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Breaking ties with an adult sibling

April 2009

I would like advice from those of you who have if not broken off ties, lessened contact with an adult sibling. I am not interested in responses that simplify the matter and say we should just try to work it out. I have a sister who I find to be toxic. She puts on a fake friendly manner when face to face but is backstabbing when I am not present. I am tense when I am around her and we were never friends as children as she was much older than me and would torment me. Now that we have kids of similar age she arranges trips to visit me at least 3 times a year (she lives in a different part of the state). And while it could be nice for the cousins to be friends, it takes too much a toll on me when she visits. She never calls me in between visits so we have no real relationship, and I really don't want one with her. She just uses me as an audience to talk about her life and gain info from me to use behind my back. She has even insinuated herself into my relationship with my inlaws, contacting them by telephone and email which they see as just extreme friendliness, but which is another loudspeaker for her to talk about me negatively. Even my father has told me that she is obsessed with me. I have heard from relatives slanderous things she has said about me. So now that I am trying to cut or limit ties to her, she is trying to make me look bad to the extended family and in-laws when I believe I am acting out of self-preservation. How did you go about cutting ties? Just tell her it is not a convenient time to visit? Or formally tell her how I feel about her and say I don't want that much contact with her (and then have her characterize me to everyone as a selfish mother). She has already indicated that she believes I'm depriving my children of a relationship with their cousin by not arranging visits. Please help! Don't want this woman in my life


To an outsider, breaking ties with a sibling might seem unforgivable. But in my case, ending my relationship with my older brother twenty years ago was the best decision I have ever made. I did it by being upfront about it, but also with the caveat that should he seek continued counseling, I would consider speaking to him again. He did not. I was also clear with my family about what I had done and why and am thankful that there was very little back and forth about it from them.

Ending our sibling relationship allowed me instant breathing room and as the years rolled by, and with the help of Berkeley therapist Toni Ayres, I was able to understand the dysfunctional family system that supported and ignored my brother's abhorrent behavior.

An interesting side note is that within six years, none of my other siblings and my brother's adult children were in any type of a relationship with him and by seven years, he stopped speaking to my mom.

For me the big question was why he behaved the way he did and I now understand that my brother was a child, and is now an adult with Reactive Attachment Disorder. This has allowed me to have compassion for him - something that I never thought I'd feel. anon


I know of other people who have cut ties with siblings, and most of them have done so formally -- by saying explicitly that they no longer wish to have contact with the sibling. It might help to list specific instances when your sister was cruel or negative about you, so that she can she what it is specifically that you can not accept about her. I would give the same information to your parents and other siblings. She will probably put a negative spin on it, but you should have the chance to make your perspective and wishes known. oldest sister
It sounds to me that you have thought this through pretty carefully and it would be the right decision for you to get this person out of your life. Sure, there are 'cons' but the pros outweigh them. It is sad, but your path seems clear. Based on my own experience with a friend, not a family member, who did similar things, I would avoid confrontation. That will just prolong the process and feed your sister's need for drama. Whatever you say, no matter how reasonable and fair, will be twisted and consume tons of your emotional energy, unless you can just write her a letter and truly ignore whatever response you get back (whether directly from her or from other family members). I suspect you won't be able to do that so you would be better off not saying anything.
-- So sorry to hear about what is clearly an anguishing situation - having been through something akin to this in my own family (albeit with my dad), here are some thoughts: whatever you do, whatever choice you make, will be painful. Staying in a relationship with a toxic sibling/parent is damaging on a prolonged basis. Ending a relationship with a toxic relative contains the damage and eases the day-to-day hurt, but the wound will still be there for a long time to come. What really helped me separate from my dad (as unbelievable to me as seeing those twin towers collapse) was having kids - and I really thought, do I want to expose my kids to this type of behavior, is being in this sort of relationship the modeling I want to do for them? The answers announced themselves and made the separation much more necessary. Of course, making this all the more difficult is the tangled web of relationships with other family members, but if you are clear about the motivation for separating, it will help you maintain your distance, and hopefully other family members will come to respect your choice and not feed into the dysfunction.

