-critical and critical of others as you see danger at every turn, aware that you have no real support and anything could leave you utterly alone or back in hell. (See: not wanting your “bad” boyfriend in her photos, the feelings of a person who is terrified of what an unreliable, “bad” person represents— someone who’s messes you will soon be abandoning yourself to clean up.) Pete Walker on CPTSD also speaks to the self-criticism/criticism of others aspect.

I am still working through my feelings on all this. I am writing it not to convince you to put up with her (if people put up with my nonsense, I never would have felt the pressure to change or heal, it would have been as bad for me as it would be for them). But so you can understand where her rage is coming from, which hopefully makes it less personal. She has a deep narcissistic wound; she is not seen, she is not allowed to have vulnerabilities. Abusive parents make anyone afraid to have vulnerabilities, but when you have someone more fragile and dependent on you, you don’t allow yourself to have them, because they would get in the way of protecting that person.

I’m guessing she feels she did a lot for you— it sounds like she absolutely tried to— none of it adequate, because she was a child herself. Now she wishes you could see how much she tried, and how much she was hurting. She sees you as a peer, or is trying to, now. You are probably not the right person to give her this validation, as you have your own pain and coping issues from the abuse. She needs therapy and the ability to self-validate, to see herself.

I will fully admit I understand your struggles and position much less; that’s something I’m currently working on as I very gingerly build a relationship with my younger sisters (similar to you, they have children now, and I want to be in my nieces and nephews lives if possible). It is extremely difficult. After playing out many of these issues with my boyfriend, who is thankfully honest, it’s more obvious to me how much I am trying to unconsciously get my own long-abandoned needs met. And that gets in the way. It’s hard for me to see their struggles and truly validate them, while I feel that my own are hidden and others are hostile to them. Much like your situation, there is little trust in the relationship. I have been hard on myself and hard on everyone. I see it as a very long-term project that will require “dark periods” of withdrawal and recovery, and a great deal of personal recovery.

Funny enough I was always the one deeply angry and disappointed in my mother, while my other sisters had more sympathy for her. In many ways I’m furious with my mother because I had to play her role, while she got the “credit.” As in, you put up with bad behavior from your mother so she won’t be alone; for some reason you can’t put up with bad behavior from your sister. Similarly, my sisters are much harder on my dad (and possibly me), even though he essentially raised them in a much less chaotic and more respectful way than my mother could. I just watched an episode of The Simpsons where Homer’s mother was on the lam and rather than pursue her, he turns back to help his father because he was not the parent who abandoned him. I realized that’s what I did with my own father, who I am closer to than my mother. In my family, that has resulted in me seeing my dad and myself as “one team,” the ones who sacrificed and got no credit, in contrast to my mom, who did not sacrifice and everyone is loyal to. I haven’t worked that part out yet, but it sounds like that dynamic is going on with you and your family as well. (I’m in no way saying my perspective is correct, but telling the truth about how it feels so you can know, since your sister is unlikely to tell you any time soon.)

Anyway, I don’t know if this is helpful at all— none of this is about you or your fault, it is just the burden your sister is most likely carrying. Me explaining it to you here is probably still my lingering desire to be seen/heard by someone who will understand. I am certain you are carrying a very heavy burden yourself, and need similar healing, support, and possibly therapy. I wish I could speak directly to your pain but I am honestly ignorant; it sounds like your sister is too. I’m guessing she wants many contradictory things from her relationship with you. Please take care of yourself. It’s OK to need space from all this. That may upset her, but I am guessing deep down she still feels responsible for you, and will find a way to understand.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:39 AM on December 1, 2021 [23 favorites]

I also want to say, I have several younger sisters and the best relationship I have with any of them is with the one who did withdraw, moved away (as I did), took some space for herself, and made many painful changes to her life (divorce, coming out, speaking up about a long-buried traumatic situation no one knew about) to heal from the abuse. The whole time she pulled away I was utterly furious— why was she pulling away from me, when I was the one who most tried to look after her?!— but I held those feelings to myself and worked through them, very slowly, knowing that despite my rage I had always wanted her to have a life of wholeness. That’s what the self-abandoning was all about; I did not want her to feel as shattered as I did. I wanted to save someone from it the way I could not be saved.

