Step Away, Sister!

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I have a real problem with my older sister, and—finally—I’ve gotten to the point where I am over it. When we were little, my sister “Ethel” constantly insulted me. She would call me names, make fun of my weight, point out every pimple, tease me that the boys would never be interested in someone who looked like me. Ethel would come into my room like it was her own and rifle through my closets, helping herself to my clothes and shoes, or she would take my CDs and “lose” them, or she would slip my favorite lip gloss into her purse and “forget” to give it back to me.

Ethel has since moved several hours away. I still live in the town we grew up in, and I only see her when she visits our parents. Now that we are adults…well, I want to say we get along better, but we don’t, not really. Adolescent teasing has given way to adult nagging, as though she can make me thinner/smarter/wealthier/with the right guy.

I’m in my early 20s, live independently, have a nice career underway, own my own house, own a car, have a good group of friends who support me instead of trying to tear me down. I like who I am and what I’ve achieved so far, but my sister thinks I can do “better” and won’t hear it when I tell her I’ve had enough, so I keep my distance.

My parents, of course, wish we were closer and have asked me to try, try, try. They don’t hear me when I say I’ve had enough, either. I have no interest in being her friend and having girl-dates with her when she’s in for visits. I certainly don’t feel like I need to go see her and be alone with her on her turf. But I don’t want to be disrespectful to my parents. Should I suck it up and keep trying with Ethel? Or is it OK to keep her at arms’ length?

Stepping Away Sister

Dear Stepping,

B&P: Before we say anything else we want to say, congratulations for getting your life together at such a young age. You’ve made good plans and grown into them. Whether or not your sister and your family can acknowledge your accomplishments, be very proud of yourself and keep building a community of friendship and support even as you build your dreams.

B: Ahh, family. Despite the Norman Rockwellian images of family we like to conjure up—gathered around the turkey, bright smiles, warm gestures, no drama—it’s often a minefield. These are the people who have known you the longest and, ironically, may not know that much about you. They may not know your political affiliation, your current job title or your favorite ice cream flavor but chances are they are intimately acquainted with your emotional triggers.

There’s a profoundly sad moment in the movie Home for the Holidays, that I think will help explain your feelings. The two sisters, constantly at loggerheads through the film, finally have the conversation that gets to the root of their problems. It goes like this.

Claudia: You don’t know the first thing about me.

Joanne: Likewise, I’m sure. If I just met you on the street… if you gave me your phone number… I’d throw it away.

Claudia: Well, we don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.

And therein lies the problem. You’re family, and you’re stuck with each other. And it can be hard to continually justify why you’re spending your valuable time and energy with someone who does everything she can to make you feel bad about yourself when your carefully cultivated, friendship-based, supportive urban family who genuinely likes you is just a phone call and a quick escape out the back door away.

P: Oh, this is so difficult, I’m so sorry. It seems that not only is your sister toxic and has been for a long while, but your parents also seem to have been indifferent toward the pain this causes you — and the disruption this ugliness causes in the family. Their expectation that you, who are picked on, should be the person who can, never mind should, make the situation better is a sad indication of their cluelessness. I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not actively mean, but they have certainly been passively mean.

B: Normally, I am an advocate for cutting one’s losses and stepping away from any sort of toxic relationship—partners, friends, co-workers if you can manage it (though that does get more difficult). If they’re bad for you, develop an exit strategy, and go. However! Family—and one’s nuclear family in particular—does have its own set of rules. Cousins? Cut ‘em out, let ‘em go, how often do you see them anyway? Aunts and uncles? Easy to create distance. But a sister…

Yeah, that can be tricky.

I’m not saying it’s tricky because I live in some kind of rose-colored ideal that one day, one day, you’ll both come to realize just how important the other is, and years of pent-up anger and dysfunctional interactions will fall away. I’m not saying it’s tricky because some day you may need a kidney, and she’s your best bet. But it’s tricky because you have parents you want to respect and honor; in your letter, it sounds like your parents are the only thing keeping you from kissing her goodbye forever. Chalk one up to yourself for that.

