I love my sister but don’t like

10 Jul 2018

My older sister and I have always had a rocky relationship. It started, my mother tells me, when I was brought home from hospital after being born and I was not the fun companion my sister had been promised.

We then spent the better part of our childhood fighting. Our father did not want to know and would stay out of it. His attitude was, ignore it and it will go away. As adults, we exist together – I love her, but I do not like her. Family get-togethers are our only source of interaction, and they are usually strained. We get on better when my mother isn’t there, so she believes that any hostility between us exists only because we are warring for her love and attention. Her constant worry and nit-picking over every interaction is making the whole situation worse. If we ignore each other, we aren’t trying hard enough; if we try to talk, we are making each other uncomfortable or instigating a fight.

Recently, my mother accused me of saying something to make my sister feel unwanted, and she is still bringing it up weeks later, saying I am making her stressed. I am truly sorry for what my mother went through when we were children, but I can’t seem to make her understand that we are trying to be amicable, and that we cannot rewrite history.

The answer to the letter: Although as adults you have to own your own behaviour, you and your sister not getting on as children is not your fault (nor is it your sister’s). It is the responsibility of parents to make sure siblings get on as well as possible. That doesn’t mean all siblings will be best friends, but parental guidance can go a long way to help. Your parents didn’t help, either by over-involvement or absence.

I question why parents tell children about sibling reactions when they were born – unless they were positive. Such throwaway comments can shape relationships for a lifetime. Susanna Abse, a psychoanalytical psychotherapist, who is very experienced in sibling relationships, was struck by how involved your mother is. Abse went straight to the nub of this, which is that “as long as your mother is the central figure, you and your sister may never have a relationship. And your father sounds displaced. There is no sense of a parental couple.”

Abse explained why some siblings don’t get on, and why a parent may get over-involved in a sibling relationship in the way your mother has. It may be that the parent is full of disappointment and anger, but that anger may be suppressed and then it pops up elsewhere in the family system, such as between siblings.

Your mother places herself between you and your sister, in the “centre of the drama”, as Abse puts it. Who knows how she or your father handled you coming into the home as a baby? Maybe your sister felt displaced, Abse suggests – it certainly sounds so – but instead of managing any understandable sibling rivalry, they seem instead to have fuelled the resentment your sister felt.

“It would be helpful,” Abse says, “if you could try to develop something with your sister that is separate from your mother. Where is the sibling space for the two of you? Where is the relationship that is separate from your mum? Adult siblings need to develop a relationship outside of their parents.”

I hear that you “love but don’t like” your sister; but if you two were ever able to sit down and talk about things, away from your mother, you might be surprised at what you learn. You need to start to see things from each other’s point of view to get on better, instead of seeing everything the way your mother wants you to. And you should accept that you may just never get on brilliantly with your sister.

Perhaps in becoming over-embroiled in your lives, your mother doesn’t have to look at her own life. “A parent can feel left out of their children’s relationship,” Abse says, “particularly if that parent is lonely and doesn’t have a partner they can be intimate with.”

Your mother believes that you and your sister are warring for her love and affection. I disagree. I think it is your mother who is fighting for the love and affection. But that is her issue. As you have already seen, away from her, your relationship with your sister is better: work on that.


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