I want us to get along
June 29, 2008 11:39 PM   Subscribe

I want to have a normal sibling relationship with my youngest sister. How can I begin to do this?

I am the oldest sibling in my family and a male child to boot. I have two younger sisters, one who is about a year younger and one who is four years younger.

The middle sister and I get along great. We meet up every weekend and talk about things. It's nice.

My youngest sister is a different story. She and I never got along in the past. She always felt like I got preferential treatment from our parents, and has never let that go. She's a party girl, I'm a homebody. We used to fight physically as kids, and in more passive aggressive ways now that we are adults.

About 10 years ago, I tried to bury the hatchet with my youngest sis. I tried to be more understanding of her. I tried to reach out and talk to her more. She didn't totally rebuff me, but I could tell the interest was not there as much as it was for me.

And so it has gone on since then. We're in a sort of detente. It's just that I'm not happy with this. I love my sister and am proud of her. She's done well for herself and I want her to be part of my life. We haven't talked directly or by e-mail since 2006. I get updates on her from mom and I assume she does the same.

I want to build a relationship with my youngest sis, but have no idea where to begin. It's hard to know how to undo a lifetime of damage.

Any hints from the hive mind? Any questions or private suggestions can be directed to anxiousbrother@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure a 'normal' sibling relationship is just as varied as a 'normal' family, whatever that is.

As for building a stronger relationship, it wont happen until she wants it to as well. You can either try to bring her to that point or you can wait until she's there without your influence. Maybe your mother can help things along- if you mention it to her, she might try to subtly sound out your sister on what she thinks about the situation.

Good luck.
posted by twirlypen at 11:53 PM on June 29, 2008

Well, you don't mention how old you are, and that can make a difference.

I was also the older brother with younger sisters. I provided an "adult" presence, beyond the parents. So they could call me if they needed for anything, chat about funny things at school, etc. It has progressed from there now that everyone has a full time job, but that's the basic idea.

As for how to move forward, I'd suggest you start writing emails. You might not get much of a response at first, but try to write weekly. Ask her how her week has gone, what she's doing, etc. Give her some info about your life, etc. It's one of those things, if you keep giving / getting info about each other, you'll eventually grow closer. At least that's the idea :)

Of course as twirlypen mentioned, it won't really improve until she's interested as well. Make yourself available, lower the barrier to communication, and that's about all you can do.
posted by ceberon at 12:13 AM on June 30, 2008

Just call her. Seriously.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 12:15 AM on June 30, 2008

I love my sister and am proud of her. She's done well for herself and I want her to be part of my life.

Have you told her this? Why don't you tell her this? I'm with thebrokenmuse. Just call her. If she acts put out by it, tell her the above. And then call her again.
posted by phunniemee at 12:43 AM on June 30, 2008

I have an older brother I am completely estranged from, and frankly, I prefer it that way. We've never gotten along, lots of physical and emotional fighting, and really, I'm just not interested in knowing the guy.

If your younger sister hasn't made any attempt to contact you, and if your previous attempts were met with a lack of interest, you might need to let it go for now and let the ball reside in her court. If my brother contacted me, I'd be pretty weirded out. And, apologies to ceberon, but if he kept e-mailing me weekly, despite my lack of interest, I'd be really weirded out.

I'm sorry about your relationship. I hope it's not as bad as my sibling situation, and that you'll have a happier ending!
posted by polyester.lumberjack at 1:54 AM on June 30, 2008

Dear Myrtle --

You're on my mind.

This isn't uncommon -- I think of you often.

I'm writing this note to let you know this.

I don't know that I've ever told you that I love you, that I am proud of you, that it looks to me that you've done well for yourself.

I love you.

I am proud of you.

It looks to me that you've done well for yourself.

I've struggled for the words to write to you. I'd love to spend more time with you, I'd love to be close with you as I am with (insert middle sisters name here). I don't know how to do this.

Do you?

Can we figure this out together?

I hope that this finds you well, enjoying the beauty that is early summer in (insert name of town she lives in here).

Your brother,

(On nice heavy unlined paper -- no ducks flying around on it, no nautical themes -- black ink, seal it with a kiss, drop it into the mailbox. Your part is over.)
posted by dancestoblue at 2:49 AM on June 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

An older cousin once gave me great advice about improving my relationship with my younger sister. (Which was never as bad as it sounds like yours is, so YMMV - consider whether this would be good advice for your specific situation or not.) With us the problem was that I was doing well and she wasn't by conventional standards, and she just felt like odd man out in the family, etc. So my cousin said, look, call her up every now and again, and when you have some problem in life that you can't figure out, ask for her advice. You want more of a relationship with her, well, treat her as someone whose advice you would value. Be interested in her perspective, not out of an abstract impulse to reconnect, but because she really does have a smart and useful perspective.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:54 AM on June 30, 2008 [10 favorites]

John???? Things might change when she has kids. If she doesn't already. I suggest you keep writing her thoughtful and sincere Christmas and birthday cards without expecting anything in return.... yet. There are lots of years of mistrust for her to get over. She's a project is the best way to think of it. It's going to take some time. Lots of time.

