Family ties

How can I stay alive when my sister and parents are suffocating me?


Cary Tennis
April 27, 2004 11:44PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

What do you do when you don't like your position in your family? When you find yourself, somehow, having grown up to be quite a different person from them and yet find them constantly wanting to include you in their social activities?

I'm referring to my older sister and her husband, and my parents. I love them, and they're all good people, and I know this sounds selfish and self-absorbed but when the whole crowd's together I feel like I'm suffocating, and when they're gone, like a window's been opened.

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My sister's life is totally intertwined with my parents' life. My sister has grown up to become my parents -- exactly (I've always been the "different" child). She and her husband live five minutes away. Their friends are my parents' friends.

I'm just back from four years abroad, living at home, waiting for my wife to get out here (very soon) so that we can move to the other coast and start our own life with our own friends and social circle. However, my sister is already planning a million things for us to do with the family. Hiking trips. Trips to Hawaii. Thanksgiving. Birthday parties. Sounds nice, no? Forget about it. I love my sister, but just trying to think of her as a friend, she's the last type of person I'd ever choose to hang out with. She's the type of person who smiles in your face and then shits all over you as soon as you round the corner. She gives you no reason to dislike her (because she's so p.c.) so that you will have no overt reason for denying a social invitation so that she can silently judge you and then, as soon as you leave, announce to the dinner table something like, "I think their marriage isn't going to last." Sometimes it literally makes me ill.

Our friends -- my wife's and mine -- are completely different from my sister's friends, and frankly I don't see us adapting into this social circle my parents and my sister have formed.

I do love my sister and my parents, and if it were up to me I think I would hang out with my parents maybe once a month, my sister once or twice a year. That I can handle. Unfortunately, my sister makes frequent business trips to the city we're moving to, and is also the family planner, the one who rallies everyone together, and now that I'm back she's whipped out her daily planner to pen my wife and me into a million things.

How can my wife and I slip out of these occasions without hurting anyone's feelings and without giving my sister the right to point her finger at us and say, "That's totally rude." Or, "You're being anti-social." An occasional dinner with the family is one thing. But being recruited into a vigorous, year-round social schedule that includes 20 people makes me want to run back to the poor, crime-ridden country my wife and I just moved from.

Wanting to Politely (Semi-)Disappear

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Dear Wanting to Disappear,

You have to set some limits that make sense to you and aren't extreme. You can't accept every invitation from your family or from anyone else. But you can't shut off contact either. So pick the important occasions and make the best of them; decline the others. Since she's your older sister, you may feel afraid to defy her, but you've got to simply make some choices. It makes it harder, of course, if you're living at home, because you're just sort of there. It's difficult to assert your independence if you have no demonstrable commitments. So create some commitments, some competing demands on your time. Schedule some trips. Schedule visits with friends, or business associates. Visit your wife, if she can't get away yet.

The nice thing about family is that you get to spend time with people who might not otherwise let you into their living rooms to play with their children. Think about it. Do you know anybody like your relatives who would ask you to dinner? You'd never get to see these people, and they'd never get to see you either. You'd just glance at each other with veiled suspicion as you pass on the street. So that's what I think is great about family. But it's also the thing that makes it hard: You're not a group with a great deal of natural affinity. So you all have to work to achieve some harmony, or at least the appearance of harmony.

That doesn't mean you can't say no. But it does mean that when you're together, you need to try to be a cheerful, positive presence.

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If your sister is pointing the finger and saying you're rude for trying to have some boundaries, then I think she's in the wrong. But that doesn't mean you fight about it. In a family, everybody has to treat everybody else with excruciating politeness. That's the only way you can all get along.

But that's very good practice for life in the world. Suppose, for instance, that you become a diplomat and are assigned to a region of bloodthirsty cannibals. You have to know how to be polite and get along with others, lest you end up in the soup.

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Cary Tennis

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