Question of the day: how can I reconcile with my sister?
When I read your story about making amends with your sister, I recognized my sister and me. I love her but she pushes my buttons like no one else. Every time I get off the phone with her, I'm either mad because she doesn't get it, or on a guilt trip because of the sharp things I've said. I so envy women whose sisters are their best friends! What's your advice?
First, stop comparing yourself to women whose day is not complete without a phone call to their sister. I once had the same self-defeating habit---until I realized that for every rhapsodic sister pair, there are many more who struggle with envy, anger and disappointment.
So why do we hear so little about sisters like you and me? Because every little girl learns early that loving her sister is a duty akin to thanking Grandma for the lovely hat and mitts. To admit any flaws in the sisterly bond is to break a childhood commandment. But that's what we all have to do in order to see our sisters as the complicated people they really are, and not as the endlessly patient, supremely understanding friends we'd like them to be.
The challenge here is to get past the black-and-white thinking of childhood, with all its constricting value judgments. I used to get off the phone with my sister fuming, "Why is she so hysterical?" She, meanwhile, was asking, "Why is Rona so cold?" We were both so busy fighting for the upper hand (and for our notion of how the universe should unfold) that we couldn't listen to each other.
How did we get from there to here? The short answer is that we grew up. We both realized, in our 50s, that we wouldn't be around forever and wouldn't want to carry our unfinished business to our graves. We finally understood that whatever our differences, we were going to the same place---something I try to remember when my sister and I hit a bump in our relationship. Mortality is a great leveller.
Here's another bracing thought I keep in mind. The suspicion, rivalry and unease that divided my sister and me for so many years is neither her fault nor mine. We grew up in a family ravaged by our father's drinking. Like all such families, mine assigned inflexible roles to the children. My sister was the peacemaker and charmer. I was the pure-hearted rebel. I envied her charm; she envied my reputation for moral courage. Not the best foundation for a healthy sister bond!
Once you've begun to see your sister more clearly, your challenge is to break the habitual patterns of behaviour that pull you into no-win standoffs. Instead of asking, for the umpteenth time, why she just doesn't get it, ask what you can do to create a more positive climate between you. If your behaviour starts to change, the odds are that hers will, too. A few tips that have worked for my sister and me:
* Give her the benefit of a doubt. If she hasn't answered your phone call, don't jump to the conclusion that she doesn't care. Maybe she's just swamped. Then again, maybe she's afraid of saying the wrong thing and starting a fight. Which leads to my next tip...
* Some people are more clear-headed in writing than they are in conversation. A letter or e-mail message, composed with care and reread a few times (or even slept on) will allow you to balance assertiveness with affection and hope. When I reread a message from my sister, I can see the totality of her intentions instead of reacting to words or phrases that get me fuming, "Here she goes again...!" Another big plus for written communications (yours or hers) is that you can run them past someone you trust for a second, dispassionate opinion.
* Slow down. When your blood pressure starts to rise, stay off the phone. And for God's sake, don't fire off a hasty e-mail. You're not meeting a deadline here, and your sister is not a project to get off your desk. Give yourself time to calm down.
* Look for opportunities to have fun together. When my sister and I had rounded a corner in our relationship, I flew to California and spent a weekend at her house. (Click here to read more about my visit.) Her warm welcome reminded me of all the reasons why she belongs in my life.
* Accept the fact that relationships, like people, can take time to blossom. Like people, they can also suffer reversals---as I realized when I came across an essay on my sister that I wrote more than 30 years ago. At the time, it seemed we were at last becoming friends. In fact we had a lot more growing to do.
Looking back, I think it's telling that my sister inspired both my first magazine piece and a recent one that's among my best read. Click here for the piece from the 70s.