When she has her first child, send flowers and gifts and show her that you're going to be the best uncle ever. Lots of people rethink family relationships when they have kids. If you have kids first or already, let her know that she's definitely your child's aunt. Send cards from niece/nephew Anonymous. Show her that the pain has stopped with the new lives in the family.

Of course, there are no guarantees.... but it's worth the effort. She may not be ready for some years.... but if you keep up the effort, it will pay off. Well, I believe it will. When she's matured/forgiven/calmed down.

Good for you for being such a gorgeous big brother. Could you have a word to John for me? ;-)
posted by taff at 3:01 AM on June 30, 2008

Two of my four brothers have kind of dropped out of my life. They are 8 and 11 years older than me, and when we were growing up, they always decided what kind of relationship we had, and when we had it, and if it was pleasant (ie physical intimidation, normal kid stuff). That is, if I wanted to spend time with them, it was only on their terms, if they were interested, which they mostly weren't. The one who is 8 years older than me has tried a couple of times to build a relationship with me, and unfortunately, I was passive to it. I would welcome him whenever I saw him, and try to find things in common, but I never made any effort other than a return (email, letter, whatever). I was so used to not having any control in this relationship, that it didn't occur to me to work on it. Now, it's a couple or five years since we've had any contact, and it just feels weird to ring him out of the blue and say, "so, what are you up to?"

So from the younger sibling point of view, if there's anything similar in your relationship to what I've described, all I can suggest is just keep trying. Send an email (regularly), be vulnerable, don't bring up the past (IMO), just the present and the future. Ask her what's she up to, and tell her what you're up to and do it regularly, say once a month. She may ignore you or not. You have nothing to lose.
posted by b33j at 3:20 AM on June 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

We used to fight physically as kids
Four years older? Male? Are you my brother?

No, you're not. But this waved a red flag with me. Age and size means she may have never learned to trust you. I'll guess you didn't beat up on her often, and I'll guess you thought/think she gave as good as she got, but boy, those times when an older brother physically fights with a younger sister, or verbally criticises her looks or personality during puberty, or leaves her feeling without male safety, can remain in the sister's memory for a long time. My take - it's about trusting and feeling safe/protected (older brother role).

My perspective is coloured of course by my own experience which has a happy ending. My (eldest sibling) brother did a lot of (relatively) horrible and hurtful things to me (third born, four years younger) when we were kids, adolescents and young(ish) adults. Over the years we both tried to find common ground but it was always stilted and not warm. Four years ago, after we both had a lot of life under our belts, he flew to my country, took me out to lunch, then listed and apologised for all the ugly neglectful things he remembered doing to me. I was, frankly, speechless. And my heart almost burst with warmth, love and respect for the amazing self-aware man my brother had become. A week later I remembered a separate adult-time experience in which he also acted very badly. I wrote him a card. Because of our talk it was easy to frame the words right in an 'unfinished business' kinda way. He rang me the minute he got the card. Outcome: very positive.

dancestoblue has the right idea. But before you write that, think of some specific behaviours or actions on your part that you think may need to be forgiven by your Sis. Explain them and apologise for them. Ask her if she has other things she'd like to talk about in this vein. Be as open as you can be and don't defend yourself at all, not at first. Not till you have humour between you.

Oh man - caveat - I could be totally off-base, there are so may layers to this structure of birth order and gender/age dynamics. Your good relationship with your closer-age sister probably has something to do with it too. The youngest other was usually left out, huh? Was she lacking sibling allies as a kid? What's her relationship with her elder sister like? Lotsa questions could be asked about how your sibling triad worked. You can ask your youngest Sis some when you take her out for lunch. I wish you the best, you caring older brother you.
posted by Kerasia at 3:38 AM on June 30, 2008 [6 favorites]

I'm the younger sister and from my POV I really wish my older brother would stop with the sporadic, half-assed attempts to connect.Too little, way too late. If you want to be in her life, then say so and follow through. My brother could have written your post, right down to making an attempt ten years ago and not following through because I wasn't responsive enough to make it worth his while. Seriously, you say you tried to bury the hatchet, and that she didn't totally rebuff you. So that's a start, & sounds positive. What did you do then? Maybe the reason your sister isn't interested in you is because she doesn't know how long your interest will last before you drop out of her life again. Who needs that?