In the end, her taking that space was absolutely the best thing for her and subsequently for our relationship. So, please feel that taking care of yourself is in fact what is best for everyone, because it is true. Even if others never come around, there is no chance of healing the relationship if you yourself do not heal. She may someday be very glad.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:47 AM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to add information, I have been in and out of contact with my mother, blocking her for sometimes years at a time. She is currently blocked and I haven’t talked to her in a few months. I think maybe I had a relationship with my mom because she did validate and emotionally support and encourage me when she wasn’t being totally insane. She listened to me and cared for me. While I felt I couldn’t tell my sister much because she was always aggravated with me. Also, my mother will ups call me every day, sometimes multiple times a day (I would get extremely annoyed, try to set a boundary, she would trample all over it.) my sister hardly ever contacts me, actually it’s just been seeing her at holidays for many years. When my mom would call I would confide in her (if she wasn’t acting crazy) because I didn’t really have anyone else in my life to talk to.
posted by anon1129 at 12:04 PM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I also wanted to add, that I have had a decent relationship with one of my stepsisters (the scapegoat). We are a month apart in age, and had some if the same friends in high school, hung out together. She is always really warm and kind and considerate to me and we’ve had lots of silly fun together. My best friend (really only friend for the last 15 years) is super validating, open minded, supportive, intuitive, and I really appreciate that and fee I can tell her anything. Also, growing up, I almost felt like the oldest since my sister was gone, I was very good, good great grades, so when my sister seems to look down in me I guess I get defensive because I was always regarded as a good one with a good head on her shoulders, but my sister didn’t see that. But I know that is natural considering her family position. I was definitely the lost child in the family.

My dad told me once that I raised myself and that I didn’t really have a family. My mom would call me orphan Annie as a child.

I do see my sisters struggle, or I am trying, and it must have been incredibly hard being the oldest and trying to be a good role model and substitute parent when she wasn’t adequately supported at all and highly abused. I do admire how capable she is and the nice life and home and support network she has made for herself. By all means she is a very impressive person. I know she did her best.
posted by anon1129 at 12:37 PM on December 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Something that really comes through from your question is how much both of you really do care for each other.

As someone has said above, you have both been through a lot of trauma, and have developed very different coping strategies, and communication styles.

But you've carried on showing up (and so much of real love is just showing up), whether it's to zoom calls you've struggled with or to celebrate with her kids. She's showed up for you, too, over the years it sounds like, even if it wasn't always in the ways you really needed. I felt that deeply - I'm an older sister too, and I know that sometimes what I meant as acts of care for my younger siblings felt like controlling, patronising or judging to them. It pains me now to think of, but I also forgive my younger self, who was doing her best at the time.

I'm not saying all this to downplay the pain you've both gone through and are in. It's more that I think it's amazing that, having been through what you've both been through, you still have a real connection and care for each other.

If you decide that you want to try and move forward in this relationship with her, I think therapy will be your number one tool in the box, and hopefully in hers too, but that's her business. Heal yourself - firm up your boundaries, understand the deep wounds that your childhood trauma has created in yourself and her, find a place of peace in yourself, and then move forward at your pace.

Wishing you love and strength in your journey.
posted by greenish at 12:56 PM on December 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, I have showed up to family events (even though internally I absolutely wanted to be anywhere else, I need to figure out those feelings), but my sister said in her emails that, yeah I may show up, but I am always very withdrawn, don't seem to want to connect with anyone, and am always super late (I wouldn't say I am super late, maybe 15-30 minutes, when plenty of people are still showing up. I don't like to be on time because not many people are and then I am singled out and need to socialize with those that are there, I feel better getting there a little bit later than arrival time). My friend says that it seems like my sister is upset with me because of how I feel which isn't fair. So now I feel even more pressure that when I attend events, I have to act a certain way, be right on time (though the last family event, sister was over an hour late due to her children's nap time) though I have a lot of social anxiety and really don't enjoy unstructured gatherings anyway (I know I'm difficult and unsociable). Also, my sister is very close with my stepmom, who I do not fully trust, and my sister speaks very badly about my stepsisters, and I have sometimes agreed with her, but then she gets upset that we're not one big happy family and tries to pull everyone together in group chats and such when I know one of my stepsisters (the scapegoat) knows my sister does not like her at all and my sister has been rude to her and humiliated her in our group chat. But my sister was crying on the phone about how I didn't contribute to the group chat. I felt bad, I didn't really realize what she was trying to create and wasn't all that interested honestly.

