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July 26, 2007 5:07 PM   Subscribe

How can I deal with my resentment towards my two older sisters (preferably without confronting them)? (long)

I recently moved to a new city, and am for the first time living without being driving distance to family. The change is wonderful, but less get-togethers is uncovering resentment that I've had built up for a long time. I find myself angry, pissed off, and unwilling to put up with "more of the same" from my sisters.

A long time ago, my mom died. I was 10. My sisters were older (High School & college). While I know it affected us in different ways and there's no great age to go through such loss, I've been feeling angry about the lack of their involvement in those formative years. I remember when my older sisters got their period for the first time - my mom took them out to lunch, bought them flowers, and made a mother/daughter day of it. The only thing that was said to me was "the pads are in the cabinet under the sink." I wore old hand-me-down bra's with holes in them for years, used toilet paper for pads for 2 years when they were away at school. I sort of wish they had been more thoughtful in checking up on me, and am realizing that this had a profound effect on my bodily insecurities. When I asked them for help, they were busy. It was always "later" (usually, never) - and had been frequently told that I was a brat, too much of a tag along - the annoying little sister. We had no aunts that we were not estranged from, and they were pretty much my main female influence after our mom died.

As an adult, and entirely on my own, I'm learning to feel wonderful about the person I am, and learning to be ok with the woman that I am. But I still, frequently, feel frustrated and increasingly angry with the way my sisters treat me and general lack of support. I feel a lot of judgement, things told in confidence to them were not kept confidential, broken promises in willing to help with something or be there, and increasing lectures about what they think is good for me.

Most recently, it's come to my attention that they've been discussing me behind my back. The thing that set me off recently was their discussion of my weight and how to approach me about it (am about 25 lbs overweight... this is not a recent gain). Now I know my body far better than them, my diet, my exercise routine and health, and while I'd like to be skinny, I've been exhausted by body issues for most of my life and just want to be healthy - which I am - god forbid at 25 lbs overweight. Learning to speak up more, I told them I did not appreciate discussions about about my body behind my back - and to please address their concerns to me directly.

The response by one of my sisters was that I am stubborn, am selfish moving so far away, and that I have "always been like this." What I think she meant is that she believes I never want their help. My take, is that I do want their help, but it cannot only be on their terms/time; and that they confuse imposition for help.

My frustration and anger is bringing back a lot of resentment about their lack of involvement during those formative years. This is not to say that they haven't had difficulty from losing our mom, too. They are now both parents themselves, and I'm certain they experience a lot of sadness in learning how to mother without having our mom present.

I have never discussed my resentment with them, nor my anger with their lack of confidentiality when I opened up about a couple of things. I've generally shoved it under the carpet, only to have a can of worms open suddenly since I moved away. And I am pissed off at them. And I think this is at least partly due to my own fault, for failing to address things as they come.

But I am angry. I don't trust them. When I try to explain why, it's told that I'm being mean to them. And I'm not sure what words to use to be more articulate so that I don't come across as "mean."

I do have a brother, and have a good, trustworthy relationship with him. He is flaky, but most of the time he keeps to his word and I can depend on him (and he can depend on me).

Besides therapy (expensive), how can I deal with resentment towards my sisters? How have you dealt with family resentment? Talking to them doesn't seem to help. There are always interruptions, with their kids and things. I get that they have their own lives with kids/husband/etc, but don't we all in different facets of life? Sometimes it seems they forget they have a sister (this probably sounds really selfish).

Should I give up on having a friendship with them? I'm sort of envious of people who are actually friends with their siblings. Are you friends with your siblings, or are they more people with whom you are related to and share some similar experiences? I would definitely not count my sisters as friends. I would count my brother as a friend.

Is letting out my anger/sadness the only cure? How long will that take?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Being someone who generally prefers to try to help myself, I am reluctant to suggest this, but have you considered talking to a therapist? I did this about 5 years ago when I had some unresolved childhood issues, and it did wonders for my understanding of various family members' motivations. Somehow just getting it all out was helpful in itself -- you might be surprised at how cathartic it can be.

Barring that, you might consider writing each sister a letter. Mailing it isn't necessary (and would probably bring more heartache than it's worth). Just an opportunity to work through stuff on paper, let them know everything you're angry about, resentful of, hurt by. You can destroy the letter later, or hide it someplace -- though I think the symbolic act of destroying it might be a positive experience for you.

I don't have siblings, so I can't speak from personal experience, but I think that based on what you've described, your sisters don't seem like especially empathetic or self-aware people. I doubt that you can really change that. You've seemingly made the effort to talk to them about these kinds of things over the years, and they haven't responded in any way that makes you feel better at all. I tend to think your choices now are to acknowledge that you aren't going to get any sense of justice or closure in this case and just try to form a relationship with your sisters as they are now, or to just not make them a significant part of your life anymore. You can't change people who are hurtful, but you can choose to not let them do any more damage.
posted by justonegirl at 5:25 PM on July 26, 2007

First of all, I don't think it's fair to judge people based on what they did as teenagers. We all did stupid, inconsiderate and mean things back as teenagers. Your sisters are probably different people now.