If you want to know what's going on in her life, then ask her what's going on in her life. Waiting for mom to fill you in is passive & doesn't sound like you're really interested in her, just in polite conversation.

Relationships with family are complicated. In families, you are always who you were when you were ten. You have a role to play and so does everyone else. If that dynamic was healthy & nurturing & positive for everyone, then good onya, but if not, then it takes a lot of work to re-establish a family relationship separate from that. What is your sister like now? What are her interests? Do any of them correspond to yours? That's where any relationship with my brother would have to start. Not as my older brother who is proud of me (puh-leeeze) but as someone with whom I have something in common.

So I'd suggest to you that before you pop back into her life for maybe a short time, maybe the long haul, think about what you want from her, and what you have to offer her. If you met her on the street today, would you find her interesting enough to start a relationship with her? If not, there's nothing wrong with parting ways and wishing each other well. But if so, then be prepared for it to take some time and sustained effort. Whether or not they're family, people are worth sustained effort.
posted by headnsouth at 3:58 AM on June 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

what about a sibling vacation? explain your plan to the middle sibling, who might be able to mediate a bit. you don't need to have an explicit agenda, just hang out. get drunk and talk--a lot. then afterwords, exchange pictures. stay in touch.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:35 AM on June 30, 2008

I might not be the best person to answer this. Have much sibling baggage. But as a youngest sibling, I can tell you what would NOT work with me should you be an older sibling reaching out.

I am the youngest (male) of four boys, and my three older brothers made my life a living hell growing up. I am in my mid 40s and I still play the tapes in my head about what a worthless piece of crap I am. The day I was old enough to beat the crap out of one brother and almost break his nose is still referred to me as my "liberation day."

I am not saying you are even close to as bad as my older siblings, just that the youngest, *even though the parents might give him/her preferential treatment* is in the same situation as the weakest in a prison. You know how that will turn out. They carry a lot of resentment you can't even imagine. Four years is a huge difference in children. The "typical kids teasing" might have been to her an example of utter helplessness when confronted with a more powerful bully. That has profound effects.

She always felt like I got preferential treatment from our parents, and has never let that go. She's a party girl, I'm a homebody.

No offense, but how do you know what she has or hasn't let go? How do you know why she is resentful? Has she actually told you that? And the party girl line sends off signals that you somehow disapprove of her lifestyle or think she is a sister of, em, of easy virtue. That sure as hell would likely cause resentment on her part. Sorry if this is totally off base, but I must say that is how I read it.

So what to do?

Well do *not* do this
I provided an "adult" presence, beyond the parents. Ceberon's situation is obviously different from yours and mine and I mean no disrespect to you or him, but you cannot be an "adult" presence to a younger sibling unless you have a healthy relationship with same and same wants that presence, else it is incredibly condescending, especially when the both of you are will into adulthood.

You say you are 'proud of her." Unless she discovered the cure for cancer or mediated peace between Israel and the Arabs, please leave that for your parents.

You and she are no longer kids. Your age difference is now meaningless, you are peers. Are you treating her like one? Would you say to a buddy, "I'm proud of you?"

Frankly your options are limited. polyester.lumberjack called it correctly. You can't have a relationship unless she is ready to have one. Maybe she will, and maybe she won't but there is very little you can do and one thing you must do.

You must first begin to try to build a relationship as peers and as equals, the way you would with a neighbor or a co-worker. In other words, as adults, and NOT as older sibling - younger sibling. When you prove to her that you think of her as an equal, and you respect her as an equal (not the proud of her stuff) , then maybe she will take a step.
posted by xetere at 4:51 AM on June 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

What's interesting is this sounds like my dad and his younger sister. From what I hear, they didn't really get along as kids (8ish years apart) and my dad was kind of the bullying/controlling older brother. When I was little, I'd talk to my aunt and she'd sort of take potshots at my dad in the sort of "oh, give him hell for me, because he did" kind of way. (She's a cool aunt, I wish she were around more, but she lives in another country - but I digress.) I could tell she was only half-joking - that she really did think that my dad was the Mean Older Sibling.

Anyway, what happened is one time when she came to visit my grandparents, she and my dad had a heart-to-heart talk where he basically (I hear) apologised for being such an ass when they were younger. I don't think either of them are net-savvy enough to email each other on a regular basis, but they are closer/more cordial now than they were.

