Learning How to Confront an Insincere Sibling

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Reader’s Question

I am a 49-year-old man. I have a 48-year-old sister and a 45-year-old brother. Our parents divorced when I was 16. We have very little communication with our father, by his choice.

My sister frequently gives me little subtle verbal digs — never outright, complete expressions of disapproval or opposition, but small remarks that individually might be overlooked, but their frequency and consistency seem to indicate some intent. When I confront my sister she says “I didn’t mean it that way” or “Don’t be so sensitive”.

I have pondered the possibility that I am oversensitive. Two factors seem to indicate that the problem isn’t mine. Other members of our family notice her veiled jabs, and I don’t see this behavior in anyone else but my sister.

Because she is a sibling, I have tried many times over the years to connect with her, but each time, after a few months, I get tired of the sadistic behavior and I gradually decrease communications until we don’t interact for two or three years. In a while, some family issue comes up and we re-connect, but after a short time, the same pattern is evident and we become distant again. My sister never admits to this behavior when confronted. I doubt that it will change.

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds like it may be time for another confrontation. I don’t know how the other confrontations went, but perhaps with some preparation and appropriate expectations, this one may go better. One of the frequent problems with confrontations is that people are not adequately prepared for what may happen, so they aren’t as clear as they need to be about their feelings and desires. That is where the preparation comes in handy. You already know what your sister will say when confronted, so why not prepare answers ahead of time? For example, when she says, “I didn’t mean it that way,” you can ask her to explain how she did mean it. Similarly, when she says, “Don’t be so sensitive,” you can respond that you don’t think you’re being sensitive but, even if you are, that’s still how you feel.

Another problem is that people often believe that confrontations need to be big rather than small. They don’t. In fact, they often work better if they are done in the immediate moment rather than when the hurts have been saved up over time. Thus, when your sister says something that is hurtful, you can immediately turn to her and say, “That hurts my feelings.” Sometimes it’s true that people don’t know when they say things that are unfeeling, so if you build up a case over time, they may get a sense of it. If they don’t stop behaving callously, that is the time for a ‘big’ confrontation that is more general than specific. For example, you could tell your sister that you’ve noticed that she jabs at you a lot (as evidenced by the many times you’ve told her that she hurts you) and you wonder why she does that. Is she jealous of you or angry about something you’ve done or not done? Maybe she has that kind of relationship with everyone and doesn’t know how to stop. Whatever the case, at least you will have the opportunity to figure out what’s truly going on.

Hopefully she will realize that, if she wants to have a relationship with you, she has to stop her hurtful behavior. If she does not, it sounds like you are wise in setting boundaries and limiting contact.

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