Berkeley Parents Network >
Family Relations >
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.
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
decision I have ever made. I did it by being upfront about it, but also
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
Ending our sibling relationship allowed me instant breathing room and as
rolled by, and with the help of Berkeley therapist Toni Ayres, I was
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
years, he stopped speaking to my mom.
For me the big question was why he behaved the way he did and I now
that my brother was a child, and is now an adult with Reactive
This has allowed me to have compassion for him - something that I never
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.
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
Best wishes for healing and peace
This is a hard situation but it sounds like it's time to change your
you are prostituting yourself by holding back your feelings and barely
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
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
conversation, they will feel that stress alieviated from you and from
(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
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
'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.
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.
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
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!
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
I hope this is helpful. Hang in there.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
this page was last updated: Aug 14, 2010
BPN is now a 501(c)(3) non-profit and we are transitioning to a new website during
The opinions and statements expressed on this website
are those of parents who subscribe to the
Berkeley Parents Network.
Disclaimer & Usage for
information about using content on this website.
Copyright © 1996-2015 Berkeley Parents Network