My parents and two sisters live in the city I grew up in. I moved away to start my own family and get some healthy distance from the often boundary-less existence I had growing up. It was a great decision. I love the life my husband and I have created.
I miss my parents and love when they visit. I also enjoy when one of my sisters visits with her daughters. It’s great for my children and important to me that they all have those relationships. However, I don’t want much of a relationship with my other sister. She has borderline personality disorder and has been delusional at times about her health. She also has gotten very angry in front of my kids, and it’s been scary for them.
The problem is my family is very close and my parents said they can’t visit me for holidays unless I make up with her. This sister and I have an ongoing fight where she tells me I’m cold and unfeeling and we should be closer, and I explain that I can’t let my guard down with her unless she gets some help. Then she tells me I’m gaslighting her.
My other sister fakes a relationship with this sister to placate my parents and to allow this sister to have some time with her children (because this sister has no children).
My question is: How do I hold my boundaries and still get to see my parents for at least some holidays?
I’m glad to hear that you’ve found a way to create some healthy distance from your family while also remaining close with them. Making that decision was a first step toward establishing the life you wanted for yourself and mitigating what you experienced as a “boundary-less existence.”
As you’re seeing, however, geography won’t remedy the situation entirely. The antidote to a lack of family boundaries involves two intentional steps: setting clear limits and then communicating them directly.
Before we consider how you might approach your parents about these holiday visits, let’s look at the situation more closely. First, I can understand how upsetting it must be for you to have your parents interfere in your adult relationship with your sister. What they’re doing, essentially, is insisting that you have a certain kind of relationship with your sister, one that makes you uncomfortable. At the same time, I can also imagine how hard it must be for parents who love all of their children to see what they perceive as one child excluding another. I mention this because you say that your family is close, and it’s clear that love is motivating some of this conflict. But there’s a difference between closeness and enmeshment—the latter is where boundaries get blurred.
In enmeshed families, emotional independence is discouraged. For example, if a child makes a choice with which the parent disagrees, the parent will use guilt, shaming, or manipulation to get the child to do what the parent wants. Often, the parents believe they’re preserving the family’s close bond, but instead they tend to create resentful people-pleasers.
Growing up in a household with blurry boundaries, you might not have learned to differentiate between what you needed and what others around you did. By moving away, you began to gain some clarity, but perhaps you still struggle to pinpoint exactly what you’re asking for. In order to set a boundary, first you have to identify what you need, then you communicate those needs in a way that someone else can hear. So my question is, what is the boundary you’re trying to set?
Your parents are saying that they won’t visit for holidays unless you “make up” with your sister, but what does making up mean? Instead of a specific rupture you might try to repair, you and your sister have a recurring disagreement about the nature of your relationship overall: She wants to be closer than you want to be. You say that you “don’t want much of a relationship” with your sister, but are you clear about what that means? Do you want to see her only when you visit your hometown? Only in the company of others, but not one-on-one? Are birthday good wishes or the occasional friendly email or phone call okay? Are you interested in seeing whether a better relationship with your sister is possible by setting specific boundaries, such as: If you raise your voice, I will end our visits.
Once you’re clear, you have two boundaries to communicate: one with your parents, and one with your sister. For your parents, you might send them a letter that goes something like this:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I love you both so much, and it hurts me when you say that you won’t visit for holidays. I understand how upset you must feel to see your daughters not get along. At the same time, we are both adults, and I feel like you’re hoping that by depriving my family of your company during holidays, I’ll do something that magically “fixes” the relationship between us sisters. I’m sorry to say that there’s no easy fix for years of mutual disagreement and discomfort between us. I know you wish that you could do something to create closeness between us, but as much as you’d like that, you can’t heal other people’s relationships. What you can do is love us both for who we are.
Part of loving me is caring about my well-being and trying to understand my experience. By boycotting my family for holidays, you leave me feeling like the story in our family is that I’m the villain and my sister is the victim—that I’m rejecting her. I know that she has struggled deeply in her life, but she’s not the only one who has suffered. Siblings in families where one child struggles often appear “fine,” so nobody wonders about their needs. But her struggles have taken a toll on me, too, and now, as an adult, I need to create a relationship with my sister that takes my own emotional health into consideration. Your visiting—or not visiting—won’t change this. It will only leave me feeling angry that we’re all missing out on joyous times and celebrations that we can’t get back.
What I’d like most this holiday season is for you to love me as I am—a full-fledged adult capable of making choices worthy of respect, even if they’re different from the ones you’d like me to make.
Your parents might respond to this letter by starting a long overdue conversation about the dynamics in your family, which will hopefully lead to their acceptance that they can’t (and shouldn’t try to) control what happens between their adult daughters. They might also respond by defending themselves, adding more guilt, or invalidating your pain. Either way, you can maintain your boundary by saying in a kind tone: I love you so much, but causing me pain won’t help my relationship with my sister—or with both of you. I hope you’ll reconsider what it means to love me.
Writing this letter will be good practice for the letter you’ll write to your sister, letting her know what your limits are. If you’re having trouble defining them, a conversation with a therapist might help. Depending on what you decide you need, your letter might go something like this:
I know that we’ve struggled to find a way to be together that feels comfortable for both of us. I understand that you want to be closer, and that you feel hurt that we’re not. I also feel hurt, often when we’re together, and when I’ve expressed that certain behaviors push me away, we seem to argue even more. The last thing I want to do is hurt you, just as I’m sure you don’t want to hurt me, but the reality is that we keep hurting each other, and I’ve wanted some space as a result.
I don’t want to continue arguing with you—it’s not healthy for either of us—and I don’t think we’ll ever agree in our arguments. What I hope is that we can be around each other in a respectful, calm way. The more positive experiences we have together, the more likely it is that we’ll naturally become somewhat closer over time. If, however, we continue to have painful experiences around each other, I’ll need to have more space, and the possibility of getting closer will become less likely.
I’m writing to you to share my experience and create some mutual understanding. What you do with this letter is up to you, but I hope you see it as a heartfelt invitation to take small steps to see if we can have less conflict and more connection when we’re together.
Your sister might appreciate your letter, but it’s also possible that she’ll feel defensive and blamed, and won’t take the boundary-setting well. Remember, though, that by writing this letter, you will have asked for what you need, and that boundaries are an agreement you have with yourself, regardless of what the other person does. You can choose to respect your own boundaries by seeing your sister with whatever frequency and under whatever conditions work for you, while reiterating to your parents that no amount of pressure or blackmail or threats of holiday abandonment will convince you to abandon yourself.
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. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.