I must add, in the interest of full disclosure, that I could not have separated from my dad, as I have, without years of therapy. But for me it was really a question of moving forward with a healthy life, and it was just essential that I divorce myself from him all together. The black and whiteness of my situation was helpful; it's harder to separate if there are shades of grey involved. No matter what you do, there is loss and there are memories and hopes and longings that are never left behind. Best wishes for healing and peace


This is a hard situation but it sounds like it's time to change your relationship because you are prostituting yourself by holding back your feelings and barely making it through your time together. I would encourage you to share how you really feel, and if you can remove anger and judgment that would work best. Considering you ''don't want her in your life,'' would it not be a good opportunity for you to stand up for yourself and share what is real for you? It will be a good example for your children as well as set you free from a burden. Even if your children aren't present for the conversation, they will feel that stress alieviated from you and from their environment. (Many of us think that children don't pick up on subtleties like feelings, but they totally do!) Best of luck to you in staying strong and clear, and giving yourself what you know you need. I hope your sister can be calm and real when you speak with her. -Gloria
Hi, I broke ties with my brother for many years and he did not attempt to contact me much. We lived in separate parts of the county. Then he informed me that he was coming to my area and wantetd to see me. When I hesitated, he asked 'why.' I wrote hime a detailed letter which included all the reasons I did not feel comfortable seeing him. He accepted my input and I did see him briefly and have seen him at times over the years. However, I do set the boundaries that feel comfortable for me and specifically let him know what they are.

I encourage you to do/say/be what feels comfortable for you with regard to contact with your sister. Hopefully your family is insightful and can see through her attempts to 'stir up s**t.'

'I' messages and perhaps communication in the Center for Non- Violent Communication' style http://www.cnvc.org/ might be helpful. Stay focused on what you need and want, instead of what she's doing/saying. Best wishes in honoring your self. Sandy


I also have a ''toxic'' sister. We have gone for more than 15 years without contact. For years I overlooked her dishonest, cruel, unethical, illegal, immoral and embarrassing behavior, but she went too far when she decided to tell my 12-yr old flat out lies of an extremely disparaging nature about me. I suppose she thought I wouldn't find out?? My advice: stop communicating with her. You owe her no explanation and she wouldn't accept it, anyway. Eventually, she'll figure out that you've cut ties, but (I'm guessing) she also won't accept any responsibility for her role in killing the relationship. Don't give her a reason to respond to you or an audience for her ''side.'' You don't owe anyone else an explanation, either, but don't be surprised if people have a hard time with your decision. If you are ''depriving'' the cousins of a relationship, you are also protecting your children from her. /anon/
I have limited my exposure to a toxic sibling (now in prison) and know quite a few other people who have limited or cut off contact--usually for very good reasons. It's heartbreaking when someone from your own family is such a liability but it certainly does happen. If you know you need to limit contact, DON'T get guilt-tripped into betraying your own needs because she's ''family''.

IMHO, it's not a good idea to have a confrontation with your sister given that she is (a) completely self-centered (b) obsessed with insinuating herself into your life (c) good at looking good to the world and (d) backstabbing. An open confrontation just gives her more ammunition to draw other well-intentioned people into her web--so you'll get lots of well-meaning advice to be ''nicer to your poor sister'' and ''she means well'' and ''what's wrong with you.'' Treat her like a phony colleague at work: tell her it's a bad time to visit, or you're contagious, tell her you and your SO are limiting guests. If she tries to provoke you, remain calm and repeat your polite refusal. Please realize no guest has a ''right'' to visit your home, or a ''right'' to hear the reason why; you don't need ''a good reason'' to say no.

If you feel the need to make SOME effort towards maintaining a relationship, find a nice hotel with a pool and schedule a weekend vacation with the kids once a year--THEN invite her. (''Oh, sorry you can't make it!'') Or do a family summer camp where there are lots of activities with lots of people and suggest she join you. You get the idea--social events where there's lots to do besides socializing with HER. But she may be too big a pain in the ass to make that worthwhile.

As for the kids, they can keep in touch by chat, IM, email or snail mail. Encourage the kids to send cards and pictures.