P: Terri and I talked a lot about how you didn’t focus on your sister, but rather on your desire not to be abused by her. Congratulations. Because you can’t fix her; I’m not sure you’ll be able to talk to her about this. You’re doing the work you need to be doing for yourself: you’ve got work you like, you own a house, and you have good friends. You’re building a life. If you read us, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of getting the support you need. If you don’t have it in your social circle, pay for it. You need to figure out what role you play in your family and the ways you are and are not willing to keep the family working. If you want to maintain relationships with your parents and sister, or create new ones, talking to a professional who can help you determine a course of action is a good thing. Maybe that person will have suggestions for new tacks to take with your sister, or your parents. There’s nothing like a little rehearsal before you try new tactics. Afterwards, with your therapist, you can even allow yourself the opportunity to debrief.

If I were you, I would also be disappointed in my parents’ response now and over my lifetime. In a way, it sounds as if they see you as capable and mature, but it doesn’t sound as if they see her as mean and hurtful.

B: UGH! Pet peeve alert! It’s almost as though you’re being punished for being strong. Why do you have to take her abuse? “Because you can” is not an acceptable answer. Sorry. Had to interject.

P: They are not protecting you from her abuse. From your description, your sister’s actions are verbally and psychically abusive. Your parents’ failure to stand up for you deepens that abuse. This is another place a counselor can help you. You don’t want to confront everyone and everything too early as your work on this because that can really blow things up. You need to figure out how to make your family hear you, because so far what you’ve tried has not served you well, but you also have to guard against them becoming defensive and turning on you. You don’t want to let any of your family members tarnish your life and your very real accomplishments.

B: You never mention whether you spend any time alone with your sister when she’s in for her visits. Have you ever, one on one, sat her down and told her how you feel about her behavior? Or have your exchanges been more like: dinner table à she insults you à you eyeroll and tell her to knock it off? That’s an adolescent pattern reasserting itself, and if I were your parents I’d have a hard time seeing it as anything other than the behavior you’ve always engaged in. Maybe you should try taking her out for a cocktail, or inviting her to your house—alone, no parents—to have a long-awaited chat. And tell her, without drama, that her criticisms hurt you deeply. They make you put up walls against her, which then hurts your parents. Try saying, “I expect you to treat me like the adult I am, because I feel like you still address me as though I am 12 years old and you’re the big sister who knows better, instead of the peers we’ve become.” Try NOT to say, “Knock it off, Ethel! You’ve always been so bossy.” Those two sentences are worlds apart in terms of gravitas. Because people, and women in particular, are notoriously bad at actually asking for what we want (because who wants to make waves?), you may want to practice saying what you need to say to your sister in a mirror. Practice makes perfect. Then, the next time she’s around, actually say it to her.

If that doesn’t work and she doesn’t let up…at least you’ve had your say, and can claim that you’ve tried to build a bridge with your sister. If she continues to harass you over your appearance or what the heck ever, don’t engage in that conversation. It’s a common mistake people make, thinking they have to comply or reply to the questions put before them, instead of saying, “I’m done having this conversation, and am moving on.” Give yourself some control of the conversation. Simply remind her that you’ve already asked her not to badger you any longer about personal issues, but you’d be happy to talk to her about the latest movies playing at the local megaplex. I’ll back you in saying that it would be fine, after that, to maintain your arms’ length relationship with Ethel. Be polite, pleasant even, when she’s around, and then slip out the back door as soon as you can to meet up with the friends who support and nourish you emotionally.

P: Whatever you do, remember that you have choices and that exercising those choices will give you power. She may continue to bait you. But you don’t have to play. It’s a sad thing if she does, but that will be her choice. It might be helpful to plan some fun things around necessary family visits — channel yourself some good old Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar — not only does it give you something to look forward to, it also gives you a time when the visit is over. One thing you want to be sure about though, as you reduce your sister’s influence in your face to face conversations, you want to ensure that she begins to take up less time in your life with friends. She is who she is. I’m not saying you don’t get to tell stories, but you don’t want to waste your time reliving the discomfort.

stepping away sister napkin

Her Cheatin’ Heart

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I have a friend named “Mary”. Mary and I have known each other for ten years now; we met as freshmen in college and have seen each other through a lot of things.