I feel like all these years I didn't realize what kind of relationship my sister was wanting from me. I remember when she was trying to get me to leave an old boyfriend, who was my whole world, I think I had the attitude that I wanted her to stay out of my business, and she asked me, don't you want someone to look out for you? And I didn't really feel that I did actually, because I wanted to make my own decisions and learn my own way, I wouldn't actually learn if I took her advice blindly and didn't make my own mistakes. I have also told her I did not want unsolicited advice, and she said that none of her friend interpreted her sending articles to them as unsolicited advice, and proceeded to send me an email saying, I know you don't want unsolicited advice but I'm giving it anyway, in regards to my job hunt while unemployed.

I agree that we both do care about each other a lot (even though I don't think she thinks I care about her, but I do, I just don't know how to show her, I am a live and let live kind of person). It doesn't matter if anyone reads all this, just trying to get my thoughts out.
posted by anon1129 at 1:11 PM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Everything you’ve written makes perfect sense. (I don’t think you are “difficult” for struggling to socialize in large unstructured gatherings of people you have deeply mixed feelings about.) It does seem like she’s trying, but unfortunately has a lot of unresolved needs getting in the way, including a deep discomfort with feelings (ask me how I know!).

It sounds like even without the family trauma, there would be a personality clash here, but it would be manageable as you would both have stronger boundaries and a sense that you both have a safe retreat from the world in your parents. As it is in reality, seeing you learn your own lessons probably terrifies her, since she knows you don’t have safe & reliable parents to turn to if something goes wrong. By extension, she feels the familiar guilt and anxiety from childhood that she will be the one who needs to step in, however untrue that is in material reality. The threat of ongoing self-abandonment rears its head. “Managing” you is a way to manage her own anxiety, and an inappropriate one.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:23 PM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I do feel like her kind of controlling g behavior isn’t actually an act of love towards me, but something she finds soothing, which I understand

Right. I would posit there is the ghost of care—if she did not care about you, she would never have felt the obligation to step in. (There is also the deep fear of loss; that something will happen to you, and she will experience grief.) On the other hand, the demands of being “responsible” for everyone without boundaries are so overwhelming that a person will burn out and go on autopilot, managing everyone like they are a logistics expert, and no longer out of care. And parents will often do the same thing with their child— hover or smother because they feel too responsible for the universe. And it does not feel like love at all.

For every person there needs to be an adequate balance between acceptance and feeling emotions, and solving problems. Your sister is leaning too far toward the problem solving side. She seems to feel others are leaning too far toward the emotional side (from her vantage, everyone is). (This conflict is usually gendered— “women want someone to listen, while men just want to fix things.” Obviously there are plenty of empathetic men and Ms. Fix-It’s out there too.)

My gut instinct is the same as hers. I watched my mom refuse to tell my sisters they needed to wear seatbelts in the car in the 1990s, because she didn’t want to upset them or “make a big thing” out of it. On the other hand, when she was in a good mood, she would listen to their emotional problems and be validating, much like your mom. It was very infuriating to me that protecting them from a car crash was less important to her than having a “sob session” (my own angry words). So then, to stave off catastrophe, I would be the “bad guy” and boss everyone into putting on their seatbelt. And I would look down on and sneer at feelings, which seemed to be an excuse not to take responsibility.

