Sibling rivalry can find fertile ground when you have females, known as sisters, growing up under the same roof.
Remember the day daddy and/or mommy (OK, whomever) gave you the wonderful news! “Sweetie, you’re going to have a new sister! Think of all the fun you’ll have growing up together?”
“Eh?,” we wondered and may thought, “OK, but only if I get to be the boss of her.” Right. Or if you’re a younger sis, you soon learned to look at your bounty — a sister to admire, adore, get advice from.
Sisters. We often think of them as pals, BFFs, role models, and of course, the great news is … if you’re younger, chances are the path is easier because of lessons already learned from your older sis. The wish for true sisterhood runs deep. Our sister(s) can make us feel less alone in the world, comforted, loved unequivocally, and are often an excellent Plan B. But not always. Sometimes problems start with unresolved early rivalry (“It’s MINE,” or “They love YOU best,” or “She was always the star and I’m a nothing compared to her.”) or life has dealt each of you opposing DNA. Sadly not all sisters get along, agree, or even like each other. OK, my Singular sisters, let’s look.
SISTER, EMOTIONAL HOSTAGE
Dear Marnie: My sister (we’re in our thirties, she’s older) criticizes, berates, and verbally abuses me. I’ve put up with this for as long as I can, have been in therapy about it, but it’s still leaves me scarred and hurt. I am guarded when I am alone with her, as these outbursts usually occur when we are under incredible stress, or when alcohol is involved. I believe my sister suffers from a mental illness but it would be hard to get her into treatment. Once again, we are in a stressful situation. Our mother died last year, and sis feels we need to get away together. I would rather walk on hot coals, then be wondering when her next blow-up will be. How do I tell her I don’t want to go without hurting her feelings? I don’t want to make up excuses, but I don’t think I can just say “no.” She will never leave that alone as she has a pit bull personality. Help, please. How am I supposed to deal this and with her for the rest of my life? – Mary, L.A.
MARNIE SAYS: Take some comfort, sweet Mary. You’re not alone. Sadly, “emotional hostages” are more common in families than cousins clubs?. The scenes are familiar. One out-of-control shrike surrounded by desperate relatives, driven by fear and “fixer” myths — cringing and dodging bullets — rarely thinking through the question, “Hey … what’s the plan?” Honey, nothing’s going to change until you get one that has a prayer of working.
Getting It! Your Personal Strategy:
* Since you’ve been in therapy, I won’t babble to you about the needs of “the fixer.” Let’s try something different. Write a journal that includes:
- adjectives specifically about her issues
- how much this is costing you emotionally and financially
The point of this exercise is to help you see — clearly — the Herculean efforts you’ve expended on this woman.
* Myth-bust. Read these sentences, then ask yourself these questions:
- Do I owe it to my sister to “save” her if it will cost me my own mental and physical health?
- Have I tried … and tried?
- Has anything I’ve done worked or even looks like it may?
- Has she gotten worse despite my best efforts anyway?
* If your answers are No, Yes, No, and Yes, then you must say, “Whatever I’m doing is making not one scintilla of positive difference. If I keep doing what I’m doing, she’ll still drink and torture me.
* Once you fully take this in; that her illness flies on the wings of her own wind, not yours, you can take a fresh look at your true role. As I see it, your role is not helping, and it’s pricey when caring, sane, sober people are giving control to the one who is most out of control.
* Clearly, you’re a woman of superior conscience and power. Channel that power to shed the labels, the guilt, the fear. The only one you truly have the power to change is you. And your only hope here, tough as it may be, is change.
* Get the family together privately and consider an intervention. (Google “Free Intervention Hotlines” in your area.) This is a “tough-loving” surprise confrontation where loved ones lay the behavior on the line — and the consequences. To make this work, you all must agree on a plan for your sister, e.g. a treatment program she’ll go to directly following the intervention, to be determined, in advance, with the intervention expert.
* Give yourself permission to say, “No more!” Tell your sister, “I won’t go away with you because your behavior scares and infuriates me. If you get help and things change, we’ll see. I’ll support treatment because I care about you. But I won’t be abused.”
Honey, I know you’re afraid you’ll make things worse. But, keep on and you’ll have little chance of making them better. To do that requires reclaiming the power you’ve given to the weakest — to better serve you all! My prayers are with you.
NOTE: Common Hotline Phone Numbers | Psych Central
Most of these hotlines are available 24 hours a day, and can help you with whatever level of assistance you need, including putting you in touch with Al-Anon for Families of Alcoholics
BILL OF FAIR
Dear Marnie: I had an argument with my sister which has been brewing for a while. Background: We live in neighboring states. She is an affluent lawyer, whereas, I’m a teacher. When I visit her, I stay at a motel, as she lives in an expensive one bedroom and isn’t fond of overnight guests, no exceptions. When we go out for a casual dinner, usually my sister will pick up the check, but, I always make sure to take her to a restaurant of her choice at least once, which, Marnie dear, often comes to more than what she laid out when she picks up the check. I rent a small house in town, and when she visits me, she stays in a spare bedroom, which she did this past New Year’s. We went out and the check came to over $400. When I couldn’t cover it, she asked for a personal check from me for the whole thing! My sister and I got into a tangle on the phone. She claimed the “person in the host city” should foot the bill. What do you say? — Stiffed out West
MARNIE SAYS: I read your query right before taking a dear friend to dinner and it sent such a chill through me, I shredded my Visa card and looked for venues with clown faces! Fortunately, when the fellow in the paper hat yelled, “WHO WANTS CRAYONS?” I came to my senses but I will say, using “etiquette” to justify her little M.O. does keep her “affluent.”
Getting It! Your Personal Strategy:
* The “Rules.” My answer? Who cares? Etiquette can be stated in two lines: “Is it fair?” and “Is it comfortable?” Who’s visiting whom is an irksome absurdity. The permutations alone (Who’s staying with whom? Providing meals? Did you pay her way through mime school? ) are staggering and require a quality your sister lacks — sensitivity. Tell yourself this isn’t about “fair” or “right” because your sis can’t or won’t get it.
* This is about “cheap” and dumb. She’s rigid and cheap and you’re dumb for offering that check that way. (You’re nice, though — or intimidated.)
* Call sis.
1-Agree you’re wallets apart.
2-Don’t debate. “Who-paid-for-what-when” will get you circling longer than a commercial jet at LAX during a fog storm.
3- Negotiate a visitor’s plan you can both live with. Set up an M.O. to clarify who pays when and how much. For example: if she’s visiting and suggests a pricey place, agree to tell her up-front. “We’ll split it.” Or … “It’s not in my budget. Let’s try The No Frills Gourmet.” No surprises.
* This is the hard one. It would be so delicious for me to say, “Sit on your own wallet,” and send her to a hotel in the future. But I won’t. Because, you see, at the end of the day, one can’t allow an ungracious ingrate to determine what’s fair and comfortable for you.
Copyright © Marnie Macauley / 2015 Singular Communications, LLC