In my case, I have mostly seen her through breakups. And new hookups. And breakups again. Continue reading

Heart Problems Galore

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I am a 22-year-old man and recently got dumped. Again. And this last one really hurt.

We were together for about a month, and I really liked this girl, “Sally”. One night, we got involved in a long conversation about family, and family history, and the kind of baggage we have. One of the things she told me about (along with her parents’ divorce and an estrangement with another sister) was she had a brother who was born with a congenital heart disease. I thought, FINALLY! Someone who might understand me. You see, I too was born with heart disease. I got all excited when I told her about my condition. I thought she would get it. Continue reading

Promposal Problems

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I am a senior in high school. Since the beginning of this year I’ve held a part-time job, and put most of my money into a savings account. I’m going away to college in the fall on a partial academic scholarship, and my parents and I decided it would make sense for me to work now and save everything so when I go to school I can focus on my studies, and still have some spending money. We don’t have a lot of money, so maintaining my scholarship is really important to me, and to my parents. Continue reading

Partisan Politics at Home

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I am a second-semester sophomore at college. To save money and make life easier for my parents, I am attending the college in our town and living at home. It’s been a lot of fun and with one exception has worked very well.

My parents are Democrats. Continue reading

Father: Dead or Alive?

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I am concerned about my 80 year old father. He’s a widower, and the last of his siblings. When he was younger he was a force to be reckoned with—one of those strong, confident Mad Men sort of businessmen—but he’s been retired for a while, and has lost touch with a lot of his old contacts thanks to time or their passing. He doesn’t go out much, and so he doesn’t really take care of himself. He never shaves, he has crazy-man hair, his clothes don’t fit and he’s got dirt caked under his fingernails. I feel like he’s just not concerned about his appearance any more. Continue reading

The Real Work of Parenting

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I am struggling to manage my household, and feel like I am failing miserably. Continue reading

The Message Is Clear; He Is Stalking You

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I’ve been dating my boyfriend for a little over a year now. I’m crazy about him, but sometimes I don’t think he feels the same way about me, that he’s sending out mixed signals.

He’s always asking me about my friends, especially if they’re guys. Like, I have to account everything I do to him. He’ll drive past my house or come to the front door unannounced; sometimes, I feel like he’s trying to catch me with someone else.

The last time he cruised my door he saw me still in my car. It was midnight and I had come home late from the gym. I was sitting in my car listening to music and surfing the internet. He stopped his car in front of mine and demanded to see what was in my gym bag; he thought I was on my way out to see someone else. The only way I could get him to ease up was by opening my bag and showing him my sweaty gym clothes.

My boyfriend has a rocky track record with relationships, and he said he was hurt badly when both of his marriages ended in divorce. So he won’t come out and say I’m his girlfriend, because of the way his other relationships ended. I don’t know what to do. I love him so much, but a part of me thinks I should end things. I don’t know how to read him. Can you offer any advice?

–Confused in Connecticut

+++++++++

Dear Confused,

US: Whoa.

We don’t think we’ve ever done a question with a theme song before. But let us just say it’s not “Slow down, you move too fast now.

Nope, it’s more a screaming version of “You gotta get out of this place.” Now. Stat! You are in danger.

P: There are no mixed signals here, although you seem to be under some confusion about what constitutes good boundaries in relationships. You say, you don’t even know if you’re in relationship, and he’s stalking you (did you hear that, he’s stalking you, driving by your apartment more than once an evening) and demanding you show him your gym bag? No one has the right to look in your bags. Does it seem thrilling that he’s possessive? It shouldn’t. It’s a sickness on his part. Your property is your property. His wanting to see it is his wanting to control you. You are a woman, all that language about belonging to one another is seductive and wrong-headed. You belong to yourself.

