The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Frustrations with a Type-A sister are coming to a head


Dear Carolyn:

My only sibling has highbrow tastes and the income to match — a Type-A perfectionist who expects all who cross her path to be likewise. We have aging parents in common.

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

I have two major concerns. First: How do I deal with all the events she plans for them or decisions she makes on their behalf and then wants me to help finance and execute to her standards? She assigns me tasks, and I find myself wanting to say no, no, no, but I also have to keep good relations due to our parents. I do push back, but not as much as I’d like. I feel I’m taken advantage of and not respected for the low-key lifestyle I chose.

Second: She’s all alone, after several failed marriages. I’m her only family, and I really don’t want to associate with her anymore. Do I abandon her when I no longer have my parents? Amazingly, she’s very family-oriented in her own way.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

It’s so sad — yet understandable, and quite common — that the first resort when dealing with a difficult person is to play along, play along, play along . . . until the opportunity presents itself to just wash your hands of the person entirely.

It’s tempting for obvious reasons: What makes people difficult is their poor behavior when confronted with anything they don’t want to hear, and so of course the people around them will want to avoid such confrontations. Playing along is the short-term avoidance strategy and hand-washing the long.

But. While some relationships have damage that exceeds their value, and the only sensible answer is to declare them totaled, that’s a last resort, not a first — especially when you’re dealing with a family member whose emotional problems clearly are internal and therefore with everyone, not just you.

The answer that makes sense is for you to decide how far you’re willing to go to accommodate your sister’s insecurities, draw that line clearly for her, and then politely decline to cross it. Say you have a budget and don’t budge it. (Sorry.) You can do this while your parents are alive and continue it after they’re gone.

You also can do this without regard for seeking, gaining or compromising respect for your lifestyle; the extravagances are your sibling’s path through her challenges and aren’t remotely about yours. That’s both a reason she galls you and a reason not to let her.

What you do need to worry about, or at least decide on, is the right balance between indulging your sister to protect your parents, and standing up to her to protect yourself. Right now, I’d say you’re out of balance, because you’re in effect borrowing against your future relationship with your sib to preserve the illusion of harmony now. If you think about what your parents want, surely it’s for your bond with your sister to survive them. That’s their life after death.

So, please consider asserting yourself — firmly, yes, but also with kindness and compassion for your sister’s frailty — and doing so not just as a reaction to her excesses, but as a viable, long-term plan for peace you can bear to maintain.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



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