Hax: How to handle a troublesome sister

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I ruined my sister’s life the day I was born, which was cute back then, but we’re almost 50 now. Starting with childhood, most decisions I make (hair, clothes, musical instrument, sports, college, career, house, etc.) somehow ruin her day. She gets visibly upset, highly critical, and accusations of jealousy fly.

I’m not sure why she’s like this, especially considering my decisions have zero effect on her life. She lives her own life, and I’m happy for her. (Really!) We’ve never been close because my existence seems to annoy her.

Although we fought as children, as an adult, I’m tired of it. I rarely see her, but when I do, I know another rage-filled mood swing is going to get hurled at me. Time for estrangement? I think I’m there, but what do I tell my aging parents, who really want us to be close?

Carolyn says: You tell your parents you’re sorry you’re not able to give them this one thing they want so much. You will always keep trying, though — a promise that will assure them and that you can reasonably deliver on. Because …

Trying can take many forms, one of which is to keep your distance as part of a peacekeeping strategy. See her on logical occasions to see her — don’t avoid your parents just because she’s there — and plan ahead not to stand for her tantrums. Be pleasant, be friendly, be kindly interested in her life, and when she turns on you, say, “I’m sorry you feel this way. However, I won’t be treated like this,” and leave. Every. Single. Time.

Let her fulminate at an empty room or the back of the door you just closed.

Reward the good, starve the bad. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

It might not work, but it’s your best shot and it keeps your family and integrity intact.

A will and a way

Dear Carolyn: My parents always told us they were taking care of us in their will and their house was full of valuable antiques. I’m executor of the estate and when all is said and done, my siblings and I will get around $7,000 each. Which is nice, but not what they led us to believe for a long time.

I’m fine with this, I wasn’t really expecting anything huge. But one of my siblings is expecting a windfall to put his kids through college. We are meeting to go over this and I have to break the news. I need some guidance on how to tell my sibling this and how to explain the situation when they get upset.

Carolyn says: Careful documentation is your friend. Explaining will come across as backpedaling and excuse-making and spin to someone disinclined to believe you. Offer it up as something that surprised you as well, since it’s true, and that didn’t square at all with what your parents had led you to believe, so you checked the numbers many times over.

Then show them and let the document do the talking, not you. Good luck.

Another view

Re: Inheritance:

Send the estate accounting to the siblings before the meeting. Give them a chance to think about the documents and internalize their meaning. Springing the documents on them during the meeting will only create problems.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.

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