Dear Ethel-Mae

I have a sister who has continually blown hot and cold with me most of our adult life and has severed our relationship more than once, usually with a display of aggressive, undeserved anger.

When younger, we got along well despite our age difference. I loved hanging out with my little sis and never felt like a babysitter even when our mother asked me to watch her. As the years passed, I grew up, went off to college out-of-state, worked in a big city after graduation, and never moved back home as there wasn’t much going on in the small coastal town. My little sis eventually went to college, too, and began her life away from home. By then, we were living in different states and had not been in touch for several years, because she felt I had failed her based on another family member’s lie that cost us many precious years and important life events that we never shared.

Looking back at our childhood, I see now that she missed me terribly when I grew up and went off to school. What she never knew at that age was my own struggle, gripped battling an inner turmoil, trying to cope with how to adjust to adult life after an abusive and demeaning childhood. Instead, I see now how lonely and abandoned she must have felt but also recognize that it’s not up to me to fill her needs, needs neglected by our damaged upbringing, facing similar demons that I also fought.

She didn’t speak to me for a number of years then we ended up reconciling through a series of circumstances.  Everything was going great and I felt we were getting closer. Deep down, though, I was disturbed by random possessive comments and demanding behavior, but I was so happy to be connected to her again that I didn’t want to rock the boat. Even though she is married to a kind and considerate husband who makes a good living for her and their children, she clearly isn’t fulfilled and has put unreasonable demands on me, acting possessive at times and if not getting what she wanted from me, she’d retreat–angry, withdrawn and condemning. I still hung in there.

I feel that she was turning to me to fill the void that comes from having a mother that rarely showed love or caring, a mother whose own needs were always a priority. But I’m tired of jumping through my sister’s “prove you love me” hoops.

Each time she’d get hostile, I’d give her space and remain kind and caring even if from a distance. I’d make occasional calls but less calls as she is unpredictable, either warm and friendly or cold and judgmental. She’d often insert judgments about me or my life, moving quickly to condemnation based on her own expectations and acting as if I didn’t love her enough if I didn’t cater to her needs. I often feel like I’m dealing with a small, unloved child who wants me to prove to her that I love her by fulfilling her expectations. I don’t dare tell her this because she’d rant at me as the problem before ever looking deeply into the mirror.

Her continued behavior in pushing me away has been wearing me out to the point that I’m losing my desire to have a relationship with her. Though I adore her children and really like her husband, she’s becoming too painful to endure. What should I do?

Sibling on the Outs in Seal Beach

Dear Sibling on the Outs

Sibling breakups are extremely painful and usually the sibling who initiates the termination is the one who suffers more later, so don’t be impulsive. Learning to set boundaries and not taking her behavior personally is a good start to keeping a relationship intact, even if it’s not a close relationship.

It’s highly likely that your sister has a hard time making friends, too, if this is her pattern. Believe me, if she’s blowing hot and cold with you, she’s doing the same with others in her life. While she probably functions highly in many areas, the “little girl” in her is still afraid of others around her validating her fragile sense of value, of lovability.

We have our parents for 30 to 50 years, but we have siblings in our lives for 50 to 80 years. Parental favoritism or neglect can play a role in sibling rivalries, especially when a younger sibling is left alone in an abusive or neglectful environment. Small differences in parental favoritism or neglect can scar children by making them feel less secure and less likely to make it out of childhood feeling loved and safe.

The shared experiences of siblings are powerful. There’s no one else who gets how your mother is or what it was like growing up in your family dynamic. This is often why siblings feel pulled to one another even if the relationship is rocky.

When children grow up without the security of loving parents, they often push people away first because they imagine that they’ll eventually be rejected based on the rejection of their value as a child.  These neglected, unvalued children often set up unconscious “tests” for people in their adult lives, and, more often than not, people fail their tests because the tests are usually spawned from the need to control an outcome.

Your sister is likely to be very black and white about people’s behaviors and is constantly watching them for flaws, justifying that they’re not up to her standards. Instead, she’s really pushing them away first out of fear, too afraid to make herself vulnerable to what she suffered in the past from her mother.

She needs to find healing on her own. You can’t fix what you didn’t break. Her family can’t fix that need either. Love does help heal but it also means that the person who needs healing has to find courage and self-awareness and stop blaming others for the pain in her life before she can find contentment and not lash out at others for what causes her pain.

You obviously love your sister even though you’re in pain about your relationship. She might not get that given her unreasonable expectations, but I’m a strong believer that if we keep showing love and being consistently kind, she’ll come to trust that you are there for her, just not at her beck and call. Be there for her, but don’t take on the guilt of being the one responsible for what is a painful void in her life.

If she ultimately justifies her continued retreat from you based on you not passing her “tests” then the best you can do is love her from a distance. Try to hang in there even it just means sending cards on special occasions. If your sister acts hostile when you call, then find another way to communicate… perhaps via texts or social media.

Hopefully, she won’t cut you off for the rest of your lives as I’m sure she’ll regret those lost years from the vantage point of old age.




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