Growing up and letting go of obsolete relationship dynamics

Guest post by Pemcat

Just like you should reassess the division of labor in your house, so too should you reassess the dynamics of your relationships.

By: Rick&Brenda BeerhorstCC BY 2.0

Although we are actually very similar, growing up I tended to define my sister and myself by our differences…

My sister is amazing with people, confident and outgoing and extraordinarily empathetic. She was always surrounded by a group of friends in every situation. She could start up a conversation with a stranger on the bus and be their best friend by the next stop. It was a strength that someone who was very awkward with her peers, and just a little shy, couldn’t help but admire.

And me? Well, I was the best at logistics. I always had two sets of lunch money in case my sister forgot hers (which was often useful), and contingency plans for every situation. I could usually negotiate compromises between the members of my family when people wanted different outcomes that left everyone feeling their goals had been met. I think I’m right in saying that over the years it was a skill that has been greatly appreciated.

People looked to me to make decisions, and I acted in the best interests of the group. I felt appreciated and loved. Leading the family team was my thing. It was the thing that made it okay that I wasn’t the best socially and didn’t fit in at school.

As we grew up and left home, the relationship dynamic stayed the same. Whenever we were together, I was still in charge, the quiet but confident director of the group.

Then, last year, we had a family crisis. We all travelled back to where my parents live, and because of where I was coming from, I was one of the last to arrive. I got there expecting disorganized chaos, but that wasn’t what I found.

My little sister, the one who’s supposed to be good at emotional support, was coordinating. She was finding out what we needed to know and making a plan.

I was glad that the relevant fires were being fought, but it felt quite odd not to be in control, to be deferring to someone else. I’d expected to swoop in and be the hero, but she didn’t need me.

The last time I’d lived with her, she’d still been at school. Since we’d last spent any serious time together she’d been to university and lived away from home. She’d gone to another continent to study for a semester, entirely initiated and organised by herself. She now has a job as a real actual adult where she does meaningful things and makes people’s lives better.

She’s not just my kid sister anymore, and she doesn’t need me to remember her lunch money for her. The only reason that it seemed that way before was because I wasn’t trusting that anyone else could be competent. I wasn’t giving her the space to do anything. I always had every eventuality covered on my own.

It was a shock to have her take the reins, and she and I both felt the shift in the power dynamic. We had some serious private conversations that week, and sometimes it was hard. I had to ask for some time and space to get used to the situation (which made me feel about three feet tall, given that this was the least important issue we were facing).

I’m so glad we did manage to work through it. It did take time, and sometimes she still has to give me a bop on the head if I treat her like a child. I’ll tell you this, though: it’s a heck of a lot easier to deal with a situation if you work as partners than if you try and work as manager and minions. I was absolutely exhausted by the time we got through that crisis, and that would have been doubly true if I had shouldered the responsibility on my own.

Now we both get to be good at people, and good at organizing. It’s a much healthier situation.

Comments on Growing up and letting go of obsolete relationship dynamics

  1. THIS!

    My little sister is only 14 months younger than I and it took ages for both of us to realize that we had grown up and that we were different people than when we were children. I had moved away for the better part of a decade and during that time we both matured. It took my future husband saying “stop jabbing at her, she isn’t doing anything wrong” for me to wake up and stop behaving like I did when we were children. By this point I was 28 years old! Now we both live in the same town, we see each other semi-regularly and we have both learned that when we have “big news” we share it with each other first before talking to our parents. I met her boyfriend six months before she would introduce him to our parents and I told her about buying a house before breaking the news to them. It has been an interesting few years and I think we have both calmed down and relaxed around each other.

  2. As the little sister in the dynamic you’ve written about I’m still waiting to for my big sis to have this epiphany of yours. My sister’s struggling to figure out how to be with me now that I’m out of college and employed full-time in my dream career, married, and living somewhere not in my parents house. It’ll take time and I’m doing my best to soften this transition when I see her brain grappling but I know I’m looking forward to the next step in our ever complex sisterhood!

    • One of the reasons I think it took us a while to get there is that (at least from my perspective, and I think from my sister’s as well), the dynamic we had wasn’t a problem. She was (and is) one of my very best friends, and I love spending time with her.
      I don’t think I bossed her around a lot or belittled her or did things that were otherwise damaging to our relationship (although she may feel differently!) I just tended to end up the only one with responsibility for plans. She is in general more laid back than me, and from discussions we have had in the process of me submitting this post (we talk things to death in my family) she didn’t resent this.
      The situation changed because we were suddenly put in a position where she had responsibility and I didn’t, which forced us to realise what the status quo was and triggered us to actively reevaluate our approach.
      The dynamic we had wasn’t a problem. The dynamic we have now is better.

