September 19, 2007 11:36 AM   Subscribe

How can I repair my relationship with my sister?

My sister and I no longer speak to one another. When we do speak on the phone, it is a very cursory "hi" sort of thing. I haven't spoken to her properly since 2006.

She has been obsessed with a car accident, especially the legal issues surrounding said crash, for some time. She has pain, she claims, that never abates (although there is ample evidence that she is greatly exaggerating the pain, if it's there at all). She lives at my mom's house rent-free. She owes my mom $50,000 (give or take). She spends most of her life in a stoned-out stupour and complains endlessly, about everything and anything, to anyone who will listen to her.

Her behaviour pisses me off, and it pisses my wife off. She is aware of this, and so she avoids contact with us.

My mother and sister are locked in some sort of epic dysfunctional struggle. My mom doesn't want her children to ever grow up, so she has kept my sister a child, even though she is now 35. My sister is a product of my parent's divorce (when she was only a toddler) and a weird childhood that sort of emotionally crippled her. She has kind of given up on life, and lives in a bubble of depression and denial. My mom enables her... and has picked up the bill for my sister's lavish lifestyle (designer clothes, expensive weed, restaurants, etc). My sister is, to say the least, unappreciative and spoilt.

So, effectively, because of the tension surrounding this money issue, I have no contact sister at all. She doesn't want to hear what I have to say to her, so she has sort of cut me off. I'm so angry at her for taking my mom for all that money (and never paying it back) that I want to choke her. I don't know her phone number or her email address (although I could find it if need be).

We are at an impasse. How can I repair this situation? She has no intention of ever paying off this money and I'm not able to just forget that she's stabbed my mother in the back at every turn.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
DO you want a relationship with her and if so, WHY?
posted by Sassyfras at 11:45 AM on September 19, 2007

You don't present a single reason why you would want to repair this relationship. Seems like you know the answer: either you choose to accept her behavior as a means toward reconciliation, or you continue to distance yourself to spare yourself the anger and frustration that the situation causes you.
posted by itstheclamsname at 11:46 AM on September 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? If it's the former, if you can't stop being angry with your sister about her lifestyle, the money, and how she treats your mom, then you will not be able to repair this relationship.

The first step to getting closer to her is to drop all that. Maybe you won't or can't: it's a legitimate response. But, you can't have it both ways, trying to repair a relationship when there's a mountain of resentment and hostility right in the middle.
posted by jamaro at 11:48 AM on September 19, 2007

You seem to loathe your sister, so why do you want a relationship with her?

If you want to have a relationship, one of you needs to change. It's not going to be her. I'm not saying that you should, just that it is unrealistic to expect a relationship given your attitudes.
posted by grouse at 11:49 AM on September 19, 2007

You can't control your mother. You can't control your sister. You can only control the way you choose to think about them.

Would it be a lot easier to be happy if your sister had a nice, steady job as a bank teller and your mom wasn't involved in buying her pot? Absolutely. But that's not the situation you have, and it's not one you can create. (It's really not.)

Put it this way: if your mother and your sister were to continue behaving like this for the rest of their lives, would you rather:

1) Be pretty happy anyway in spite of your crazy relatives and have a relationship of some kind with them that brings you joy
2) Obsess over them and be full of justified rage and develop an ulcer and not have a relationship with them?

Because those may be your choices.

Your work here is not to convince them to change. I know it seems like it is, but I promise you: it's not.

Instead, your work here is to get your brain to accept that you can't change them, and to make a commitment to love them and interact with them to the extent that it makes you happy, in spite of how nuts they are.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 11:53 AM on September 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

So, by "repair this situation" you actually mean "make my sister and my mother do what I want them to do?" You can't. You don't get to control other people. If you can't talk to her without spouting off about how horrible she is and what she needs to do to live up to your standards, she's pretty justified in not wanting to talk to you. Yeah, it sounds like a pretty rotten situation, but it's not your situation.

You leave it alone and reconcile for the sake of having a relationship, or you don't. Those are your choices.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:56 AM on September 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

I sympathize. There's been a similar problem in part of my family (not among immediate family, thank goodness). Let's just say things got worse and will never get better.

Write off the money your mother has given to your sister. Just consider it a gift—unwisely given, perhaps, but a gift. Get over that (I know, easier said than done) and look forward.

