Care and Feeding

My Sister Is a Terrible Person

Will she ever change?

A photograph of sisters with one of them cut out.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have three sisters, two of whom are very close to me and each other. Our third sister, the eldest, is a constant source of stress for us. Over the last two years we lost both of our parents, my dad to an illness that killed him quite quickly and my mom to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease about six months later.

After my father’s diagnosis, I dropped out of grad school to spend that time with him and help out, and stayed when it was clear my mom was rapidly declining. During this time, my little sister also stayed in the house and our other sister that we are close to visited often.

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Our eldest sister visited sporadically, but when she did she expected everyone to wait on her, her husband, and their 3-year-old twins hand and foot. Before our parents were sick we acquiesced because it kept the peace, but my father was the only one who could really get through to her—and in his absence her behavior has gotten worse. She feels perpetually victimized because we don’t want to wax nostalgic as she dominates all conversation, relitigates old family drama, makes nasty jokes at our expense, and on and on.

My parents were terrible hoarders and settling the estate took months. We tried to involve our eldest sister in plans, but she would disagree and fight over mundane details when what we needed was to get the house cleared, cleaned, and sold so we could get on with life. I know she is mourning our father and she says he was her best friend, which is true, but he enabled decades of her abusive nasty behavior. She has never once apologized or shown any interest in how we feel. I think she may have a personality disorder, but that’s not for me to diagnose, and I’ve never told her.

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I now have a 7-month-old son, and she is guilting me and my other sister, who has a daughter, about alienating her. I worry about her kids, too, as she has demonstrated some worrisome behavior, such as threatening to leave them on the side of the road and not come back for them if they misbehave. They now have an unhealthy attachment to her and scream, cry, and cling to her when she leaves them.

I have talked to therapists about this, but I need action-oriented advice.

Is cutting her out of our lives warranted, or must we suffer through a couple of pained holidays each year? What is the likelihood she can change, and what can we do to insist she improve her behavior?

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—Twisted Sister

Dear TS,

I will start with the final question because I think it is the only important one. I have no way of knowing whether your sister will change, but I think it’s best to assume she won’t. There is always hope, but any plan that relies on hope is misguided. An ex once told me, “If you need someone to change for a relationship to work then, basically, you’re fucked.” At the time I did not love this stark advice, but I’ve come to see where she’s right. Of course people can change. But after a certain point it is emotional suicide to keep showing up for the same behavior hoping that somehow it will be different.

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So assuming that your sister is who she is, and that she will always more or less be some version of that, then you must ask yourself whether you can tolerate it enough to have her in your life. Only you can answer that question, but if your answer is no then your path is clear.

Perhaps, however, you can find that once you stop holding out hope for her to be different then the pain of her behavior will be lessened. This has happened to me in a few relationships and I’m grateful for it. Sometimes people are just difficult. Even people we love. In these instances, once we accept that fact we sometimes find that we can put up with them a few times a year, we can send them the occasional card or letter telling them we love them, and we can do so without expecting that such actions will bring about a change.

You are under no obligation to give more time and space to this person than you are comfortable with. I’d like to give you permission to make this decision based on what you can stand, not what she can be. Good luck.