My younger sister and I have always had a volatile relationship. We didn’t get along at all in junior high and high school, but after I went away to college and subsequently moved out of state, our relationship improved and we grew closer. A lot of her animosity towards me (I think) stems from my success in academics and athletics—I was outstanding in both, and while she was very good, I cast a very long shadow.
A few years ago, my husband and I moved back to the city I grew up in, while she and her husband live in a suburb about 45 minutes away. Due to convenience, we would see family that live nearby more than we would see her. We also didn’t get any invitations from her to go out to dinner with them or come to their house, while other family would call and invite us often, so we got into the habit of socializing with the people who reached out. However, she will typically text me on Friday to ask what we’re doing over the weekend, and if we are seeing anyone, particularly family, she’ll write a nasty response indicating that she feels left out without saying so directly.
She also constantly throws little jabs at me. I had a baby a year ago (she has kids, too), and she was extremely condescending about the fact that we had so much secondhand stuff, saying, “You’re going to have the cheapest baby ever.” I deal with these little jabs by not engaging—I’ve learned that if I try to defend myself or talk to her about it, she unleashes all of her wrath on me. The more she communicates in a mean, vicious manner, the less I want to talk to her or involve her in my life. I don’t like how she talks to me and treats me, and after a few years of dealing with this, I’m done. But my extended family is close, so cutting her out of my life isn’t possible, and I really don’t want to do that either.
How can I navigate this? I can’t change her (although I think she could use some serious therapy), but I also can’t keep taking this abuse.
A good place to start would be to consider that as hard as it is for you to have a sister like her—and I can certainly understand your frustration—it has to be hard for her to have a sister like you.
That’s not to diminish how unpleasant your sister’s “jabs” and “wrath” can be. It can be hurtful and confusing to be on the receiving end of these comments—especially when you feel you’ve done nothing to deserve them. It can also make it harder to see what’s really going on.
There’s a psychological concept known as the “anger iceberg” that might help you to understand her behavior from another perspective. Think of anger as the tip of the iceberg, the part that’s visible above the water. Anger is easy for others to see, but it tends to be what’s called a secondary emotion. Most of the iceberg is hidden below the surface of the water, and when we’re angry, that anger covers our more vulnerable emotions—primary emotions such as fear, helplessness, envy, loneliness, or insecurity. Often in relationships when one person gets angry, it’s hard to see that the “mean” or “vicious” behavior is sitting atop a whole lot of pain underneath.
I’ll bet that below the surface of your sister’s anger lays decades of pain: It wasn’t easy being your little sister. I never felt good enough around you. I felt at best invisible, at worst, unworthy. I hated that you always took up so much air in the room, leaving so little for me.
Notice that when you lived in different cities, you two grew closer likely because it allowed her some air of her own. Without you in her orbit, she was free to be herself, to stake out an identity separate from yours. And then—boom!—not only do you move back home, but you live closer to other family members than she does, once again one-upping her and relegating her to the outskirts.
Of course, you’re not to blame for being more accomplished or more whatever she (or you) may believe you to be. But if you really care about having a better relationship with your sister—and you say you don’t want to cut her off, even if you could—you are responsible for trying to understand what’s going on between you two instead of portraying yourself as the rational, sane one and her as the irrational, crazy one. Too often the golden child gets away with righteousness while the one who’s been pushed aside and feels justifiable resentment about it just seems petty and mean.
You’re right that we can’t change another person, but we can influence the way another person behaves toward us by changing our ineffective ways of interacting with them. Now might be a good time step back and say to yourself, “Wow, my sister has a lot of anger toward me. Why is that?” In other words, looking at the submerged part of the iceberg, you ask, “Why is she so hurt?” Then your job is to do your best to be rigorously honest with yourself—without judgments or justifications—to get to the answer.
For instance, you talk about how your sister doesn’t extend invitations to you, but since moving back to town, how have you made room for her in your life? Have you extended invitations to make your arrival more welcoming for her? Given your “volatile” history together, have you made an effort to be sensitive to what her feelings might be? When you make plans with other family members, have you thought to include your sister in your plans, knowing from her Friday texts that she feels excluded? Have you ever told her that you missed her and wanted to come out and see her for an afternoon, just the two of you, sister-to-sister? Have you considered that she doesn’t reach out to your family because she imagines (perhaps rightly so) that you’d accept grudgingly, out of obligation, and she’d have to sit there knowing that you’re counting the minutes until you’re able to lock eyes with your husband, give each other the secret let’s-say-we-need-to-leave-now code, then offer an excuse—“Gotta get the kids to soccer!”—and make your escape?
Most importantly, have you considered the possibility that she’s no longer envious of you (and maybe never was), but makes these snide comments because she knows that your academic and athletic prowess don’t make you superior to her, but feels that you treat her as though you believe that you are? As annoying as your sister might be to you, can you imagine how annoying it might be for her to have to deal with a sister who believes she’s the “better” sibling (more talented, more accomplished, more likable, more reasonable)?
When people come to therapy, I listen not just to their stories, but to their flexibility with their stories. I think what you two are really fighting about—indirectly, passively, and sometimes explosively—is an outdated story with the same tired plot points, the same heroine and villain, and the same lack of resolution. It can be hard to revise these ingrained childhood narratives to match our adult realities. Sometimes it happens organically; more often, it requires a conscious recalibration.
My guess is that buried beneath this story’s old rigid conflict is the mutual desire to feel valued and understood and, most of all, seen by each other with fresh eyes. And once you do some editing of your side of the story, you might change the plot by reaching out to your sister in a new way: “Hey, Little Sister. It breaks my heart that there’s so much tension between us. I’m sure some of this is coming from me and I want to understand more about why.” Then, instead of defending yourself, simply listen. You don’t have to agree with her point of view, and you probably won’t. But if you have no curiosity about it, no room for revision, cutting her out of your story will no longer be a choice, because emotionally, at least, you’ll already have.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.