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Hey Dave? is an advice column. That’s a picture of me, hard at work solving the world’s personal problems. Dave is my real name, and I’m here to help. Why? There are lots of reasons, but mostly because I care about you getting good advice.  

Are you in a tough spot and want to say Hey Dave? You can ask me your question here.

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My older sister and her husband came to visit us last year, and during that time my sister had a meltdown and actually leapt over the table and screamed in my husband’s face while they were having a political discussion.

The next evening, she lost her temper while she was having a discussion with our neighbour.

The following morning at breakfast, I mentioned that our younger sister was thinking of coming for a visit.  My older sister started describing our younger sister with foul words and yelling that she had abandoned her children (her sons are now grown men). I defended our younger sister, replying that she had done the best she could, but that there was also much more to the story than my older sister was aware of. Then my brother-in-law started yelling at me, calling my younger sister a terrible person, and other things. I asked them to please stop yelling in my home and my sister stopped and apologized.

A couple of months later, my younger sister posted a picture of her sitting on her patio with a glass of wine, and the message read: “A beautiful evening at home, what more could you ask for?”.  My older sister replied with a snide comment about the President, to which my younger sister said that she was not responsible for the actions of the President. My older sister replied, calling my younger sister terrible names and accusing her of abandoning her children. This was all done publicly on Facebook.

Then, my younger sister’s husband called my older sister to ask her what the heck that was all about. My older sister warned him to never call her again or she would “hunt him down.”

My older sister is a lawyer, she works for the government, she is a very intelligent woman, but this behavior is very disturbing. She has always had a volatile temper and likes to intimidate and bully people.

Now my older sister wants to either visit me again, or have us visit her. 

I feel torn.

She is my sister but her behavior is out of control.

How do I resolve this? Should I turn my back on my older sister and no longer have a relationship with her or should I confront her about her behavior? Will confronting her do any good or just be more upsetting?

Thanks,

Second-Born

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Dear Second-Born,

 

Wow, there’s not just a lot going on here but, overall, your family dynamic also seems to be a little tense, if not outright hostile. Also, your sister leaps over tables?

Second-Born, if you’re here for quick solutions, then here are your short answers: Like most problems, this one can be resolved by talking like adults. No, don’t turn your back, but yes, you probably need to confront her. Yes, confronting her will probably do good, but it will also be upsetting.

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If you want to make real change, we’re going to have to put some effort in:

  • Oh, brothers.  Right out of the gates, tell all of the husbands to shut up and sit down, now.  Make a rule with your sisters that, until a wider solution is found that can bring a level of peace between the three of you, keep your husbands out of this.  Yes, they can talk to their wives and fume from the sidelines, but that’s where it stays.  No phoning or talking to anyone but their partners.  Adding extra people to a volatile situation makes it easy for groups to form and then for one person to feel ganged up on, which only further complicates the matter.

 

  • Sister Act. Your sisters clearly have some deep-seated issues between them that they need to work out. While I’m sure it’s a drag to see them fight, it’s unfair to you to be constantly placed in the middle, defending one or the other. Mediating is admirable, but exhausting and time-consuming, and your presence — by adding one more person in a not-so-fun telephone game — only complicates the matter. So for issues that don’t directly concern you, step back and try not to play mediator between your sisters. It may be difficult, and they may try to drag you into the beefs that come up between them, but they need be able to talk to each other without your intervention or interpretation. Related is that, until your older sister can talk about your younger sister without flying off the handle or leaping over tables, you should establish a rule that you are not allowed to talk about your younger sister.

 

  • Anger mismanagement. You older sister has obvious anger-management issues and you need to have a very mature discussion with her, in which you make several interrelated issues clear:
    • That you are deeply concerned for her because you think her temper is not just hurtful to you and other, but that it is eroding her relationships. 
    • As evidence of this, tell her that you can no longer have discussions with her when she is angry, and that as soon as she displays anger, whatever conversation you are having will be immediately put on hold until she calms down. 
    • If she wants to move forward with her relationship with you, she should seriously consider anger-management therapy, not just because bullying is a terrible way for adults to carry on conversations, but because you are concerned for her general physical and mental well-being. 
    • That what you are saying to her is not a confrontation, but a “care-frontation”. Judging from the way you described your sister, I imagine it will be upsetting to both of you, and that if there is a table in the vicinity, she may leap over it. But you need to remind her that you love her just as much as she loves you, and that her behavior is hurting you. 

Ultimately, if you don’t confront your older sister, she will continue to believe that she can get away with behaving like a child, because that’s what bullies do.

  • Politics by other means.  There are two instances in your question when politics are mentioned.  Politically, we are living in polarizing times, and family and politics don’t always mix well, even at the best of times.  If politics is something that triggers a discussion, which triggers an argument, which triggers your older sister to leap across a table in anger, then maybe you shouldn’t talk about politics.  Make a family rule, that everyone – sisters, husbands, kids, dogs – is banned from talking politics.  

 

  • The Rules of Engagement. Most of the above advice revolves around establishing rules of communication. This involves sitting down and agreeing on how to talk about talking. Doing this may at first seem like an overly unnecessary step, but it is crucial. Rules help  set the boundaries for not just what can be said, but how it should be said. Rules serve as a reminder to everyone that words can have an effect on people, and that there are ethical and behavioural guidelines to follow when dealing with emotional subjects.

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If all else fails…  Maybe you should explain toyour sister that her behaviour is not conducive to a productive conversation and that you need to postpone all visits for the foreseeable future.  Hopefully, that would give her a little bit of time to think on some of the consequences of her behaviour.

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