Second, a lot of what you feel is simple sibling rivalry. Even if you can't put your finger on why you are jealous, you probably are over something. Maybe it's the relationship they have with each other, being of closer ages, or maybe it's the time they had with your mom, or so on and so on.

Try to think logically of all the reasons why it's not THEIR fault. Then try to seperate the logic from emotion.

Finally, discuss your feelings with them and hear their side. If you never discuss it, you never hear the other side and you feel more justified in your anger.
posted by b_thinky at 5:41 PM on July 26, 2007

You sound angry that your sisters didn't act as a mom entity. While you're absolutely allowed to have that feeling, the problem is that your sisters aren't SUPPOSED to be your mom: your mom is supposed to be your mom, and she died, and your sisters lost her, too. I bet you there's some weirdness there for them, where people around your family tried to get them to mom it up when they were going through really complex times in their own lives, and didn't have that kind of support to spare.

Trying to "talk it out with them" without working through your issues first is going to lead to family disastrousness, and is unlikely to help you.

You need a therapist. There are sliding-scale therapy places in every decent-sized city in the country. A good therapist, particularly for family issues like this, is a MIRACLE. Advice you get on AskMe (no offense, guys) is not going to be very helpful.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 5:55 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

There is a super book by a family therapist named Murray Bowen you can get from your library. It is Family Therapy and Clinical Practice. In it there is a chapter about individuation of self from one's family of origin you might find relevant and liberating.
posted by madstop1 at 6:06 PM on July 26, 2007

thehmsbeagle writes "You sound angry that your sisters didn't act as a mom entity. While you're absolutely allowed to have that feeling, the problem is that your sisters aren't SUPPOSED to be your mom: your mom is supposed to be your mom, and she died, and your sisters lost her, too. I bet you there's some weirdness there for them, where people around your family tried to get them to mom it up when they were going through really complex times in their own lives, and didn't have that kind of support to spare. "

This is exactly what I was going to say. They're your sisters, not your mother. Sure, they could have made an effort to help out, but they were not obligated to do so.
posted by chiababe at 6:16 PM on July 26, 2007

Most recently, it's come to my attention that they've been discussing me behind my back.

I don't mean this to be offensive, poster, but it always baffles me when people get upset about other people "talking behind their back". So, am I actually supposed to make you a part of every single conversation that you are mentioned in? This is what we as social monkeys do. We talk about what we think of other people. We talk about what we think other people should do. It's what you are doing right now.

While it sounds like you have some legitimate reasons to dislike and not trust your sisters, and you are certainly within your rights to ask them to express any concerns they may have about you, I don't think this is a reason to be upset with them. Try to let this one go so that you can follow the other very good advice in this thread about your other sister issues.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:45 PM on July 26, 2007

Thirding what thehmsbeagle said. When your mom died, I imagine your sisters were still in need of mothering, just as you were. This doesn't mean that you aren't entitled to your feelings - just as they are. It sounds like they could have handled things better, to be sure, but neither you nor they can go back and change what was done or wasn't done. I think you're right to tell them that if they're concerned about your health, they should talk to you directly. But I don't think you should expect them to be much more than defensive when/if you express your resentment at the way they treated you when you were (all) younger. I'm not saying that's right, but that's probably the way it will be.

Therapy doesn't have to be expensive. This is a situation that warrants it.

I'd also say you should write your sisters letters - and not send them. Writing to them may help you clarify some of your feelings, and sort out some of these issues.

Good luck.
posted by rtha at 7:10 PM on July 26, 2007

I partly disagree with the view that your sisters were free from obligation. Any notion of 'supposed to' or 'obligated' is somewhat arbitrary. If anything, the idea that since the mother has died no one else is supposed to fill that role would be foreign to many cultures that emphasize the importance of the extended family. That's a pretty big chunk of the world. So I do sympathize with your expectation that your sisters step in. I think that's not only natural but reasonable as well. Be that as it may, in the U.S. we focus on the individual and families tend to be more insular, so it's not surprising that your sisters didn't leap into that role. In my opinion the breaches of trust are the more important issue and that may be worth talking about. It's disrespectful and if they won't be caretakers then they at least should have treated you as a peer. Their discussion of your weight behind your back and how to approach you is pretty normal. It's definitely hurtful to find out about but it's also pretty routine and not malicious.

