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Mom can't quit meddling in her adult daughters' sibling rivalry

| Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, 1:33 a.m.

D ear Carolyn:

My young adult daughters have an ongoing issue: The younger feels her sister withholds support during many critical events in her life. The older sister, when confronted, reacts very defensively and shuts down.

I have my own role in this, formerly trying to “fix” the problem and usually being angry with older daughter for not being more sensitive. I have learned to let them work it out — or not.

Recently, older daughter missed a very important event for her sister, a replay/anniversary of sorts where the first time wasn’t acknowledged either. I asked older daughter to please call her sister and explained why this was a big deal, she said she fully understood, and she called but didn’t bother to leave a message.

I asked her later why she didn’t speak with her sister, and she got angry with me. Younger daughter is upset with me because I didn’t raise my first child to be a better person, and neither one is talking to me or each other now.

Older daughter can be very supportive, but sometimes self-involved and believes her sister is given special treatment. Younger daughter has serious health issues that older daughter still seems not to appreciate, which I can’t understand.

Husband/father stays out of it. I’m giving daughters their space, but younger feels overpowered/punished by older whenever she tries to speak her truth. Help!

— Sibling Rivalry

I feel for your younger daughter, but I don’t agree with her expectations or methods.

And I think your sympathy and support for her have stoked this fire for years.

Who doesn’t want loved ones’ support at critical points in our lives — their presence in particular. There’s nothing wrong with the source of the ache your younger daughter feels.

But the way you’ve taught Younger to address this ache implies she has a right to expect certain attention from Older, to get angry when she doesn’t receive it and to hold Older responsible for her anger.

Wanting support doesn’t mean we’re entitled to it, though. We can ask, yes. We can explain why it’s important to us. But we do not get to expect it. Our desires do not create responsibilities for other people.

And prompting older to call, then following up to criticize how she did it, is not “let(ting) them work it out!”

This may be your idea of family, that sibling support is mandatory — it isn’t uncommon. But in practice, that idea collapses just as Younger’s expectations do: Your children aren’t obligated to share your idea of family. You can teach it, and model it, but you cannot “make” them embrace it. They’re entitled to their own.

•••

Dear Carolyn:

My wife is a very charming person, and I’ve come to the painful realization that the longer you know her, the more she turns off the charm and turns on the cruelty. I should have seen it coming, as I noticed even early on that she has lots of surface-level friends but no old friends, and that her family relationships are strained. But I didn’t see it.

I’ve finally convinced her to go to couple’s counseling, but our counselor already seems to “side” with my wife and think she couldn’t possibly be as cruel as I’m describing her. Is this an issue that couple’s therapy just isn’t going to work for?

— Charmed

Yes. Someone who lures with charm and then switches to cruelty is an abuser. Couple’s therapy is not appropriate for abuse situations. Please switch to individual therapy with someone new, and secure your money, stat.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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