She also moved in with the aforementioned abusive husband, then invited me and all my sisters to stay with her, because she missed them so much. I would barely go and felt furious she was asking them to. To my adolescent mind it was outrageous that she cared more about the emotional need of being together than the practical need to leave the abuse and protect her children from it. And as an adult, I still feel that way. I imagine that’s how she feels about your stepsister/dad. And because a strong precedent has been set, she feels responsible for it all, too. Unlearning that “responsibility” is very complicated when you have no guardrail in your heart. You watch people suffer and feel like it’s your fault, and so on. “If only I had…” Every injustice is your personal failure.

She (like me) learned from a young age that there was no one at the wheel. And for a person who is already disposed to be less emotional and more commanding, that is a dangerous combo. What she probably needed was parents who could correct the natural tendency by encouraging her to identify her emotions and focus on being responsible for herself, rather than leaving her holding the bag and feeling a powerful chemical cocktail of fear and abandonment.

I’m glad you are so understanding, but it is also OK to be very mad and admit to yourself how painful this has all been. Taking the time to feel all of this without worrying you will hurt someone in the process is invaluable. (This paragraph should be 10x as long as the others I have written, because that’s how important it is.)

I have a feeling mods will put the kibosh on the back-and-forth shortly but if you would like to chat more feel free to MeMail me. I would also (like others) suggest therapy as a therapist could help you with this much more constructively, and it seems you have a desire to explore this further with someone.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:15 PM on December 1, 2021 [5 favorites]

She has a deep narcissistic wound

Important to understand that a narcissistic wound is not a thing that can only be suffered by narcissists.

Our ego is in charge of forming our worldview, and like any entity that's in charge of stuff it has a natural tendency to inflate its own importance. Pretty much all of us are susceptible to some degree to adopting a worldview that's tacitly built around an assumption that our ego is our whole or real or essential self, as opposed to being one of a large number of things our brains do. Anybody with a strong belief in an eternal soul, for example, is doing exactly this.

Misidentifying our thoughts as ourselves in this way can be a hard thing to shake and it leaves us all thoroughly vulnerable both to to narcissistic injury and a disproportionate fear of death until we do.
posted by flabdablet at 4:40 PM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: stoneandstar, thank you so much for your sharing your story. It really hits home. I wish I had your words, or something like them, a few years ago so I could give them to my sister (older by 5.5 years, who passed in 2019 from cancer) and say "do you relate to this? Can you deal with your shit?" Maybe that's too hurtful, but it's also the truth: I felt like I couldn't interact with her in an honest way until she dealt with her trauma.

I'm going to quote from one of the last emails that I sent to her only a few weeks before she passed in the hopes that it will help you, OP, figure out what (if anything) you want to say to your sister, and that maybe it will give you, stoneandstar, some perspective.

"...What it comes down to is this: we’ve always had a difficult and strained relationship. Why is that? Because of the violence, trauma and dysfunction we experienced as kids. I finally realize that. The trauma and violence are interwoven into our lives, our relationship (or lack thereof) and our bodies. And we had very different experiences of it, and we processed it differently, and we continue to. We grew up in two different families. We never had a chance as sisters. How could we have, with the parents that we had, the different relationships we had to them, and the violence and trauma that we lived though?* I know that you tried, and you tried hard. I’m sorry I couldn’t receive it, recognize it and appreciate it in the way that you needed and wanted because of my own trauma and coping mechanisms. There was no way that you could overcome that trauma, yours and mine, and reach me.

I am not who and what you want me to be. I never have been, and I was never going to be either. It’s the most honest thing I can say about myself to you right now. I doubt this is what you want or need to hear. I can only be who I am, and it’s taken me a long time to get comfortable with being who I am because I certainly did not feel that way growing up in our family. I had to learn that on my own despite our fucked up family. Our family was not a safe place, in so many ways. My sense is, and I may be wrong, is that being myself is not good enough for you. (It is how I feel around you though.) If that is indeed true, then I’m ok with that. I can’t control what others think of me.

As I said, our experiences of our childhood are very different. They’re both valid, no matter what differs or conflicts in our perspectives of the violence, trauma and mom and dad.

I’m not sure where to go from here, how we can bridge these gaps and differences without serious, serious work which we may not even be able to handle because of the amount of trauma. We can’t handle it by ourselves, just you and me.