You don't say whether or how you've talked to your mother about this, but that might be a more productive avenue for you to pursue. If you can convince your mom that at some point your sister will need to be able to fend for herself, the rest might work itself out. If your mother does not come around to this way of thinking, well, you might be in store for the unhappy situation I've seen in my own family. Feel free to contact me offline—no need to air my own family's drama on AskMe.
posted by adamrice at 11:57 AM on September 19, 2007

How can I repair this situation?

I don't think you can. At the very least, jerry-rigging the situation involves biting your tongue and not speaking your mind about how much you despise her. It seems like you have to tell her how much you hate her on a rather regular basis. Starting to fix the situation would require letting go of a lotttt of the negative emotions you have about your sister. Actually fixing it would be doing the forementioned and becoming a friend to your sister, so you can convince her to move out and pay back your mom.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:04 PM on September 19, 2007

I'm imagining what this AskMe could sound like if your sister were the one writing to us, asking about you?
"How can I repair my relationship with my brother? We no longer speak to one another, and haven't in a few years, ever since I got into a serious car accident.

I was badly injured in the accident, and I have chronic, ongoing pain that leaves me unable to work or take care of myself. Unfortunately, the accident has left me dependent on my mother, who has helped to care for me physically and financially since I was injured. My mother (who I think still feels a bit guilty over a messy divorce she went through when I was a child and may be trying to "make it up to me" now) has helped me quite a lot since the accident, and I wouldn't have been able to survive the pain and depression without her help and support.

My brother, however, doesn't believe that I am hurt. He thinks I am making the pain up to bilk our mother out of money. He calls me a drug addict, and any time I try to talk to him about what's going on in my life, he gets mad at me. He has turned his wife against me and they have both avoided contact with me for the past several years because they believe that I don't appreciate everything my mother has done for me and that I'm just using the accident as an excuse to sit around and be a lazy, stoned loser.

I don't want my brother to keep calling me a lazy drug addict, and so I don't want to talk to him if that's all he's going to say to me. My mother and I are both adults, and I want him to stop butting into our lives and spreading lies about me. But I would like to have a relationship with him, if it's possible to make him see that I'm actually hurt and would fix this if I could. Is there any way to make him less angry at me so that we can have a real relationship?"
In other words, imagine that your sister might actually be hurt, physically and/or emotionally, and that the help she is receiving from your mother is a gift that your mother has given her because they are both adult women and this is how they have decided to live their lives, whether you agree with it or not. Even if she isn't hurt, it is none of your business what drugs she and her doctor decide she should be taking by prescription, how she and your mother work out their finances (unless you believe that either she or your mother is insane or senile to the point of legal incapacity, in which case you should retain a lawyer and seek a legal power of attorney over her estate), or how she chooses to handle her psychological or psychiatric care.

Now, decide whether you still want to have a relationship with your sister, accepting that it is absolutely none of your business how she conducts her affairs as an adult woman.
I think you may want to seek some personal counseling to work on your anger about this situation before seeking out your sister (or even if you decide not to do so), because it seems like this is eating you up. You cannot change her, and it's not your place to try. But you may be able to change the way you think about her so that she doesn't consume you with anger anymore.
posted by decathecting at 12:19 PM on September 19, 2007 [18 favorites]

It sounds to me like you want to "repair the relationship" just so that you can get her to stay still long enough for you to yell at her. She doesn't want to hear it; why would she? I'm not hearing that you have anything to say to her but blame and shaming.

If you want a relationship with her, give her some good reason to have a relationship with you. If you can't honestly do that, then drop it.

As for the pain, I can say from experience that it's often hard to determine how much pain somebody is in. (Particularly if you already despise her. You think you can be objective about this? I doubt it.) If you're guessing at her pain level based on a history of things she's managed to do, remember that people do fake not being in pain in order to do things they very much want to do. The longer you're in pain, the easier it gets to fake your way through it, at least for a little while. The occasional heroic rise to an occasion is not good evidence that she isn't constantly in pain. Remember also that pain tends to spike and fall.
posted by sculpin at 12:20 PM on September 19, 2007

The relationship between your sister and your mother is their problem. Make it clear to both that you won't be drawn into it any more (easier said than done, I know) and then work on figuring out what your relationship with your sister should be.
posted by Good Brain at 12:21 PM on September 19, 2007

frankly, she sounds clinically depressed. and immature, certainly, and in a dysfunctional relationship with your mom, certainly, but mostly depressed.

at some point you have to accept that the sister and mother you have are not the sister and mother you wish they could be, and go from there. how you do that is up to you.
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:28 PM on September 19, 2007

How can I repair this situation?

