How to Ruin a Sister Relationship in One Easy Lesson

Here's how to make a bad situation worse with your sister.

Posted Oct 15, 2017

Sister relationships are pretty intense. Hurt feelings can often be healed by a heartfelt apology.  But beware of apologizing in a way that just deepens the original injury. 

Consider my friend, Dolores, who was irritated that her younger sister didn’t lift a finger at their family reunion when everyone else was pitching in.  At one point, Dolores felt a rush of anger, and criticized her sister in front of other family members. “You’re not the guest of honor at this party,” Dolores barked, “Would it really kill you to load the dishwasher?”   

No surprise that her feedback didn’t go over well. Her sister walked away and they avoided each other for the remainder of the gathering.

Dolores felt badly.  A few days after returning home she called her sister to apologize for being out of line. “I apologize for the way I confronted you, but I have a very hard time with you not pulling your weight. I may have lost it because it reminds me how I did all the chores growing up and Mom always let you get away with doing nothing because she hated fighting with you.  I apologize for being rude but someone had to tell you how to act.”

“That’s not an apology,” I noted, when Dolores complained that her sister didn’t respond positively.  Understandably, it was incredibly difficult for Dolores to offer a genuine apology for her rudeness when she carried so much anger and resentment from the past. But I imagine her sister might have felt insulted all over again.

 Embedded in Delores’s “apology” was the implication that not only had her sister acted like a spoiled brat at the reunion, but she had occupied this role her entire life. And “…someone had to tell you how to act” is an obvious dig.

Perhaps Dolores’s sister would have been more open to considering the apology if Dolores had simply said she was terribly sorry for being rude and out of line.  Rather than ramping up her sister’s level of defensiveness, a simple apology might have provided her sister with the space to consider her own behavior at the reunion.

Dolores’s intentions were good.  “I wanted to give my sister some background as to why I over-reacted,” she told me.  “I wanted her to know that my reaction to her not pulling her weight has a long history.”  

Fine, but that’s a different conversation, and one that Dolores might open with a good measure of timing and tact. The best apologies are short, and don’t go on to include explanations which run the risk of undoing them.  

An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue.  The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication.

This is an important and often overlooked distinction.