Advice from the Trenches: Sibling Rivals

Dear C and Dr. B;

My sister is mentally ill, and can also be just mean. This Saturday, on her birthday, I was supposed to call her at 10am. As I was reaching for the phone at 10:01am, it rang. It was my sister, yelling: “You were supposed to call me at 10!” I humored her to avoid a fight. She started opening the box of presents I’d sent her. She grumped over them, and acted disappointed. I apologized for sending her two new dresses, handmade catnip toys for her cat, her favorite candy and fun little stocking stuffer items. She grumped again and hung up.

Two days later, she’s still mad over my “ruining!” her birthday. I shouldn’t have called late, I should have spent more money on her, what do I spend on other people, I should make more of an effort, etc. I finally get so fed up that I yelled and hung up on her, then immediately felt guilty. I realized anger is unproductive and she’s just fucked up and I shouldn’t take it personally, but this was SO fucked up, I couldn’t care anymore. I refused to back down and I’ve gotten nothing but venomous emails since.

For years, my sister has been forcing constant phone calls on me, making negative remarks when I try to share good news with her, and ruining holidays if I let her visit. I have let her get away with it because I feel so sorry for her – she lives in a tiny room in NYC with a cat and I am literally the only family she has left. She’s a recovering alcoholic and her few friends are from AA. It would make me feel awful to abandon her, not better. 

She’s capable of sulking for years. I don’t want to deal with her at all, but should I call her back? What should I say?

Cowed Carol

Dr. B – The problem here starts with the expectations set up in the first place. Expecting such a specific time for an informal call like that is ridiculous; who schedules such an exact time unless for a business meeting, or catching a plane? Your sister is someone who is never satisfied and has unrealistic expectations, but I don’t understand why you would play a game you can’t win in the first place. You need to set your own boundaries – call her if you want, occasionally and randomly. If she wants to call you back fine. For gifts, either ask her what she wants exactly, let her pick it out online (with a reasonable spending limit) and ask her to send you the link; a gift certificate to her favorite store would work, too.

I keep my own crazy family far away and have cut ties with most, talk to my brother online only and call mom occasionally. This is about as much of all their drama I care to know. You can only do your best and what you think is right, how your sister reacts is her shit and if you don’t feel the need to talk to her, don’t. But don’t expect her to ever comply with your expectations or view of what humanity should be. That’s a violation of her right to be bat shit crazy. She does have that right.  

C – I can relate, Carol. I have a lonely, crazy sister of my own. Out of compassion, I indulged her for years and let her have her way. I felt guilty if I got angry, because I thought since I really did have a better life, I should be the bigger person. It took me years, and several lectures from Dr. B, before I realized that it wasn’t my job to sacrifice my own happiness for my sister’s. It only encouraged her to continue acting badly.

It’s difficult to define boundaries while not inducing a psychotic episode in a sibling who is mentally ill. It’s not like dealing with a normal person who’s an asshole. My own sister has been hauled off to Bellevue more than once, so I never take this task lightly. Everything I say may be held against me and any remarks that insinuate she’s at fault just throw gasoline on her fire. So I make my terms clear, give no apologies and place no blame. Here’s what I sent her after a tirade over “you pay more attention to your grandchildren than you do to me!”

I am not going to enter into this contest with you. I consider it in poor taste. I have never demanded that you give more attention to me, or asked you to justify the time you spend with your own friends. That is none of my business.

I would never bitch at you because I felt you weren’t paying enough attention to me. I am not going to apologize for paying attention to my own son and grandchildren. That is what grandmothers do.

I would prefer not talk with you at all if you are going to turn affection into a contest. My grandchildren and you both deserve love and they do not begrudge you yours.

My sister decided that she wanted to drop the whole vendetta. I am skeptical, but hope springs eternal. In the meantime, I still cringe every time the phone rings. Good luck, Carol.

You can visit Dr. B’s blog at

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