Dear Carolyn: I live in Florida. When my sister, her husband and their two teenagers come to visit, they treat my home like a hotel — wet towels left on the floor, things broken with no apology, no help with meal preparation/setting or clearing the table/cleaning the dishes. Everyone sits at the kitchen table on their phones, commenting on each other’s Facebook pages until the meal is served (by me). I understand that to them being in Florida feels like they’re on vacation, but to me, not so much.
I am hesitant to mention anything because in the past when I have approached my sister about anything I feel we need to air out, she will lash out and attack me personally rather than address the issue. Examples: “You have a lovely home; too bad you don’t have any friends to visit it.” Or, “You don’t understand or appreciate how much I have to manage. All you have is yourself to take care of.” (I don’t have children.) There was one instance when I asked for her help in preparing dinner and she told me, “How hard is it to brown ground beef?” She then went to her room and stayed there for the remainder of the evening leaving me with an awkward dinner for her children and husband.
Another visit is coming up, and I’m trying to psych myself up. If I don’t host them, according to a past conversation with my sister, it will be because “I’ve created a situation to distance myself from her children.” Am I being too uptight or am I being taken advantage of? How much should I overlook to keep family peace?
What’s a Sister to Do?
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How’s that family peace working for you?
Besides being a tired piece of modern snark, that’s a serious question: I suggest you spell out for your own enlightenment what benefits you are enjoying now that wouldn’t be available to you if you barred the door to that bully you call a sister.
Yes, bully. “Too bad you don’t have any friends”? I needn’t bother condensing her other insults into a wake-up list for you, which is what I usually do in these cases; that middle-school haymaker alone makes the case.
Once you figure out what standing up to her would cost you, then start another list of what you’d gain: Freedom from this awful hosting duty. The satisfaction of not consenting to your own abuse. Self-respect. Actual peace, as distinct from make-nice, take-it-all-on-the-chin compliance. (If you struggle with that distinction, then treat yourself to a conversation with a good family therapist to help you make sense of it.)
Compare these costs and benefits side-by-side, then decide.
If I may: Based on your account here, she has created a situation to distance you from her, allowing your relationship with her kids to be collateral damage. Still a pity, but not one she can pin on you.
Hi, Carolyn: A close friend has been dating her boyfriend for several years but they can’t decide whether to break up or move in together. She went through some really tough things with her family recently and he wasn’t very supportive. To me, they never seem affectionate to each other, not only PDA-wise, but just how they interact with each other overall.
Of course I would support their decision no matter what it is, but do I have a responsibility to tell her I don’t think they should be together?
No, because that’s a conclusion you’ve drawn for her from what you’ve witnessed, and she could draw a completely different one for herself from what she has experienced.
But if you stick to telling her what you’ve witnessed, letting her draw the conclusions, then you’d have solid standing to speak up this one time; “For what it’s worth, it appears you two aren’t really affectionate with each other” — especially if she asks for your opinion, but even if she just brings up her conundrum in general. You’d be staying on your side of the line between your business and hers.
I also think anyone within earshot of people openly debating “whether to break up or move in together” has the responsibility to point out that when breaking up is even part of a moving-in conversation, breaking up has to win. Unless the move-out from hell is someone’s idea of a fulfilling weekend, it’s best to save the shared address for a partner with whom the “whether” is comfortably settled, and they’re just tying up threads on the “when.”
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.