She said, he said: Playing our roles in the family dynamic
Dear Jeff and Lori,
My younger sister and I have a tumultuous relationship bordering on estrangement. Our father passed away six years ago, and I have been my mother’s primary caregiver since. I have asked my sister numerous times for help, and she has never come through, always having an excuse for why she can’t. Our mother’s health has begun to decline rapidly, and we’re all aware that her time here is quickly coming to an end. I’m feeling incredibly resentful and teetering on enraged that now all of a sudden, my sister is showing an interest in our mom. I truly believe it is only motivated by the inheritance she’s wanting to secure. I feel at a loss for what to do. We used to be close, and my mom wants nothing more than for us to be there for each other after she’s gone, but I don’t know how to trust her.
Lori and Jeff: Sibling relationships aren’t ones that we choose, but they can be an incredible gift and at the very least an opportunity for personal growth if we’re willing to do the work.
Lori: The simple fact that you wrote this letter means that at least some part of you isn’t ready to just write off your relationship with her. If you used to have a good relationship, and your mother sees value in you still having a connection, then perhaps it’s worth being curious about what could be. The first step is to recognize that while your feelings are absolutely true and valid, your stories may not be. Any time we have an emotionally intimate relationship with someone, we naturally create stories about who they are and why they do what they do. We fill in any blanks automatically, sometimes accurately, and sometimes not.
On the surface, we can observe that your sister has not been actively engaged with your mother until recently. But underneath, unless she has explicitly shared what her internal experience has been, we don’t actually have any idea about her level of interest, emotions or intent. Unfortunately, as humans, our protective tendency is to assume the worst, create a narrative from that assumption, and then anchor our feelings to it. Your relationship with your nearly estranged sister is really just a relationship with your story about her. If you want to know whether you can trust her, you need to be willing to hold space and give her the opportunity to share her truth.
Jeff: One of the most important gifts we can bring to any relationship is the generous interpretation of the other person’s behavior. Sometimes we don’t even know why we do or say things, so it’s presumptuous to think we can know the full truth about someone else’s conduct. There are plenty of possibilities — other than your sister being a gold digger — as to why she has remained on the periphery of the family and is now trying to reconnect. Perhaps she’s always felt a bit on the outside if she thought you were favored as the first-born, or maybe the family system never really validated her authenticity and allowed space for her to be her true self. Was she closer to your father and never really given the opportunity to grieve that loss? Now that your mom is struggling, your sister could be feeling the regret of not having had closure with your dad and now wants to make sure she can create it with your mom.
Another thing to consider is your own role as caretaker. What benefits has it brought you? Was it the price of admission to a closer relationship with your mom? Can you find some solace in the bond you were able to cultivate with the time you spent with her over the past few years? We all play particular roles in the family dynamic, and it might be helpful to understand the full extent of what each of you experienced.
Lori and Jeff: In every relationship there are two truths. Don’t get stuck on the comparative specifics of how much time and energy each of you has given to the care of your mother. You are beginning a big transition in your family with the absence of both parents. It’s time to focus on being open and curious about the potential that exists with her moving forward.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationshipcoaching.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.
For the last 35 years I’ve been covering what we call the “salmon wars” in the Pacific Northwest, writing so many stories about salmon heading toward extinction that I’ve lost count.
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