Point being: talk to her. Apologise. You'll probably not be able to undo everything that was said and done in one sitting, but it's a start.
posted by Xany at 4:55 AM on June 30, 2008

Aside from making a consistent gesture (not sporadic contact)... and yes, asking for advice (meaning that you're saying you value her opinion....)

Apologize. Tell her whatever transgression you did, and not aware of, that you're sorry for. Then involve her in anything she's willing to be involved in, but never force it. Odds are, at some level, she resents you for actions you took while younger (and it may be stupid shit you didn't even realize.) Tell her that you feel the strain in your relationship, it causes you pain, and you'd like to make it better. And yes, if she has any ideas, you're open for it.

Keep the door open, be patient and never resentful. It took years for her to feel hurt...it may take years for her to forgive you.
posted by filmgeek at 5:03 AM on June 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I realize my previous post was a bit angry. Apologies to any and all whom I offended. Perhaps I should ask a question about how to get rid of anger.

let me just say in a nutshell, that in addition to apologizing, you really need to build a peer-to-peer relationship between co-equal adults, so that the sibling baggage, especially the older to younger sibling baggage doesn't get in the way.

Then she might realize that you have changed and will be willing to build a relationship.
posted by xetere at 5:09 AM on June 30, 2008

xetera said: I realize my previous post was a bit angry. Apologies to any and all whom I offended. Perhaps I should ask a question about how to get rid of anger.

Yeah, mine was a bit angry too. But no apologies. Family wounds are deep and I responded to a request for advice by calling on my own experience & offering my subjective thoughts. One way to deal with (not get rid of) anger is to express it in a constructive way. It appears from the responses that a lot of people identify with anonymous's sister. That's presumably something he's looking for by posting his question in the first place.
posted by headnsouth at 5:29 AM on June 30, 2008

I am the oldest of three (one brother, three years younger; one sister, eight years younger). Our parents are passed. So it's just us. My sister and I get along very well, helped by the fact that we are famously alike in temperament and mannerisms. Our brother is the odd one out and has the classic middle-child situation, and to add to the distance in personality, has lived halfway across the world for several years. I regularly reach out to him, but it's not a close relationship. For me, the lesson here is, sibling relationships have deep, intractable roots, and are very difficult to change. Some family members are more suited to be close to each other than others.

I guess all you can do is continue to reach out and make yourself accessible. She might reciprocate now, later or never. Just be aware that you have only a certain amount of control to change how she relates to you. If things never change between you, try not to resent her.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:14 AM on June 30, 2008

It sounds like you are still acting out the roles you had when you both still lived at your parents place. Get out of those roles. Stop acting like the older, surrogate parent (as oldest siblings often are) and start having more fun. Go out for a drink with her. Don't say things like you're proud of her because that sounds parental.

Just have some fun, and be aware of family dynamics and birth order. It sounds like you are acting out pretty typical oldest/youngest behaviour. There is nothing that will drive her more nuts than your constant criticism and acting like a parent. Be her friend instead. Just spend some time with her -- that's a good start.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 6:37 AM on June 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

seconding polyester.lumberjack -- if your sister doesn't reciprocate, don't force it.

i don't get along with my oldest brother (5 years apart) and if he kept insisting on trying to connect, i'd be irritated. i don't like him as a person, we just don't get along, and i'm much happier not having to force a relationship.
posted by gursky at 7:44 AM on June 30, 2008

Was there a big breach of trust at any point? If so, it might be hard for her to get over that. I don't know what her issue is with being reluctant to connect but there might be a reason you two haven't discussed, maybe it seems too petty to her to bring up now that so many years have passed but she still is holding resentment over it. I realize this is a shot in the dark, but my brother and I have a very similar distance in our relationship that we are trying to heal, but it was a big breach of trust about 6 years ago and we haven't been in the same geographical area long enough to put in the face time necessary to rebuild our connection/create a new connection as adults. If you can, put in some face time, show her you care enough to see her, that you want to spend time with her/ enjoy spending time with her. That'll probably go a long way.
posted by np312 at 7:53 AM on June 30, 2008

If it doesn't work out, let it go and stop beating yourself up about it.

One of the heartbreaks of adulthood is that you can't "get" someone (family included, and maybe especially family) to be interested in relating to you, no matter how loving, understanding, patient, forgiving, remorseful, whatever, you genuinely are. Sometimes siblings don't feel the need for a relationship with one another and there is nothing you can do about this.

