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Ask A Therapist: Struggling w My Sister Dynamic, Would Love Advice

Relationships, Family, Ask a Therapist
5 min read

Dear Therapist: My older sister always says “you never call me.” Yet, she literally never calls me either. I just don’t accept that in family relationships there needs to be a formality. My mom will even call me to say things like “I think it would be nice for you to reach out to your sister." I’m genuinely curious, does it have to be one person’s responsibility? Can’t it just be… if you want to get together, or talk, pick up the phone. You don’t have to wait for me. 

Frame therapist Rachel Neporent weighs in… 
I first want to acknowledge and validate your experience. Family relationships are nuanced, and it can be a constant effort and evolution to understand and to engage in a way that feels best for you. It is even more nuanced to manage family relationships when it feels one-sided.

Finally, there is an additional challenge when there is entanglement with others (i.e. your mom being a part of conflict with your sister). All this to say, I am here with you in why this feels frustrating and confusing. You are perfectly entitled to dislike formality when it comes to family relationships, and I believe you can choose to honor this belief while also honoring your desire for relationships with your mom and sister in a way that feels good for you.

Importantly, there are two separate situations here: (1) how you respond to your older sister and (2) how you respond to your mom.

1. My recommendation here is to express how you feel to your sister.
For example, “When you say I never call you, I feel upset because I do not hear from you too often. When you do call me, it makes me feel happy but when it feels like I have to call you, I get a little stuck with resistance. Are you open to us both calling one another when it feels right? I would love to know how you feel.” 

Once you express these feelings, you can allow your sister space to respond. This will give you information on how to move forward.

The goal:
 to both be willing to meet in the middle. If one person is not willing to meet in the middle after attempts to share feelings to create change, I would say this is where an adjustment of expectations and behavior comes in. If your sister won’t call you, and expects you to call her. You can decide what works best for you in the face of her willingness or unwillingness to change. The goal here is to protect yourself and your feelings. These are boundaries

2. My recommendation with your mom would be to challenge the entanglement and to set boundaries.
You might do so by saying, “Mom I know how much you care about my relationship with my sister and this is so sweet of you. At the same time, when you intervene, it makes me feel like I am doing something wrong or that I am not doing enough. Because of this, I would really appreciate it if you would allow us to work things out between us in the future since we all have our own relationships with one another and I really believe we can work this out on our own. Do you think that would be okay? How do you feel about what I shared?” 

Similarly, you would allow your mom to respond and choose next steps based on her response.

Your goal: to continue to hold that boundary. Holding boundaries is hard but it will help to model the importance of boundaries in your family relationships moving forward. 

This is not simple but it is doable. Looking for help, and wanting change is half of the work so honor what you have achieved thus far. The next step is getting clear on your feelings, and communicating that with each individual. Then, you can move forward and set boundaries that honor you in your relationships. I believe in you. 


About the author: Rachel Neporent is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and a private practice therapist in Los Angeles. Rachel specializes in working with women (20’s-30’s) on their relationship with self and others. Rachel specializes in working with individuals who may face challenges such as codependence, attachment, trauma, anxiety, self-esteem, self-care, depression, family issues, boundary setting. To learn more, view additional content Rachel has created, or to get in touch, visit her Frame profile here. 

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