Dear Prudence: My sister torments me and makes visiting family unbearable.

Help! My Sister Torments Me and Makes Family Visits Unbearable.

Help! My Sister Torments Me and Makes Family Visits Unbearable.

Advice on manners and morals.
Sept. 8 2015 2:51 PM

I Won’t Be Home for Christmas

Prudie counsels a woman whose sister makes family holiday visits miserable.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

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Q. Sisterly Discord: For most of my life, my sister “Crystal” and I have never had a good relationship. For as long as I can remember, she’s always been horrible to me, criticizing everything from my choice in movies and music to how I act in public. Her attitude is actually a joke between some friends and me. My family has acknowledged her behavior toward me, but their way to keep the peace is to tell me that since I’m the oldest, I need to be mature and ignore it. For the last several years, I’ve lived far enough away that going home during the holidays was a financial burden. However, I recently moved closer, and now the pressure is on to come home for the holidays. Prudie, I’m in my 30s and have discovered my best holidays have been spent with friends, food, beer, and bad horror movies. It’s not that I don’t want to go home; it’s just my desire not to deal with Crystal outweighs my desire to see my family. Last Christmas saw me emptying my brother’s liquor cabinet. What’s a nice way to tell my mom I’m not coming home for Christmas?

A: Your parents held your childhood hostage to the terrible conduct of your younger sister. It doesn’t matter that you were older—there needed to be rules in place about how people behaved toward each other in your family. Perhaps your sister has some kind of personality disorder—these can be intractable and resistant to treatment. But it doesn’t sound as if your parents even tried to figure this out; they just allowed her to express her obsessive jealousy and disdain. Revealingly, she never grew out of it, so you’ve been expected to suck it up on holidays and subject yourself to her shredding—even if you recognize the ridiculousness of the source. Sure, your parents are torn between their daughters, but shame on them for putting the burden on you. You tell your mother that holidays are supposed to be joyful events, and all the joy is stomped out for you because you’re expected to be treated by your sister in a way you would never allow anyone else to treat you. Tell your mother that since you now live closer, you will be seeing her when your sister is not there. So you can visit with your family on less fraught holidays—enjoy your tension-free Arbor Day visit.  

Q. Don’t Want Wedding Delays: During my fiancé’s bachelor party, there was an accident that left one of his friends seriously injured and in a coma. The mother of the injured man, “Ted,” is close childhood friends with my future mother-in-law. My MIL-to-be also cares a lot about Ted. As Ted faces lifelong disabilities, she says we should delay the wedding out of respect for Ted and his injuries. This means we face a significant financial cost, not to mention many friends and family members who will have to cancel their planned trips from abroad at the last minute. If our canceling the wedding could help Ted recover in any way, I would do it, but I don’t see how it will make any difference. Is there a way to decline their suggestion tactfully in such a sensitive situation?

A: What a tragedy. I wish you had elaborated on what happened at this bachelor party as a public health warning. One can totally understand Ted’s mother’s grief and her sense that her son’s life has been destroyed by the celebration of this wedding. But you are right—delaying the wedding won’t change anything. Ted has not yet regained consciousness, and there is a huge struggle ahead. I think the wedding should go on, but that at some point in the wedding—and yes, it will be very sad and a downer on your special day—there has to be a talk about Ted. At the toasts, your new husband should say that amid your joy there is also sorrow. Explain briefly Ted’s condition, talk about what a great person he is, and then ask for a moment of silence while everyone wishes for Ted’s recovery.

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Q. Re: Sisterly Discord: That letter could have been written by me 20 years ago. The only thing that has changed in that time is how I deal with both her and my parents. I don’t let my sister’s behavior affect me. My wise therapist told me that I should see her as fishing for a reaction, but that smart fish don’t rise to the bait. She acts up, I walk away. She insults me, I don’t react. She can’t control me or my reactions, and slowly but surely she has backed away from trying. It is difficult, and it is painful to be in the crosshairs of a family member, but I have come away feeling better about myself and having a bit of pity for her. Good luck!

A: What a wise therapist, and how good you had someone to guide you through this awful situation. Indeed, this shows the wisdom of not responding to such people. It’s right you can’t set out to change such a sister, but you can change your response to her. And when there is no reward for awful behavior, such people often do back down. However, I also think it’s perfectly appropriate to come to a point in one’s life where the long, difficult retraining of a vicious family member is just not something you want to undertake on your holiday. Telling your parents you’ll see them later and having fun with friends—as the original letter writer does on the holidays—is also a healthy way to deal.

Q. Bath Etiquette: My sister is an environmentalist and lives a very eco-friendly lifestyle. One manifestation of this is that she, her wife, and their son run one bath every day, and all of them use it. When we stay over we are also expected to wash up in that same bath—or not at all. Would it be reasonable to ask to run our own baths when we’re staying over, or do her household rules trump our comfort and hygiene?