I don't think you need to have an angry confrontation to get past this but it could help to talk to them. The context of 'this is why I don't trust you...' isn't the most conducive to repairing the relationship. Something more along the lines of "I want our relationship to be better and this [issue] is difficult for me...' will hopefully get the two (or three) of you moving in the same direction. Writing down your emotions (letters, journal entries) can help, and so can meditation, but don't rule out therapy either. There may be other ways to handle it but if you don't start noticing a decrease in the intensity of your anger, a good therapist will be worth the money. Don't expect your sisters to ever come around to your point of view. They may but it isn't particularly likely. We tend to emphasize rights more than duties, and your own expectations may have been unreasonable as well.
posted by BigSky at 7:34 PM on July 26, 2007

I have a similar relationship with my siblings. I solved the problem by putting a lot of distance (both miles and socially) between us.

I don't regret it, and I don't feel guilty. YMMV.
posted by cior at 8:30 PM on July 26, 2007

Simply, you have issues. They do too. Your issues are making you think they did something wrong, but they didn't. They were kids, too. Kids don't take care of anybody very well, usually.

This is not about their behavior, it's really about you, and it needs to be about improvements in the way you feel that come from yourself, and you might not be able to have that sink in in a beneficial way without some therapy. Losing a parent at 10 is the very best reason to seek counseling I can think of.

That said, don't expect miracles, sisters are sisters and it's a pretty unchanging relationship structure in my experience.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:02 PM on July 26, 2007

comment from someone who would prefer to remain anonymous:

I lost my mom at 13. She didn't die, but was permanently hospitalized. From a practical standpoint, it was like she was dead, because I had to move across the country to live with other relatives and have only rarely seen her since. It's only now, years down the road, that I've come to anything resembling grips with the pain of it. Therapy's a good suggestion but after bad experiences I've never gone back (no therapy is so much better than bad therapy). However, good therapy has been a godsend for a lot of people I know and now that I'm older I may seek it out. But as of now, like you, I basically had to do it on my own.

In the perfect story some older wiser woman would have come along who wanted to mother me, who loved me as my mother did, and that happens for some lucky girls in our shoes. It didn't happen for me and it didn't happen for you. It makes you feel unloveable, doesn't it? If you'd been a better kid, someone would have wanted to be your mom.

Well, that's bullshit. It's taken growing up myself to realize just how preoccupied and lost many adults are, and how hard it is to know how to help in this sort of situation. In mine, some people were distant and even hostile, but others tried to help me. I was preoccupied about the former and I couldn't appreciate the latter because they weren't what I longed for: her. Your sisters have had those same longings, surely. And perhaps some guilt, too, tied into all that mess. Have you ever noticed the perverse fact that when someone feels guilt or shame about something they've done to you, it often makes them treat you worse? That could be what's happening here. Some part of them knew what you really wanted but that they couldn't give.

But that is speculation. The important thing is now, and the women you have all become, and the relationship you want with them. First, if you haven't done so already: grieve. Grieve all you've lost and all you wished for. Don't distract yourself from it. I never grieved properly and the way I learned this was after being unable to stop weeping after visiting my mother. Don't bury the pain or it will cripple you.

Then, accept: your sisters did what they could. They did it badly, but they did it, and that means something. The cruelty now? Don't tolerate it. Think about it: your sisters can't be your friends because you aren't forthright enough with them. When they hurt you, you have to tell them that, right then, and why. If they reject you for telling them the truth that's their choice. You may have to go through some period of estrangement after you assert yourself. Or, you may lose them altogether. Better that than fakeness.

Finally: you have a gift, if you want it. A loss like ours provides a recognition of how short and fragile life truly is, and what a struggle it is while it lasts. You've learned to like yourself, but nothing will solidify that feeling like being as kind and loving and generous as you can to the people in your life. That doesn't mean smarmy sainthood. It means forgiving your sisters for what they couldn't do and appreciating them for what they did. It means honestly telling them when they've hurt you without rancor or hate, giving them time to come to grips with that, and accepting that they may not change. It means realizing that at this very moment -- no matter your confusion or anger or flaws -- you are strong and can take care of yourself with enough strength left over to forgive. Easier said than done, I know, but the only real comfort I can give you is that you mothered yourself. You got past one of the most painful losses possible for a young girl and raised yourself to be a woman you like. Let that give you the confidence and faith in yourself to move forward, with or without your sisters cheering you on.
posted by jessamyn at 9:06 PM on July 26, 2007 [7 favorites]

Your question reminded me of something I read earlier today - a description of a therapist helping someone explore what was positive and affirming in his relationship with his caregiver as well as his anger. "Being able to protest with his therapist what had been so unfair and hurtful was not to reject his parents, hold a grudge, feel sorry for himself or make his parents bad people. Instead it was to change the self-narrative of his life-story and know that these actually did happen, really were painful and that he didn't cause or deserve them." (Interpersonal Process in Therapy by Edward Teyber p 167)