The folks offering you suggestions here are the ones who feel like they would/could be responsive in your sister's shoes if x,y, and z conditions were met (and are projecting their own hurts onto you: why didn't you call, why was it so half-assed, why did mom and dad like you better, why do you judge my partying, etc.)...there is another subset you will never hear from, of folks so detached and self-interested that there really is nothing you can do to gain a foothold in their lives beyond "cordial stranger", no matter how much love them and how much you try.
posted by availablelight at 8:42 AM on June 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have a sister who is very prickly. She warms up to cards, a few emails, and the occasional phone call. As soon as the family history start to get dredged up, I get off the phone.
posted by theora55 at 10:59 AM on June 30, 2008

I am the eldest sister of one younger sister and one younger brother. My sister and I are best friends.

My brother...a totally different story. We grew up in a pretty abusive household and I left when my brother was 10. We were pretty estranged from about that time until about 2 years ago (he's now 31). He, unfortunately, got the brunt of the abuse when I left.

About 2 years ago I apologized for leaving him in that house but I explained that I was only 17 and I had to get out. He's a pretty fucked up mess and I feel like a lot of that is my fault but I think my apology was taken well and we're very, very slowly growing closer. I've done a lot of that work by showing some interest in some the stuff he enjoys that isn't hurtful to him or others.

Good luck.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:30 AM on June 30, 2008

If she was resistant before, it seems there may be some issues that need sorting out if you're going to be friends as adults. Try asking about it--- you may be surprised to find out that something you did has really stuck with her, or that you have a habit you aren't aware of. I know I avoid some family members because they have patterns of communication (don't ask much about me, nag, etc) that I just can't stand.
posted by lacedback at 12:39 PM on June 30, 2008

I have an older estranged brother (6 yrs). We used to fight physically as children. My teen years were a joy as he mocked me for pretty much any dorky interest I had. At some point I tried to detach, but all of that shit got internalized and took a long time to sort out. And yet due to family dynamics, I was always the one pressured to establish a better relationship with him. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't my fault we didn't get along. His last attempt at resolution (I was in my mid 20s) was to tell me everything he thought was wrong with me and how I needed to fix it in order to have a relationship with him. Yeah, not so much.

Why am I telling you all of this? I guess because maybe some of it is what she is going through. Did you attempt to show her you love her as she is? Are you still picking at the things you did when she was younger? The last thing we need is to have people who remind us of our failures and weaknesses. Most of us carry around enough self-doubt as it is.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:06 PM on June 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

You say you are 'proud of her." Unless she discovered the cure for cancer or mediated peace between Israel and the Arabs, please leave that for your parents.

You and she are no longer kids. Your age difference is now meaningless, you are peers. Are you treating her like one? Would you say to a buddy, "I'm proud of you?"

i don't understand this. why wouldn't you tell your sibling, any other family member, or friend you are proud of them if you are? i would—and have—totally told this to family and friends.
posted by violetk at 5:13 PM on June 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

As others have said, the first step would likely be to reflect back on what when on when you two were kids, and (when it's clear in your mind) apologize. And mean it. Don't expect apologies back, just acknowledge anything that you did that was not nice. She was younger, smaller, and for whatever reason felt disregarded by the family. Down the road, if you keep being consistently available to her (perhaps by consistently sending birthday cards, holiday notes, etc.), she may decide to have a relationship.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:49 PM on June 30, 2008

You say you are 'proud of her." Unless she discovered the cure for cancer or mediated peace between Israel and the Arabs, please leave that for your parents.

You and she are no longer kids. Your age difference is now meaningless, you are peers. Are you treating her like one? Would you say to a buddy, "I'm proud of you?"
i don't understand this. why wouldn't you tell your sibling, any other family member, or friend you are proud of them if you are? i would—and have—totally told this to family and friends.

Context is everything, and we don't know the context or what OP really meant. Absent that, if he calls his sister up and says, "Sis, I just want you to know that I am proud of you for how well you did in your life" well that is just so patronizing and condescending coming from an older sibling with whom the younger sibling had a difficult relationship.

Older sib might just as well say, "Gee sis, you know you might think you're an adult, and all, but to me you're still just a kid, but I am proud of you that you can sit at the grown ups table now." because if an older brother said that to me, well that is what I would think and I might be inclined to tell him what orifice he can shove his pride up.
posted by xetere at 5:17 AM on July 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Sis, I just want you to know that I am proud of you for how well you did in your life" well that is just so patronizing and condescending coming from an older sibling with whom the younger sibling had a difficult relationship.

i don't think telling someone you are proud of the way the person they've become is patronizing. i have a difficult, almost non-existent relationship with my older brother. if he ever came out and told me that—and really genuinely felt it—i'd be pretty happy.
posted by violetk at 2:12 PM on July 1, 2008

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