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What should I do about my controlling and disrespectful sisters? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
What should I do about my controlling and disrespectful sisters? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

What should I do about my controlling and disrespectful sisters? Add to ...

The Question

I know that getting along with family is one of your things, so here goes: Five years ago, my husband and I sold our house in the city and moved to a small town about 50 kilometres away to be near my four sisters. He died two years later and my two youngest sisters began trying to control me, often with offensive remarks about my behaviour and with unrequested advice. Now, I decline their invites to visit their homes, but too often they ask me why. I don’t answer truthfully. Should I tell them I dislike the way they treat me? I’m not unpopular in my new residence and have made a few close friends.

The Answer

I’m not sure that “getting along with family is one of [my] things.”

It is true that I tend to favour keeping relationships alive and well instead of avoiding people and/or turning your back on them.

I probably get more questions than any other kind saying some variation of “so-and-so has done such-and-such a thing to me, should I turn my back on that person indefinitely?”

To which my answer is always: No. I prefer what I call “The Penalty Box” approach, about which I will get into more detail later.

First, though, in every long-term relationship I’ve ever had, the other person has either had to forgive something fairly major of me, or I them – often both. And I’m glad, because my life would be much worse without those who have forgiven me, and/or I them.

That’s the positive, Pollyanna-ish thing I have to say. On a moodier, more misanthropic note: I’ve also found, over the years, that almost everyone is, ultimately, kind of annoying.

And nothing’s more annoying than unsolicited advice.

It never ceases to amaze me the mania people have for shoving their opinions down each other’s throats, like an old boot.

Outside of this column, I never give advice in my personal life. People say, “Hey, Dave, what should I do about [this, that, or the other]?” I shrug and mumble something like, “I don’t know, whatever you think is best.”

It does sound like, vis-à-vis your sisters, you should push back. Pardon me, I misspoke earlier: There is one thing more annoying than unsolicited advice and that’s unsolicited advice coupled with unsolicited zingers about your health, comportment, looks, weight, or whatever.

What makes it difficult when it comes to family members is this notion that “Hey, we’re just saying this because we care about you/are concerned about you, worried you’re on the wrong path,” and so forth.

And maybe there’s a grain of truth there. Naturally, your family is allowed to be more blunt with unsolicited advice and observations than the general population. It cares about you.

But it can also be a smokescreen to hide behind so family can lob verbal hand grenades.

Which sounds like the case here.

Now, you may be tempted to lash back, to say, “Oh, are we trading unsolicited observations?” And counter-zing with some home truths of your own.

But don’t. That’s how rifts start. Instead, whenever your sisters zing you or drop unsolicited advice, say something along the lines of, “I don’t appreciate you talking to me like that. I want you to be supportive and speak to me with respect at all times.” And/or, “I’m not looking for advice. If I want your opinion about something, I’ll ask. Otherwise, I’m good.”

They might squawk. They might bristle. But, as I’ve often said, we teach other people how to treat us. You’ve obviously given your sisters too much leeway. It’s time to draw a line in the sand.

If they continue to disrespect you – well (and here, perhaps, is the more nurturing guy I claimed to be at the beginning of this article), I still wouldn’t turn my back on them. They are your sisters, after all.

What I’d do: put them in The Penalty Box. In other words, steer clear of them and put the relationship on ice for a period of time, without making any grand or final pronunciamentos.

I’m a fan of The Penalty Box and have used it many times. Let them cool their heels and reflect on the error of their ways.

If you let them out of it and they haven’t changed: rinse and repeat.

Also: where are your close friends and other two sisters in all this? Surely, they can support you and run interference for you while you’re handling this family friction.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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