A: It’s hard to understand how a plunge into a tub of filthy water will save the planet, but you need to define “expected.” Does that mean that if you say, “I honor what you’re doing, but we’re each going to take a separate shower,” you will be then dragged out with shampoo still in your hair? If so, forget the salvation of planet but instead focus on saving your relationship when you visit and stay at a nearby motel.

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Q. My Brother Ignored My Mother, and I Want to Tell Him Off: For reasons unknown to any of us, my brother ignored my mother for most of her life. My mother didn’t know why, and she was not a woman to confront conflict. She died about three weeks ago but never stopped asking if we had heard from him. My oldest brother and his wife cared for my mother in the most loving and responsible way. Now that my mother is gone, I have drafted a letter to my brother telling him how cruel and cowardly he was and what it did to my mother. I think he needs to be held accountable for his years of neglect. Can I send it to him, or should I just let it sit in my draft folder and read it whenever I get mad at him all over again? I had toyed with sending a copy to his children, but that would be as cruel as the behavior I am condemning. Your thoughts?

A: You’ve written the letter, which I hope helps you feel better. The human heart is a mysterious and sometimes dark place. Something went wrong early on in the relationship between mother and son—again, perhaps this is a case of a serious personality disorder. It’s too bad that long ago your conflict-avoidant mother didn’t take some kind of action while your brother was still at home to address this with a professional. But it’s all over now, and he kept up a lifetime grudge of unknown origin. Your letter will serve no purpose except to put you on the list of those he no longer has contact with (if you even do have much contact). Yes, your mother carried this pain always, but think of the joy she had in her two devoted, loving children. Focus on that, and don’t forward the letter.

Q. Is My Son Being a Commitaphobe? My late-20s son has become quite comfortable breaking up with girlfriends in the years since he finished college. He lives in a large metropolitan area and has been lucky to have had a series of smart and talented girlfriends. He appears happy with each of them for six to 12 months, then decides it’s time to break up, giving his professional commitments as the reason he can’t give the woman he’s dating the attention she deserves. I’ve heard from other people his age that serial monogamy for short-ish periods of time is common, but my husband and I feel terrible for each of these lovely women, even though our son is always kind during the breakups. Is he setting up a pattern that will persist, or is there a good chance he’ll be able to love deeply someday?

A: For your son life is a garden from which he can pluck an endless series of lovely roses. You can understand that there’s a certain disincentive for him to stop. He is still young, and if indeed he does settle down, the benefit of such a youth is that he will never have to wonder what it would have been like to have romances with a lot of other people. Your son may be that outlier who never commits, or he may have another 10 years or so of serial relationships in him. Some such people do finally reach the point where the desire for novelty is trumped by the exhaustion of sharing their ever-longer life story with strangers and the wish for someone who understands their references. So don’t despair, happily married parents! In the meantime, it sounds as if you and his father are fairly close to your son and have gotten to know his series. When he’s ready to introduce the next one, one of you can say that although you appreciate that he has wonderful taste in women, his breakups are apparently harder for you two than for him. You can say you have gotten quite attached to several of his girlfriends, and maybe it would be a good idea if he only introduced you to someone he is serious about.

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Q. Re: Wedding Delays: Two weeks before my friend’s wedding, her future father-in-law was in a car accident and pronounced brain-dead. They went ahead with the wedding as planned. Life is precious, and it can change in the blink of an eye. Tragic accidents aren’t reasons to delay life’s celebrations. Pay tribute to Ted in the wedding or reception, but by all means, get married.

A: So sad, but I agree they made the right decision. And surely the father would not have wanted to be the reason for delaying the marriage.

Q. Money Money Money: I have been in my current position at work for more than a year. I’ve been told by numerous people that I’m a huge improvement over the woman who had my job before, who is now in another department. I found out from her how much she is currently making. (She brought it up in conversation.) Either she got a significant raise when she switched departments (she makes almost $3 more an hour than I do), or she was making more than I currently do when she had this job. I have a performance review coming up soon, and I’m debating whether to mention this to my boss. If she was making more and I’m doing a better job, I feel I deserve some sort of raise. However, I don’t want to cause any trouble for her for telling me what she's making now. Should I mention what I know to my boss or just leave it alone?

A: She just did you a huge favor, so don’t blow it by revealing specifically what you learned. This is actionable information, but you don’t say, “Marlene told me how much she makes, and I know I do a better job than she did, so I want my salary to match hers.” What you do is go in for your performance review, talk about your specific contributions to the company, and ask for a raise commensurate with your work. Keep in mind that your predecessor may have been with the company a lot longer than you, so her salary may have accrued over time. But now you know what is reasonable for you to be paid, so speak up without telling all.