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Carolyn Hax: Is sister wrong to block all information to estranged parents?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I am tired of walking on eggshells. I’m the older of two sisters and growing up my parents were very strict with both of us. It was over-the-top strictness, but I also realize it was a cultural thing and they were kind of victims of cultural expectations, too.

I responded by trying to live up to their unrealistic expectations: I got the grades they expected, went into the career they expected, was always outwardly respectful of them, etc. I do carry a lot of resentment because I never got the nurturing I needed, and I think the only reason I maintain a good relationship with them is that I keep in mind what they’ve been through, immigrating to this country, and their good but misguided intentions.

My sister on the other hand, reacted by becoming everything they hate: unconventional job, fun hair colors, piercings and tattoos. As a consequence she had a terrible experience with my parents and as an adult completely cut them off. I wish she hadn’t but I’m completely sympathetic to why she did.

She stays in contact with me only if I don’t divulge any important information about her to my parents. They are always asking and it is hard to stay within my sister’s limits — nothing about her relationship especially. She married recently and is trying to get pregnant, and keeping all of this from my parents is such a burden.

My sister definitely wants our relationship to continue, and so do I, but I think her expecting me to hold such a hard line is unreasonable. Do you agree?

— Tired of Walking the Line

Tired of Walking the Line: No. You need one phrase only here: “I won’t discuss Sister with you.” Or, softer: “She is well. That’s all I’m at liberty to say.”

I sympathize with your fatigue, but it’s still a byproduct of your choices. Yes, you didn’t get to choose your parents or your sister, but the position you’ve staked out is entirely yours. You have decided to try to please all of them within the lines they’ve drawn for you.

That means you can also make different choices. I’m listing them all to make a point, not as endorsements of any: You can cut ties to your parents, cut ties to your sister, tell your sister you’re not keeping her confidences anymore (knowing it likely means the end of your relationship), tell your parents you won’t answer any more questions about your sister. All of them end the eggshell-walk abruptly and for good.

The one that seems best aligned with your goals is to honor your sister’s request and gently but firmly shut down your parents’ prying. “She is well. That’s all I’m at liberty to say.” “She is well. That’s all I’m at liberty to say.” “She is well. That’s all I’m at liberty to say.” Entertain no further prodding.

So hard for a pleaser to do, but it’s an effective and utterly fair way to stay out of someone else’s estrangement. And if your parents make you pay, then they’re proving your sister’s point.

Readers’ thoughts:

  • I’m estranged from my mentally ill and dangerous mother, and I had to cut off my only sister because she Would. Not. Stop. telling my mother information about me. Please take very seriously that your sister doesn’t exist in those conversations anymore — or you’re going to lose her.
  • As a person who spent way too long trying to manage her parents’ emotional needs and demands, I am adamant that my problems and insecurities and dreams should not be my kids’ responsibility. My parents had their reasons, but they had a responsibility not to impose those problems on me. And they didn’t live up to it. It’s okay to not carry this water for them anymore.

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Advice columnist Carolyn Hax and cartoonist Nick Galifianakis have collaborated on their Washington Post column for 25 years. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)
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