Dear Carolyn: I am in grad school and living in my parents’ house. There are many issues that arise as an adult living at home, but my biggest issue is that my sister, who is a few years older and who also still lives at home, acts as my third parent. She does not have much of a social life and her love life is nonexistent, and she acts as if normal things I do, such as spending the night at my boyfriend’s apartment or going out drinking with friends, is disrespectful and rude to our parents. To add to it, she is my mother’s favorite child, and can do no wrong. What can I do?!
You can step back far enough to see that you’re the one with all the advantages here.
Yes, you’re stuck in your crowded childhood soil when you’re desperate to replant yourself elsewhere. But even that disadvantage reveals an advantage: With the exception of your finances, you’re ready in every way to be independent. I suspect Mom’s favorite can’t say that.
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That’s because the household you describe sounds like a common outcome of parental favoritism: The seemingly favored child, after years of overindulgence and poor maternal boundaries, winds up emotionally stunted and defining herself through her parents, while the seemingly unfortunate child develops life skills as an unintended consequence of her relative neglect.
So instead of refighting old family battles, even if just in your mind, please see the surprise benefits you’ve accrued. Your sister is in your business because she’s too enmeshed with family to have business of her own; your mother’s favoritism was a disservice to both of her children, but arguably it was worse for your sister. At least feeling less welcome at home stands as motivation for you to get out.
That won’t help you much, of course, if you don’t actually get out. You’re in grad school presumably as part of a career plan intended to earn you a living, plus you have friends and a boyfriend as proof of connections outside the home, but neither means you’re in the clear. Just being sucked in by your sister’s criticism says you’re at risk of becoming, or remaining, ensnared by family in your own way.
So if you’re not already working from a disciplined financial blueprint to get yourself free, I suggest you do that; the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (nfcc.org) is one place to start.
That will help you get out physically. While you’re working to cut the financial strings, you also need to work on the emotional ones. You owe your parents basic courtesy, which includes but is not limited to being quiet when you come in, not landing sloppy drunk on their front lawn, and letting them know when you’ll be home late or not at all — but with those boxes checked you can and must disengage from sibling supervision: “ (Sister’s name), I hear your concern. If Mom and Dad share it, then they can tell me directly.”
Then, be friendly. Make other conversation. Ask her about her day.
If your parents do object to your choices, then openly and honestly discuss ways to be yourself without imposing on them. That’s the deceptively simple foundation of grown family harmony: All adults speak for themselves.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at washingtonpost.com.