Carolyn Hax: Sister is showing controlling side

Hi, Carolyn: My younger sister and I have become very close over the last few years as we are both in our 20s and beginning our own lives. She attends a university about an hour away from where I live. I live about 15 minutes from our parents’ house and my sister comes home to visit frequently, and lives at home during her breaks. She and I have a ton of fun together.

However, she doesn’t like being alone at the house with our parents because they are very controlling and invasive in our independent lives. When my sister is home, she asks me over to our parents’ house almost every night. I try to go over there a couple times a week, but after working all day, sometimes I just want to go home to my apartment.

When I tell her this, I am met with anger. I’ve tried inviting her over to my apartment instead, but she doesn’t like it there because it’s too small. She also gets upset when I have plans with other friends or my boyfriend, arguing that I can see them anytime I want, and this makes me feel guilty.

Sometimes I tell myself she just needs to get over it, but at the same time I am afraid of losing her friendship. I’m not sure if I am the bad guy here or not. – Feeling Guilty

You know the tree well; let me introduce you to the apple.

Your sister is using against you every weapon in the controlling arsenal.

Anger? Check. Guilt-tripping? Check. Shooting down reasonable compromises because she wants what she wants? Check. Making other people’s choices all about her? Check. Gaslighting? Check. Showing disrespect for others’ autonomy? A particularly ironic check.

I don’t envy you your choices here. Either you keep contorting yourself to nurture this “close” relationship, even as it succumbs to her escalating demands of you, or you risk killing it in an effort to save it.

I don’t think it’s a close call, though. Her using these controlling tactics carries her across the boundary into your business. That’s solid justification for calling her out on your own behalf (whenever she does it). And, unless she changes her ways, she’ll send loved ones scurrying from her just as you two have withdrawn emotionally from your parents. That’s justification for butting in on her behalf (once).

Next time she gets up in your grill about not indulging her, pause as needed to steady your emotions, and inquire gently if she realizes what she’s doing. If she rebuffs you immediately, ask her please to take a moment to think about it.

If she doesn’t see it, then just as gently say that from where you sit, it feels as if she’s not showing respect for, what’s the phrasing you used? Your independent life.

Then, duck. (Heh-heh.)

If she’s receptive, then, yay. If she attacks, hang on to that calm, say you’re ending the conversation and you’ll talk to her after she has cooled off.

Whether your sister is merely immature or headed to emotional crisis, it doesn’t sound as if you’ll get on healthy footing with her in just one conversation. Expect it to take dedication on your part to: figure out what reasonable limits are (a task in itself given your family history); establish those limits on how far you’ll extend yourself to appease your sib; simply and cheerfully enforce those limits; and remain focused on what you love and enjoy about her.

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