Dear Family Whisperer,
My older sister and I are four years apart. I was always closer to our brother (he's in the middle) than her, but now that we are both mothers, we have more in common. The problem is, she thinks she's always right about everything. If we argue, it's never her fault. The other day, for instance, she cut me off when I was telling her about a my 8-year-old's diagnosis of ADD and started talking about her daughter's gymnastics coach. When I tried to tell her that she hurt my feelings, not only did she not apologize, she snapped at me: "You think you're the only one who has problems?" It's so unfair. I listen to her all the time. Is there anything I can do to change this dynamic?
-- A Grown-up "Baby" Sister
Good for you for asking this question! Relationships with parents and especially with siblings set the stage for social interactions throughout life. So if you understand what's happening with your sister, and how to deflect the negativity, it will help you be "better" in non-familial relationships as well. Here are some suggestions that can get the two of you "unstuck."
1. Look in the mirror.
Successful relationships begin with self-reflection. What do you bring to the table? What are you contributing to this dynamic? When your sister hurls accusations at you, ask yourself, is any of this true? Do you monopolize the conversation? Do you need to be "right," too? If you're not sure, pay attention.
2. Offer to listen first if that's what she needs.
This is hard and requires restraint on your part. But if you try to prove she's "wrong," neither of you will get what you need from the relationship. Show compassion and understanding now, and you might not have to walk on eggshells in the future.
3. Consider the history of your relationship.
Did your sister belittle you as a kid? Did she repeatedly point out that she could do more, or do better, than you? Did she always have to take the lead? How did you feel about yourself when you're with her? Does her criticism now remind you of stings from the past?
4. Stand in your sister's shoes.
What is her version of your childhood? Try to imagine what you and other family members look like from her perspective. Did your mother or father often take your side? If you were "always closer" to your brother, did the two of you leave her out, conspire against her or tease her? Do some of those dynamics still exist? Remember that every story is colored by personal experience -- yours, hers and whoever else watches from the sidelines.
5. Stroll down memory lane together.
In your next conversation, bring up a pleasant memory -- a time she was kind or helped you get through something difficult ("Remember when Mom and Dad left us with that horrible baby sitter?"). Ask for her recollection. It might surprise you. It might also give you new information about your sister. Once you begin to connect on a more authentic level and build trust, you can move on to more difficult memories and deeper conversations.
6. Be vulnerable -- and explicit.
Help her see the real you. Let her know that you come to her with your problems because you respect her opinion and her experience as a mother. If true, also tell her that you need her help, that you rely on her judgment.
7. Be honest without blaming.
From now on, if your sister interrupts or gets nasty, let her know that you feel hurt -- but resist making her the "bad" one. For example, if she says, "You think you're the only one who has problems?" you might say, "No, of course not, but I can tell that you're upset. Is something else bothering you?"
8. Know the extent of your "power."
You can change the conversation and your own behavior, but you cannot force anyone else to change. That said, if you stop doing the same old dance with your sister, she will have to come up with new footwork, too.
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