Let's make a list of things you've told us.
  • She has been obsessed with a car accident
  • she is greatly exaggerating the pain
  • She lives at my mom's house rent-free
  • She owes my mom $50,000
  • She lives in a stoned-out stupor
  • [she] complains endlessly
  • Her behaviour pisses me off
  • She has kind of given up on life
  • I'm so angry at her
  • I want to choke her
  • I'm not able to just forget that she's stabbed my mother in the back at every turn
Whew! That's a lot. Maybe you'll be surprised to hear this, but you can repair this situation, if you really want to.

Let's be clear about it. You can't fix your sister's life. It's a total disaster and it probably won't get any better. She's dug a hole that she'll never get herself out of. You'll never approve of what she makes of her life no matter what she does to improve it. And she's not going to improve, anyway. She's probably going to remain the same sad-sack dysfunctional mess that she is now. Let's take that as given.

The way you can repair this situation is to change the way you approach your sister. Rather than continuing to judge her and evaluate her on her life performance, you could apologize to her for the way you've behaved to her. Forgive her for the mess she's made of her life and your family's life. And, offer her unconditional love, to the best of your ability. That means no more judgments offered to her about her behavior; no more reprisals; and probably a lot of listening to her endless litany of complaints and pains.

At the end of this repair process you will still hold the moral high ground, you will probably still be aware of the wrongness of every terrible thing that she's done, and she will probably still annoy you, although I bet that if you manage to forgive her you won't want to choke her any more. You also will be faced with a new problem, namely how to set boundaries on the unreasonable things she'd like to demand of her new relationship you.

But you will have a sister, which at the moment you don't. Right now you have a target for your frustration and rage that you're choosing to call a "sister," but which really is not a "sister" as the function of that role is usually defined. If you wanted to jettison that thing (which is obviously serving some purpose in your life) you could trade it for a real sister.

You have to decide if this "repair," which is in your power, is actually what you want.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:42 PM on September 19, 2007 [6 favorites]

It sounds as though your real question is "how can I make my mother and sister behave to my standards?"

The answer is, you can't. Either accept them "as is" or move along.
posted by 26.2 at 12:45 PM on September 19, 2007

Wait, how has she stabbed your mother in the back? I thought your mother was keeping her a child? Your sister has given up on life, but has a lavish lifestyle?

Look, you sound really, really angry. And jealous.

I'm not saying that your sister isn't taking advantage of your mom. I'm not saying that your sister isn't criminally annoying. I get that people who financially freeload and then whine about it are really, really difficult people with whom to have a relationship, even if you love them. I get that successfully explaining family dynamics to strangers is really difficult. (I've had some crazily selfish relatives and some unrealistic, whiny, freeloading friends.)

But how do you repair your relationship with your sister? According to your account, it seems that you either don't want to repair your relationship with your sister, or you don't want to repair your relationship with your sister. I'm not usually the one to jump straight to "see a therapist!" But in this case, I can't help but think that maybe it would do you some good to go find a good therapist and talk about yourself and your expectations of familial ties and what you really want. This may help you approach your relationship with your sister (and mother) with perspective that will make this a more fruitful experience.
posted by desuetude at 1:00 PM on September 19, 2007

I think Ikkyu2 says it best: you can repair your relationship by accepting your sister and your mom as they are, with all of their faults. They are grownups, after all, and by definition are responsible for their own lives (even if they are behaving in ways that many would consider irresponsible).

You may not want to spend a whole lot of time with them, because they're not your kind of people. But at least you'll be in relationship with them. That also, eventually, could open up the possibility of being a positive influence on them. But "changing them" can't be the goal. The goal needs to be accepting them and loving them.
posted by alms at 1:07 PM on September 19, 2007

They're your family. Not your project. You can't fix them.

You can't make them do anything. Maybe they are all those things you say they are. So what? You have two grown women who are choosing to live in a pretty messed up way. You have a right to be angry, maybe even jealous that you're sister is smoking away your inheritance, but that anger isn't going to make you life better.

Can you accept them?
That's the real question.
posted by French Fry at 1:40 PM on September 19, 2007

Wow. I can imagine you would be annoyed, angry, and resentful.

Yes, resentful. I don't blame you; you feel like your sister is getting a free ride when you had to work hard for what you have. You feel that your Mom is playing favorites. Your sister is taking advantage of your Mom, and your Mom won't admit she is treating your sister like a child. You have to be the adult in this situation and it's a real pain in the ass.

