Crucial Conversations QA

How to Enjoy a Difficult Relationship

Dear Emily,

I have an older sister who I don’t always see eye-to-eye with. I often find myself getting frustrated with her because of her actions. I know that I have a deeply rooted story about her—that she is very self-centered. I’ve asked myself why a reasonable, rational, person would do what she does and I can always come up with an answer for that scenario. But when I see all of the scenarios as a pattern that has persisted my whole life, I have a really hard time telling another story besides my negative one. I’ve tried talking to her about specific situations and we usually come to common ground but it always happens again. It’s hard to point out the pattern without sounding as if I am keeping a list of her mistakes. She also gets very defensive because she sees it as attacking. I’m not perfect either so have no right to point out her flaws. I want to get along with her and enjoy spending time with her but honestly find dealing with her tedious and exhausting. What can I do?

Best Regards,
Exhausted and Discouraged

Dear Exhausted and Discouraged,

I have an older sister that I don’t always see eye-to-eye with. She is brilliant, informed, dynamic, opinionated, and oh so very different from me. One of the very best parts of our relationship, which is very dear to me, is that we don’t see eye-to-eye. Invariably, when we are together, I learn something new, either about the world or about myself. Either way, her different view of the world is a blessing in my life.

I share that not to say “be like me” or “too bad your sister isn’t as cool as mine.” Instead, I simply want to point out all the baggage that comes with a phrase like “we don’t see eye-to-eye.” When did seeing eye-to-eye become the goal? When did not seeing eye-to-eye become a bad thing, or something to be overcome or worked around? Diversity of opinion, thought, approach, and experience can enrich us if we let it.

As I read your inquiry, I wanted to know more. I wanted all the details of specific things your sister had done so I could judge: is she really self-centered or are you stuck in your own negative story, a story that is blinding you from the reality of who your sister is? I kept thinking about variations of that question: is your story about your sister accurate? And then I realized… it doesn’t matter. You have done exactly what you need to do: you identified your story as a story, you challenged your story, and then you went and discussed your story with your sister. That is more than 99 percent of people out there manage to do.

But you’re still stuck, right? And why? Because crucial conversations don’t solve every problem. Because crucial conversations don’t take away a person’s right to choose how he or she will behave. Your sister, despite your conversations, still gets to choose who she is, who she wants to be, and how she will behave. Your choice is to decide what kind of boundaries you want to put in place, in your life and in your relationships.

Here is a suggestion of how to think about your way forward. It’s a variation on what we teach in Start With Heart that I have found helpful.

Think about your interactions with your sister. Try thinking of a specific interaction that didn’t go well, that was (as you described it) tedious or exhausting. Got it? Okay, now as you are thinking about that interaction, ask yourself: what do you really want? My guess is the first answer is to not be exhausted! Maybe you want peace or enjoyment. You want to be able to laugh and share. You want to feel energized and validated.

Now, next step (and here is where the variation comes in): what do you really want for your sister as she is right now? Sometimes when we simply ask ourselves “what do I really want for the other person?” the answer is all wrapped up in the changes we want him or her to make, the person we want him or her to become. We say things like, “I want her to be less self-centered.” But the key to drawing and maintaining healthy boundaries is to acknowledge who she is right then and ask, what do I want for her, as she is right now, and what do I want for my relationship with her, as she is right now? This doesn’t mean people can’t change and that we can’t have influence. Life is not about being frozen in a specific point in time. It does mean that we need to accept who people are today, where they are today, and then make a decision about what relationship we want to have with them today.

I have found that as I do that, I am able to recognize and enjoy the positive aspects of a current relationship because I can place a boundary between me and the negative aspects of the relationship. This might mean that I don’t do certain things with certain people and it absolutely means that I don’t expect certain things from certain people. Instead, I am able to better enjoy someone for who they are. I let go of the expectations or hopes I had for what our relationship should be or could be, and acknowledge the relationship for what it is.

I may be reading far more into your words than what is there… and yet in them I feel a sense of hurt and loss, that your relationship with your sister isn’t what you want it to be and you are carrying that with you. Chances are you are carrying the weight of that disappointment into every interaction you have with her. So, my suggestion is to lay down the weight, see her as she is, and decide what type of relationship you want to have with her—just as she is today.

Best of Luck,
Emily