I'm sure you'll still get second-hand flak (smile politely and shrug it off) , but most people will eventually catch on, if they haven't already, that she spends a LOT of time running you down and trying to draw them in.

It just goes to show that if blood is thicker than water, it's also a lot more dangerous. Genetics ain't everything! Anon


My sister is a serious pain in the butt and I have found great freedom in setting limits with her. It isn't easy and it has repercussions - but in the LONG term it is a very good thing. If I was you, I would involve a mediator (or therapist) and next time she visits - sit her down and tell her how you feel. Then, tell her what you want to do - limit to one visit a year - whatever it is that you are comfortable with moving forward. Then, let the storm hit - and in a year or two - everything will be different and you will have protected yourself from a toxic person. I hope this is helpful. Hang in there. Lisa
I feel for you. I truly believe that breaking ties with toxic people in our lives makes us stronger in the end. It is more difficult, I am sure, because this woman is your sister and you likely have childhood memories in common that you cherish. But now she is an adult and taking a toll on you emotionally. I really don't think that she will change, this is her way for whatever reason. I would urge you to speak to her formally about your feelings and consider breaking ties with her completely. It is also a difficult decision to make because your children will likely not see their cousins. I will tell you that I broke ties with a ''best'' friend who was toxic in much the same way you describe. She too had children, so the choice was difficult, but my life is now so much richer, free of those toxins that build up with the repetition of the same old habits that you instinctively know aren't right for you or your family. I will admit there was a void in my life for a time, where that friend and I used to exist. But now, several years later, I have built new relationships based more on choice rather than situation that are healthier all around. Here's to mutually satisfying relationships
Dear Sib: About two years ago, I was in the same situation as you find yourself in now, and I did break off my relationship with both of my siblings. It was a hard decision, in that my elderly parents bore the brunt of the results to some extent: they had only family get-togethers without their youngest child, son-in- law, and only grandchild to look forward to. My father turned 85 ten days ago with my sister, brother, and sister-in-law in attendance, and my family and me 3000 miles away.

My sibling relationships were toxic, and though I had gotten used to the abuse after 47 years, when my sister verbally abused my husband and daughter, and my brother sat by and said and did nothing, that was it for me. All of my life, my siblings were verbally, physically, and sexually abusive of me, and my parents did not protect me from them: in fact, they seemed to think that I was somehow at fault. Now in their 80s, I cannot expect my parents to change, and my brother and sister are not motivated to change (they also blame me for their behavior), so I had no choice but to make the change myself.

Frankly, not having to interact with them has mostly been a relief, and I do not miss having to work extra hard to find some common ground with them, and try to breech the distance between us by being trusting and forthcoming about myself.

Looking into the future, I cannot see myself reconciling with my sister -- ever -- but my brother and I may be able to heal the rift at some point. Right now, I am still enjoying the sense of peace that comes from not engaging with them. And my husband is very supportive, so I do not feel pushed to make any decisions until I am comfortable doing so.

I wish you all the best in making your decision. Your sister sounds like mine to some extent, and in her jealous rage, sees herself as the wronged party, and you the perpetrator. If you disconnect from that toxic relationship, keep in mind that others may not feel that your behavior is necessarily noble; they may see you as selfish for creating a rift in the family, after having taking your sister's crap for so long, thereby smashing the family's delusions of its own cohesiveness and ''normality.'' Whatever your decision, I hope that it brings you some peace of mind. Hang in there. Been there, doing that


Please, please do what's best for you, mentally and emotionally. If you're not comfortable being around her don't torment yourself OR your family. You don't owe her anything. Her issues are distorting your view and making you feel guilty. Follow your gut. It seems you already know what you want to do anyhow. Don't let your whole life revolve around her crap any longer. It's not fair to you or your family. So the cousins don't see each other but it's for a reason. Perhaps when they are older they can reconnect on their own. Both of my parents grew up with strained relationships with their siblings. They came and went from my life and it was odd to me as I grew up. My own relationship with my brother is strained. I did not grow up with good role models. I realize my brother and I are different. We weren't meant to be close or have a ''normal'' sibling relationship. It took time to accept that realization but I'm happier now. It's easier than having constant disappointments and problems.