The thing is, the only person hurt by your resentment is you, and probably your wife, who sees how unfair the situation is and how much it hurts you. Your Mom and your sister aren't going to change; your Mom feels guilty over the divorce and sees your sister as her little girl, and your sister feels she got a bum rap because of the accident. Your sister probably IS taking advantage of your Mom. Your Mom probably CAN'T afford doing what she is doing. But they created this cycle, so it would be unreasonable to expect them to come to some epiphany over how wrong it is to anyone else, including you.

It sucks. It's awful. I know you don't like the way things are. But to really have a relationship with your sister, you have to either accept her as is, or agree not to talk about any of those issues (which would leave you precious little to talk about, and still seething with resentment).

I imagine you've had friends in the past that do stupid things or live a lifestyle you don't agree with, but they're still your friends. If you can accept that you can't change things in your own family and take her the way she is, flaws and all, you might be able to salvage your relationship with your sister.
posted by misha at 2:16 PM on September 19, 2007

OK – let’s look at it this way…
What happens when mom is no longer around? What happens then? I think that is a contributing factor to the original question.

As you said you mom is enabling and your sister is a user. I have a similar situation on my horizon and the fact is there is nothing that we can or will be able to do in the event of no more mom. We just hear the stories and play like a broken record when we get the weekly update: “She did what? Then do this…” and “You did what? You said you wouldn’t…”

Sis is screwed when her handout is gone and hopefully at that point she will learn to stand on her own – or at least marry someone and take her off our hands. I’m leaning on the latter – fingers crossed!

So what to do? I personally would stay away from the situation (in my case it is not my family so not my choice).
posted by doorsfan at 2:19 PM on September 19, 2007

I am your sister, just substitute "stroke and open heart surgery" for "car accident." Well, I am your sister if you take my life and spin it in a very ugly way. I thought that you might actually be one of my siblings posting, but I get along fine with the four of them.

That being said, after my stroke and open heart surgery, my hale and hearty family did not get how sick I was, and did not allow be to just be sick. They were constantly after me to go back to work. This culminated in the family vacation from hell that left me hospitalized. It also made me complain more in an effort to get someone to pay attention to me.

I feel you are being unkind. I don't know whose spin is the correct one, yours or your sister's unspoken one. But if you want to be friends with your sister, you need to put your own spin aside for the greater good. Stop judging her.
posted by astruc at 3:35 PM on September 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

How about you stop judging her and either accept her for who she is or don't?

I submit that your anger is jealousy in disguise. She's found a way of living that involves a great deal of mooching off of your mom and your mom seems okay with this.

She's a big girl. If in 35 years your judgmental attitude hasn't convinced her to change her ways, it's probably not going to. If you want a relationship with her, you have to accept who she is, not who you want her to be.
posted by callmejay at 3:39 PM on September 19, 2007

I'm so angry at her for taking my mom for all that money (and never paying it back) that I want to choke her.

That is a whole lot of anger. It isn't good for you, or your wife, or any future possible relationship with your sister. You didn't say, but your mom doesn't seem to want to choke your sister - and it's her money.

I'm voting for therapy (for you). Wouldn't you feel better not walking around knotted up in a rage every time you think about your sister? Give it a shot.
posted by rtha at 4:30 PM on September 19, 2007

And as long as I have your attention, I'd like to add one point to my comment above. My cardiologist watched me in bed waiting for my open heart surgery with my collapsed face and sexy new expressive aphasia, and saw my family doing the whole buck up little soldier, you're going to be fine! routine. He took my mom aside and told her "She's never going to be the same after this." He tried to help me. Nobody listened to him, but I appreciated the effort. It made me feel less crazy. (Thank you, Dr. Homma, wherever you are.)
posted by astruc at 5:56 PM on September 19, 2007

Sounds to me like the real problem lies with your mother. If she's been coddled since a toddler, and your mother is continuing to enable her lifestyle, then how can your sister be blamed for taking advantage of it? She doesn't know any other way. People will rise OR lower themselves to your expectations.
posted by Ugh at 6:20 PM on September 19, 2007

See a therapist yourself. I can understand why you're angry with your sister, and possibly with your mother. But the anger is hurting you, and it's not easy to just "let it go." Even though you and your sister don't talk to each other, you're still involved with her emotionally, because you think about her and feel upset. In therapy, you can get some perspective and work on that. You might be able to disengage somewhat, and even feel some compassion. I'm not saying "you should be a better person and care more" -- it's more that if you can nurture some gentler feelings, it'll be better for you.
posted by wryly at 6:33 PM on September 19, 2007

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