Beyond Blame

Freeing yourself from toxic emotional bullsh*t

My Sister Constantly Competes

Why can't she get along with the rest of us siblings?

Dear Dr. Alasko: I get along really well with my two brothers but my sister has always been difficult. Whenever we get together she makes snarky comments about my house, my kids, even my husband. If I confront her, she blames me. My brothers try not to take sides but they admit she's always been angry and competitive, often charging the rest of us with being “more Mom and Dad’s favorites” than she is. It's painful to not have a loving relationship with her. What can I do to make things better?

Dear Reader: Your question touches on a perennially troubling issue in all family and sibling relationships: why do siblings seem to favor one sibling or child over another---and the opposite? And why do some siblings get along well while another is marginalized?

This issue has been a central theme in literature for centuries and shapes the plot of many folk tales. Young princes have always competed for the King's favor, sometimes killing the most favored. I mention this classic background because people like to believe that families are always supposed to be happy. The opposite is closer to the truth.

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There's a natural competition that prevails between siblings. Just watch small children interacting with each other and their parents. Wise parents know how to balance their attention so no child feels excluded. But sometimes a child is born with a particularly sensitive nature and the parents are not sufficiently aware of that child's needs to make necessary adjustments. In those cases, the child grows up believing that "You were always Mom/Dad's favorite. I hate you for that, and I have a right to hate you!" Or some variation on that theme.

So going back into family history and trying to sort out the truth from fantasy, imagination or exaggeration is usually fruitless.

The solution is the standard two-part intervention: examining both what you might be able to do and what you can’t possibly control.

Start by carefully examining your own behaviors. Consult with your husband or close friend, someone who will give you an objective assessment of all your interactions with your sister. Have you done something that she might reasonably see as less-than-supportive of her? Is there an incident, whether ancient or recent, for which you could make amends?

There might not be, or the incidents that come to mind could be so minor that apologizing would be futile. But if there is any troubled history you can help bring to resolution, then make a supreme effort to heal that old wound.

The second part goes in the opposite direction: accepting the fact that you and your sister are mismatched. Even from early childhood, it appears that you didn't get along, or perhaps parted ways at adolescence. Unfortunately, she seems to have the kind of personality that broods over resentments and remembers incidents that you hardly noticed—and she's been collecting grievances ever since.

When siblings are young, they have no choice but to sit at the same table and share a bathroom with another person they find intrinsically irritating and unlikable. Her personality might be structurally allergic to yours and she suffered through having to live with you for many years. Fundamentally, no one's at fault.

If trying to resolve old issues doesn’t work, accepting this as a basic truth about your relationship will help absolve the guilt over the possibility that you may have done, or now should do, something different.

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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