I’m going back to the States for Thanksgiving and am dreading the family reunion. My sister and I haven’t spoken in a year. Frankly, her life is a mess. She’s constantly making terrible decisions, she’s jobless, broke and has basically shut out our entire family. She refuses to speak to me because when I tried to give her some tough-love advice, she accused me of being self-righteous and judgmental. I would like us to be on civil terms with each other, especially over the holidays, but at the same time, it’s really hard for me to want a relationship with someone who’s so far from having her stuff together. If she weren’t family, I doubt I’d be friends with her. I guess that makes me a bad sister! What should I do?
– Somewhat Sorry Sister
Dear Somewhat Slighted Sister,
Do I detect some misguided care here?! While you don’t like her a whole lot right now, it sounds like you do care about your sister and want to have a healthy relationship. Meanwhile, your sister, despite shutting out the entire family out, is turning up for Thanksgiving, which would suggest that she still wants her place in that family.
Family gatherings can be a hall of mirrors at even the happiest of times. Parents see in their children all their victories and failures in raising them; siblings grapple with a sense of wanting to be on the same team but notice only differences in each other; in-laws and friends bring an extra dose of the unfamiliar, which can make navigating the waters of familial harmony more like “Holy Hurricane!” than “Happy Holidays!”
Your thought about whether you would be friends with your sister is relevant here, but rather than ask if you would be friends, let’s see how you could be better friends.
First, try to identify what your feelings are around this relationship. I wonder what it’s like for you to be shut out, to give advice and have it refused? Then try to express your feelings in ‘I’ statements, rather than accusations. For example, “It bothers me that we haven’t talked in so long, I miss you,” or “I’m frustrated, we aren’t talking and I don’t know what to do about it,” and “I was hurt by our last conversation.”
Second, try to understand how she feels about her situation. My guess is that she’s not feeling very self-assured and by giving advice, you were holding up a mirror that says, “You are jobless and broke.” By seeking to fix someone, you are sending a message that says, “You are the problem.” Could you reach out? Maybe say, “I realize giving you advice wasn’t what you needed. I’m sorry about that.” What would it be like for you simply ask how she is one day? Try to avoid explanations and solutions and just hear her.
Lastly, the goal is friendship. What qualities do you look for in a friend and what qualities do you bring?
Concern and kindness are essential features of any relationship, particularly within families where they can be taken for granted and are therefore sorely missed when absent.
You say it’s tough for you to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t have her stuff together. It is. It can be tiring, confusing and upsetting — and you should be kind to yourself, too. If we were talking about a romantic relationship, I would encourage you to listen to your inner voice and not put your eggs in the proverbial basket that you feel is going to break. This is different, though. When a friend falls down, advising her on how to get up might not do it. Holding out a hand is a better offer, and if they are ready to stand up, they will take it.
At holiday time, the feeling that we have to be together can undermine the choice to be together. If you can, ask your sister if you could meet at a time that’s not around a holiday or with family — something simple like a lunch or a walk. It’s an easy way of saying, “I want to hang out with you, just you.” If she’s ready, she’ll be there. If she’s not, it’s not your fault.
Your sister is living the consequences of her bad decision-making. So are you. A year’s distance is not going to be overcome in one conversation, so try to be patient. Take a look in the mirror and be the sister you want to be, because that’s all you can do. The rest is up to her. Whether or not you would choose her for a friend, she will always be your sister. Families have a tendency to hang around like a bad smell, so before giving up and fleeing the scene, put your gas mask on, take a deep breath and… Happy Thanksgiving!
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