We’ve had some good-ish conversations over text/in person but I know, and suspect you do too, that they can only go so far. I’m willing to listen until I say that I can’t. There’s no guarantee that I will see things exactly from your point of view, or agree with you, or respond in the way you need me to, or even be able to hear your experiences of your trauma in our family because I have my own."

*I quoted from ask mefi as well: "Toxic or unworkable sibling dynamics are the result of abusive parenting, not the children involved" - which I think definitely applied to me and my sister (and probably to you OP, and stoneandstar). That was from a comment in this post from internet fraud... (she is sooo wise).

I'm tearing up from reading this again.

Anyway, like I keep saying, what I really needed was for my sister to deal with her own trauma and be honest with herself, and actually see ME as who I was, not how *she* wanted to see me to fit her own needs or whatever. Her wanting a relationship with me so badly felt oppressive to me, due to other messy family dynamics that I won't get into here. Like you, stoneandstar, my sister was hypercompetent, took care of everyone around her, except herself. I'm sure she felt a similar rage that you felt, and there was no one around to truly see and understand what she was going through, despite having an amazing husband, daughter and lots of friends. She built a great life for herself, despite all the trauma and had a physical disability as well (from birth).

It's such a shitty situation for oldest sisters in abusive families. They have to deal with the abuse, and feel like they have to protect their siblings/compensate for their parents' shitty parenting to their younger siblings. In doing so, they become angry, resentful, feel unappreciated, and the younger siblings resent their older sibling "helping" because it's filled with anger, and it's not *actually* what they need. What they need is healthy attachment with their parents, which is impossible with abusive/traumatized parents, but an older sibling can never make up for that. stoneandstar, I'm so sorry you had to be in that position with your sisters and that no one sees your wants, needs, pain. I see you. I understand more now, even though my sister is gone. I wish I could give you a hug (if you want one).

OP, you don't have to talk to your sister, or have a relationship with her. That does not make you a bad person. You are not a bad person in the least. You have been through a lot of trauma, and somehow, you have still managed to be a loving, caring person who has a built a good life for herself. That is incredible and you should feel so proud of yourself. Focus on what YOU need. Maybe at some point you can write an email to her like I did (you are a great writer!), expressing the things that you said in your post - that you feel like you can't be yourself around her, that you feel that she's disappointed in you etc. This "she never meant to be judgmental or critical, but if that is how I feel then my feelings are my feelings." is huge because there's a glimmer that she recognizes the impact she had on you, and that she can potentially validate your feelings. But can that hold? Or will she revert to her mean and judgmental ways?

My sister wrote back saying that my email helped her more than I know. She said she didn't want me to be someone other than myself, which I didn't really believe. One other thing that I realized with my sister is that I didn't trust her. And what kind of relationship is possible when you don't trust someone? I didn't trust her to see me for who I was, or to understand where I was coming from (because again, of her trauma, which I needed her to work through). I didn't really think about what she needed either (because I didn't have stoneandstar's wise words back then). Like you, I couldn't understand why she wanted a relationship with me so badly (other than reasons of "faaaamily" - which I hated) because she had a great life. What did she need me for? Even though I had been through therapy several years before she had cancer to deal with my own childhood trauma (started when I was almost 28), it took a while to be able to see that her thoughts and actions were coming from a place of trauma.

From my experience, I don't know how you can have a healthy relationship with your sister until she has done some serious work on her trauma. Even if she's been in therapy with a really good trauma therapist since the blow-up, I would think that's maybe too soon to start talking. I just feel like there are things you are going do/say that are going to trigger her because of her trauma. Like I said in my email to my sister, family was not a safe place (which I can see is the same for you). She was part of that, through no fault of her own, but because family wasn't a safe place, then there wasn't a way that I could have an honest relationship with her unless she did a lot of work. It SUCKS to grow up in such traumatic situations. Because it's painful, and because of all the unjust burdens placed on us, and the additional work we have to do to heal from it.

Hugs to you too, OP (if you want them).
posted by foxjacket at 7:00 AM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

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