Carolyn Hax: A controlling sister; carry messages for love-struck co-worker?

Carolyn Hax
Columnist May 6, 2012

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, and I enjoy spending time with her.

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.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

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).

It’s important to know the limits to your reach; when you’re calling someone controlling over her reaction to controlling people, you really don’t want to open yourself to accusations of being controlling.

So. 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.)

The DNA of control is the belief that one is right and everyone else is wrong, and so her response to your constructive criticism will tell you exactly how far gone she is. If she’s receptive, then, yay. If she attacks, hang on to that calm, and 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. It’s High Maintenance 101, but if you and she are committed to each other (and to being unlike your parents), then there’s a good chance that the need for such boundary enforcement will fade.

* * *

Dear Carolyn: My guy friend recently told me that he has feelings for our fellow co-worker, who also is a friend. He asked me to find out if she felt the same way.

I realize I shouldn’t have agreed to talk to my friend, but I did, and now I’m faced with the unpleasant of task of telling him she isn’t interested. Should I tell him the truth, or avoid this conversation and let things happen on their own? — Caught in the Middle

Thanks for this — I’ve been feeling nostalgic for sixth grade.

Please tell him the truth of your error in agreeing to mediate his love life. He can take it from there.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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