If people in your family are truly rational and sane people, they will know it's not you but her causing problems. Life is too short for you to live with the constant anxiety of her next move. It's a bit of a grieving process AND coming to terms with her out of your life. With good support you'll be fine and happier. Good luck. anon


In a similar untenable situation, I partially broke ties with my parents due to similar issues. Their visits were causing great tension and stress in our home, and I found myself and my husband dreading spending time with them. In our case, their behavior was problematic and perhaps unintentional, so I tried to communicate my concerns in a compassionate, clear manner-- to no avail, despite the fact that I provided specific examples and made specific requests in a kind manner.

Finally I had to break it down to them that they make me extremely uncomfortable due to their behavior, that I've tried to communicate this in the past and my concerns and issues have gone unheeded, so that we need to take a break. It has been both painful and wonderful. Based on these experiences, I recommend that you be clear and direct with her that you do not enjoy her visits and that you do not wish to have a relationship.

The stuff about depriving cousins is a bunch of BS-- why in the world should we be expected to expose our children to toxicity if we can avoid it? I say that you should spend your time with people that you love, and people that you like, rather than people that make you feel awful, and that your kids will probably thank you for it! creating family a different way


You have excellent reasons for ending your relationship with her, and if only you & she were involved I would say go for it. However, it's not just about you two...you'll be depriving your kids of knowing their cousins, and I don't think that should be taken lightly. They have the opportunity to form bonds now that can last a lifetime. I didn't get to know any of my cousins, and now they are a huge, close-knit clan with kids of their own who all get to know each other. I wish my parents had seen, back then, how much value there could be in forging a relationship between us all. So I would say deal with her for your kids' sake...just don't tell her anything about yourself whatsoever. If she has no information, there are real limits to the damage she can cause. cousin-deprived
Like you said, if you confront her and cut ties, she'll bad-mouth you. If you don't confront her but still cut ties, she'll bad-mouth you. If you suck it up and continue seeing her a few times a year, she'll bad-mouth you. See where I'm going with this?

I have mostly cut ties with a sibling. I keep very limited contact but don't invite him into my life at all. It might be hard at first, but it gets easier. I assume your parents aren't in the picture? Will you have to deal with her at some point: family holidays, weddings, funerals, settling parents' estate? If you cut her out completely, it doesn't mean you won't have to deal with her at some point.

I favor being honest with her. What do you have to lose? Just tell her plainly and unemotionally that you have heard much of what she has said and that it is hard for you to be around her. And as such, you need to curtail the visits for now. That ''for now'' can extend indefinitely, but it leaves the option of reconcilliation open. Although, you sister sounds like another of my sibs who is so self centered as to be completely unself-aware, and therefore unable to really to the work necessary to change for the better.

You may have to do some upfront damage-control with your inlaws and other family members. Tell them you are going to talk with your sis about the way she treats you and that you are not going to be seeing her for a while. You don't have to bad-mouth her, but let them know it might get ugly from your sister's end of things and that you hope they keep an open mind and either hear your side of the story or just stay out of it.

As for your kids, that is really tough. My brother who I don't see much anymore is racist and has other charming personality traits. I tell my kids that his views are damaging and offensive, so I keep in touch a little bit but we just don't have him around so much.


I'm the most loyal, most familial person in my 4 sibling family. For this reason, it was really significant when I decided to break ties with my 2 older siblings. This was after years of communication and limit setting on my part about respectful behavior (asking them to not talk behind my back, gang up on me, snicker, etc.). I kept trying to communicate ad naseum because ''divorcing'' my family just seemed too deep, and would cost my son his aunt/uncle. But it got to the point where I energetically didn't care anymore. It was more important for me to only have people in my life who were respectful than to hang on to dead wood, especially given how very hard - and mostly maturely, I'd add - I tried for so many years. Guess what happened? Once they felt the truth of my limit (I had no gaming about it - there was truly no attempt to manipulate them; I was DONE), then both, independently reached out for heart to heart communication. It's worked great with one sibling (who truly owned his behavior and straight out, with integrity, promised to honor my requests, which were pretty damn basic) and 1/2 good with the other sibling (whose behavior is completely different, but didn't have the strength to own it, so my trust isn't there completely). So, there's my story. I get it - there is a time to make profound choices like these. Don't take divorcing your sibling lightly, and don't wait around for sudden miracles from your sibling either. A native american saying: Bow to no one, and let no one bow to you. Love, sister
I had to do that very same thing for almost similar reasons as you did. In my case our mother told me in a moment of weakness that she had never met a more selfish person than my sister. The tipping point for me was when my sister started belittling the sacrifices our long-deceased father had made.