B: If you find his possessiveness thrilling, or even acceptable, then it’s a sickness on your part, too. You ought not to be subject to his demands, and allowing him to show up (my guess is, when he’s at your door unannounced, you always let him in), tell you what to do (re: gym bag), and harangue you until you comply tells me your own identity is compromised. So many of us spend so much of our time expecting someone else to make them “complete” (whatever that means), and there’s all these pauncy stories and songs and rom-com movies about finding That Certain Someone who is the other half that creates one glorious whole. I kinda blame Plato for that nonsense (and, indirectly, for those rom-coms), but here’s the thing. What it ultimately does is allow a person to relinquish ownership of his or her own life, thinking he or she can’t fully self-actualize until that other person comes along. Which is completely misguided logic, if you spend a minute thinking about it. And which leaves you open to someone else stepping in and trying to take ownership of your life, by checking up on you at all hours and demanding you present the contents of your gym bag.

P: This is already an abusive relationship. I’m not going to focus on him, because he is not looking for help. He’s already had two “failed relationships,” poor thing… I’m sure he thinks neither of those failures were his fault. I hope your writing to the Bartender and the Priestess means that you are looking for help and a way out. Because the abuse will only be repeated and it will only escalate. You are in danger. Please.

B: Seriously. If you’re writing to us trying to figure out how to save this, I’m happy to say you won’t find that here. You mentioned his two failed marriages; has he laid on you the trip that “he doesn’t know how he can trust again, those two other women really hurt him”? Because if he did then let me help you refine your response (and start teaching you boundary definition in the process). Your response should have been, “Well, you seem like a really nice guy but you really need to get over that sort of internal anguish. I hope you get the help you need; call me when you’re more healthy.” Your response should NOT have been, “Let me prove to you that not all women are bad!” My guess is, you chose response #2, thereby taking on the burden of his past injuries and making them a factor in your role as his girlfriend, instead of pointing him toward something healthier.

P: Right now, you’re collaborating with him. If you know he drives by, why are you sitting outside? Sadly, in today’s world, it’s dangerous enough to be a woman alone at night in most cities that you don’t want to do it. But with this particular man, you’re courting trouble. Why? What do you want? You don’t need him to prove he loves you, you need to learn to love yourself.

B: He’s not mixing his messages. He’s pretty declarative, in fact. He’s saying, over and over, that you belong to him, even without giving you the official title. He’s saying that what’s yours–including you–is his. In two years, or five years, or six months or three weeks from now, when you’re sick of his BS and you refuse to open your gym bag because you just don’t feel like it, and he hits you in response, will you say that you never saw this coming? Because it’s written all over every aspect of his behavior toward you. A mixed message is, “He says he really likes chicken but he rolls his eyes whenever I make it.” It’s not, “He’s demanding to see inside my gym bag and will fly off the handle if I don’t give it to him.” That’s, actually, pretty obvious. And the lack of title is another tactic often used by abusers; they keep you needy and attached by keeping you off-balance. Again, obvious. And you need to back away. You say you’re crazy about him, but don’t give one single example of why. You only talk about his erratic behavior. Your gut knows what you should do, even if your head doesn’t want to come to terms with it.

P: Should you abandon ship? If there’s a ship at all, it’s a prison ship in dangerous waters. Please get out. You can learn about good boundaries some other time. First ensure your safety. You are worth so much more than this man. I promise you. If you need help leaving, or even considering how to leave, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline – 1-800-799-7233 or go on line to http://thehotline.org Call them now. Save yourself. You’re the only one who can.

bnp 24 creeper

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Continue reading

Husband or Landlord with Benefits?

Dear Bartender and Priestess: For the last ten years I have been married to “Shaun”. We’ve both been married once before. Shaun and I get along well and like many of the same things, so courting seemed easy. It wasn’t long after we were married, though, that he informed me we were going to split every expense exactly down the middle. Everything, 50-50. Continue reading