Now that you are away from your family, you can afford to get angry about the neglect that you suffered as a child. You didn't cause or deserve it - you deserved the loving care of a responsible parent. The trick is to the balance the anger at the unfairness of what happened with the acceptance that your sisters did the best they could (even though it fell short of what you needed)

My suggestion is that if you aren't willing to see a therapist, you should start a journal and just write about your childhood, how you felt then, how you feel now, good and bad. Keep writing, every day if you can, for at least a month. Write whatever is on your mind. Repeat yourself as often as you feel like. Don't worry about spelling or language - this is just for you - there is something about putting your thoughts on paper that is much more powerful and clarifying than just chasing them around in your head. I would wait to deal with your sisters until you've worked through the issues a little more. As Teyber said, you are literally rewriting your life story to acknowledge both the good times and also the suffering.

I also agree with the previous poster that it took strength to become the person you are now. As you work come to terms with your family history, you will find more confidence and faith in yourself. Good Luck.
posted by metahawk at 9:46 PM on July 26, 2007

First let me say that it's unfortunate and sad that you grew up with that female guidance you wanted.

However, as an older sister I want to give you a different perspective on what your sisters may have been thinking when your mom died (as for their actions now that they're older, I can't say).

I have a younger sister and I couldn't imagine having to be in the position of her mother. Last summer my mother was very ill and I wondered what would happen if she died. I was about to start my last year of college and my sister was entering her last year of high school. I began to wonder if people would expect me to drop out of college to come home and take care of my sister. The thought frightened me.

I am older, but I am not in a position to be someone's mother, or be in that role. Your sisters were at a very transitional point in their lives where I'm sure they were confused enough about their own direction and not really in a position to be a guide to someone else. Couple that with the pain they were feeling and I can see how they wouldn't step into that role for you.

Also being in that role for you may have been too painful, as it would remind them that your mother was gone.

I do hope you seek therapy and don't write your sisters off, for your sake and also for your children's (?) sake. I looked to my aunts during my hard times last summer and I would hope that you would allow your daughters to have aunts to look up to in the event that anything ever happens to you.
posted by PinkButterfly at 11:27 PM on July 26, 2007

without that guidance*
posted by PinkButterfly at 11:28 PM on July 26, 2007

I agree with justonegirl. It sounds like you want a relationship with them that they don't want with you, or are uncapable of creating/maintaining with you. You're wanting something from them that they can't/won't give.

(My mother and her sister have a similar dynamic to you vs. your sisters, incidentally.)

You'll probably be better off "giving up on them" with regards to getting your emotional needs met. I'd suggest having some detachment, not speaking to them much (or at all), etc.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:31 PM on July 27, 2007

and had been frequently told that I was a brat, too much of a tag along - the annoying little sister.

I just wanted to respond to this.

I almost lost my mom when I was six and was sent away to live with various relatives for a year. Not one family--I was passed around frequently. Relatives who were (and still are) not very good with giving comfort or listening or even hugging. No one wanted to talk to me about what was happening with my mother so I was left in the dark much of the time about what was going on. In the absence of information, I resorted to thinking about the worst possible scenarios. It was terrible.

I was accused of being bratty and difficult, a reputation that hurt my self-esteem, affected my self image of who I was with family, and made me uncomfortable around my relatives until I was an adult. I'm still not that close to them at all. When my mother recovered physically, my relationship with her was also affected.

In my early twenties, I had a revelation. Of course I was a brat during that time. I was an angry and scared little kid! I was acting out. No one would let me talk about what was happening. These were ADULTS. Adults who did a very poor job of being there for a little kid, not as a substitute mother figure even, but just as caring, empathetic adults. They really screwed up. I felt a wave of righteous anger and felt the relief of insight. I let myself feel the anger. It was refreshing.

Maybe a year after that, I had another revelation. Yes, these adults had screwed up. And wasn't it possible that their response to me had everything to do with their own fear of what might happen to my mother? If she died? She was the youngest child in her family and the favorite. These relatives did not have a great fondness for my father who was so very different than they were. I was more like my father than my mother. (My father couldn't take care of me because he traveled for work and had to keep earning money.) It didn't make me less angry at their insensitivity towards a little kid, but I understood their response to my mother being sick a little more. And they are still very passive-aggressive with their emotions as a group, not empathetic, and they tend to gossip about each other a lot. Nowadays, I just feel sad for them because they are so often unhappy with each other.

I went on to build a different life, one that was more open about emotions, and I have tried to weed out the dysfunctional secret-keeping that seemed to embroil my relatives. I was determined to be provide a different experience for my daughter than the one I had as a child. I married into a family which is much more emotionally functional than my family of origin. And I am very happy, actually. It was a long road to get here, but it turned out to be okay.

I'm hoping for that sense of happiness for you, as well. From one unmothered person to another.
posted by jeanmari at 5:17 AM on October 26, 2007

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