It would be best that you tell her you are busy, and leave it at that. She will continue undermining you to your relatives whether you have it out with her or just make excuses. You won't be able to remove her from your life and still keep all the other relatives -- some may take sides, and some may remain neutral.

Many people may not understand the rationale behind cutting contact with a sibling. Everyone we know has tried, and continues to try to make things work with their family. It really is not all that easy. An informal study I conducted a while back to figure out how rare this might be was an eye-opener. All friends said things were fine with their siblings, or diplomatically switched the topic. Almost every stranger I have talked to had a story about a sibling they don't talk to, etc. So, the average may be somewhere in the middle, but from what I understand, it is not all that uncommon (but it is a taboo to admit it).

As far as kids, they will appreciate a calmer you more than their cousins.

Look forward to better days ahead.


Freeze her out. You can either stop responding completely, which, depending on the severity of her slander, is called for, or you could always be vague, saying ''Sorry, can't make it work this time around'', or ''Sorry, we're not up to it right now'' via email.

Never speak on the phone or answer any calls. Just quick, non-committal email responses to the first request in each go round. Absolutely ignore the follow-ups trying to get your reasons or guilting you into it. You responded once - don't get baited because that's how these people work! I find that the more contact these people get, the more they try to engage you. If you simply don't reply a few times, and when you do reply, you give them so little to go on, they have less they can use against you (if you give reasons, they will find a way to meet your objections).

Unfortunately, being upfront rarely creates positive results. Usually, it will become an all-out war, in which you, the relationship-ender, loses. I've found this with romances and friends, after first trying to be gentle and explain myself.

Remember that you don't owe her a reason: not now, not ever. And email-only makes it much easier to control the onslaught.


What a painful situation! And yet I still think some family ties just aren't worth the effort and the tears, especially if there doesn't seem to be any hope of change. And, strangely enough, since I consciously decided to no longer see or speak with my sister, I feel more compassionate toward her; I see that a self-respecting person doesn't act in disdainful and vindictive ways. I don't want to see my sister again, but I wish her well. (And I waste less time and energy feeling angry.) Mind you, it took decades to get to this point!

As for the cousins issue, I didn't see your post and don't know how old your children are and whether it would be appropriate for you to discuss this matter with them, but when they're older, you could always tell them that if they want to contact their cousins some day (college age?), they will be welcome to do so, as long as it's made clear that you don't want to be around your sibling.

Best of luck to you and your family. Melanie


You've already received a lot of great advice, but I wanted to chime in on another issue. In my case, the whole family (extended, too) is toxic: racist, angry, substance-abusing, screaming, cold. I have always felt uncomfortable at family gatherings, like I was born into the wrong family. As soon as I could (age 15), I left home. It's a little easier for me because I left Long Island at 17 and never moved back, so I don't have to make daily decisions about seeing them. Still, there are times when I see some of them and have to interact. It was an EASY decision to cut them out of my life, which I have done by ignoring. However, every few years, I get nostalgic (which mostly means that I wish I had a normal family), and I start to think that maybe they've changed. ''After all, it's bee a long time, and I have grown, so they must have, too. Surely, they now see how they mistreated me. Right?'' I initiate contact (because of funeral or special occasion), and then I am reminded that they have not changed at all. Then, I feel justified in my decision to avoid them again. I guess what I'm saying is to NOT expect that your sister will change simply because time has elapsed and you feel like you SHOULD have a relationship.

Adult Siblings' Wars

August 2008

My parents are anguished over the fact that my two brothers, my sister and I don't speak or see each other. We're all adults, one living in Morgan Hill, one in the Peninsula, one in the East Bay, and one in the North Bay. We all have our own homes and families. We simply have come to realize that we just can't get along with each other because of too much emotional baggage, slighted words and jilted actions. It breaks my heart to see my parents so destroyed but unfortunately they too have made their own contribution in us not speaking to each other. I wish things could get better but I know in my heart that when my parents pass on, we, as siblings will probably never see each other again. It's really a truly sad situation. I guess what I'm asking for is how can I make my parents feel better? I simply can't change what is. anon


I felt such sympathy for your posting. I have not spoken to my brothers and sisters in years. They hate me because I received the lion's share of my father's estate. My sisters both stole money from him and abused him verbally and emotionally. My family started to fall apart when my mother died in 2003 and became fully dysfunctional when my father died in August of 2007. You are fortunate that your parents are still living. Make the best of a difficult and visit them frequently. My father lived with my children and I. Every day was special. Do whatever you can to make your parents happy, right now. I miss my siblings put can't change their hearts, which are full of hate. Give your parents happiness today. It's the best gift to them.
How to make your parents feel better? Sounds like the only thing that might work is give them hope. How about this: you mentioned that they have contributed to the problem (can relate - my Mom would cut us down behind each other's backs and create competition and then moan about how sad it is to see the estrangement...blah blah blah). I finally confronted her heavily about her dynamic and when she really owned her part and began to make changes, I spoke with my siblings INDIVIDUALLY and told them how tired I was of back-biting and gossip Iand told them how it included our mother) and let them know I was only going to be in contact if the problems and hurts between us were ONLY between us. 1 of my 2 sibs agreed to this - my brother and I met -- alone, despite his insistence to meet at our Mom's house :)--, owned our roles, shared our hurt and have Really started over. Still kind of amazes me because I was DONE, baby, truly DONE before this. Now, when my mom still tries to drop a little back biting comment about my brother or his wife/kids, I admitedly resist the temptation to ask for more dirt details, and remind her what she is doing to her precious clan and remind her that she is hurting my trust with her. Key here is no longer being afraid of mama - shes just going to have to hear it from me every damn time she pulls it. She flinches but she no longer makes me bad/or mopes when I do this. So - maybe this isn't what you were looking for, but I kinda wonder: maybe you can help your parents by really being honest with them -consistently- about how they pull you apart from each other. Maybe if they get honest enough they'd be willing to try adult family therapy. - True understanding and full of hope for you all sister
Seriously? There's nothing you can do? Short of major abuse, I see no reason that 4 adults who live in close proximity to each other can't at least attempt a reconciliation. There are many mediators, etc. out there who can help. It's the bay area for god's sake... we have more specialists than patients. Want to make your parents feel better? Make an attempt to shed the baggage. ''slighted actions'' and ''jilted words'' are not enough to tear apart a family. Either there's some serious SERIOUS stuff going on in your family or there's a lot of pettiness. If it's the latter, it's time to give your parents what they really want: some attempt at forgiveness. They need to take part in it, too. Just b/c you don't live under the same roof doesn't mean that family therapy is unnecessary. anon
I was so surprised by the responses you received that I felt like I needed to chime in. Sometimes there really is *nothing* you can do to restore fractured family relationships and you need to take care of yourself by letting your parents know this. I have damaged relationships with both my half brother and my natural brother and, after many years of trying to resolve this for the sake of my parents and being further mistreated, I finally set a firm boundary (limited contact in one case, no contact in the other) and let my parents know. It was hard for them to accept this at first, and I am sure they hope and wish it would change, but it was the very best thing I could do for myself and my family, especially my child. I did not want my son to see an example of me putting up with outrageously abusive (verbal) behavior and I wasn't going to put him in that situation either.

I think sometimes you really do need to let go. For me, being a parent is a chance to give my child an example of making healthy choices. Not having a relationship with sick, abusive people is part of that. My son is older and he gets it now and even thanked me for the fact that we stopped seeing the especially abusive uncle a while back. No longer codependent


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