      • how do you get there, though, without accidentally stumbling into it? if you’d been able to book an earlier flight, you’d still be in the old dynamic. i am the one who organizes everything, and i know it needs to change, but other than going to the other side of the planet for three weeks (which i am literally going to do) and having a horrible crisis happen while i’m there (which i really hope doesn’t happen) i don’t know how to get there. it’s not that she can’t do the stuff i do, it’s that it’s My Job, so i do it. uh, hi, sis, if you’re reading this.

        • Well, I don’t know the specifics of your situation, but this is what I would try, if I were to go back to a few years ago and decide I wanted the situation to change.

          First, I’d have a think about why I end up disproportionately responsible for things. For me, part of it is legacy from the past, but a huge part of it is that I HATE when things come down to crunch time and there’s a last minute panic deadline. I end up planning things because my internal timeline for when stuff has to be organised is three weeks earlier than everyone else’s. By the time they get to it, I’ve already done it. It’s not that they are unwilling to do it.

          Realising that, what I would do is:
          Go out for coffee with my sister, and say that I know that I often end up taking responsibility in a family context, but I also know that she is just as capable of doing so, and I don’t want things to stay the way they’ve always been just because of inertia. In fact, I would really appreciate her help, and I’m sorry if I’ve ever given the reverse impression (if she’s not on board with this, there may not be much you can do).
          Agree some areas that she wants to look after. Then I have to let go of them and not worry about them any more. I need to try and remember that she will do things differently to I do, and to a different timeline, and that this is OK. I gave her responsibility for the overall task, not for performing my to do list as I would have done.

          Of course, you may not have any of the issues I have around needing to have stuff all lined up, so a large part of this may not be relevant. But I think the talking part is probably a valid start regardless.

      • Hello. Just quickly weighing in as I’m the sister in question (Hi Pemcat!) I absolutely agree that our dynamic wasn’t problematic, just obsolete. Addressing it almost instantaneously enriched and deepened our relationship – I became a more authentic version of myself in our family settings – which left me with more confidence and therefore more willingness to take on new tasks and responsibilities. Although I had previously continued to fall quite neatly into our pre-established dynamics , it felt so refreshing to be a finally be a fully functional member of the team.

        Hell Pollard – all I can say is to hold on. In my limited experience, the rewards of creating new dynamics far outweigh the frustrations.

        • Agreed. (I make a policy to always agree with you, except when you’re wrong (you can tell when you’re wrong, because I won’t be agreeing with you :-P)).
          There have definitely been rewards to the changes. We’re like the world’s best tag team now in crisis situations (and I’m including the younger ones in this, if you’re reading). Also, I’m sure the fact that we had this new and marvellous relationship where we were both allowed to be good at logistics enhanced your ability to keep me sane whilst wedding planning. That was very important for me.

  3. I wish I could say this about my relationship with my older sister; she still sees me as the younger sibling who she can direct around (I’m 30, married, responsible homeowner). We’ve had several talks about it, and it seldom ends well. :\ I wish I knew a way to help her see that we won’t have a good relationship as adults until she can start viewing me as an adult with different opinions than her.

    Good article, I enjoyed reading it!

    • Yes! I have no clue how to get through to my older sister either! I’m 31, married, homeowner with a career I’ve had for nine years. And still she talks to me like I don’t know how to function in the “big scary world” and she needs to dispense unwanted/unneeded advice.

      Our talks never end well either, in fact the last time I told her I didn’t need her opinion I got a baby bottle thrown at my head…

      • Well, again, I don’t know your situations (and they do sound quite different to mine), but FWIW this is how I would have suggested my sister approach this with me.
        In our family me being ‘in charge’ manifests itself quite practically e.g. I always have the contingencies covered, if we are having take-out I tended to be called on to make decisions about what it was going to be, I ended up organising events/birthdays etc.
        I would have cautioned my sisters against saying something that sounded like ‘we don’t value what you have done for us’ – because, to be honest, I have done a lot and I would be hurt to hear that. Instead I would suggest that they either sit down and say that, going forwards, they want to be more involved, and how can they help – or just do it. Yes, if I send round an email saying we should meet up, I’m likely to sort out the logistics. But if THEY make the suggestion and follow through, I’m not going to usurp them. My sister has, for some years now, always planned MY birthday party, and it’s one of the best gifts someone has given me – the one day a year I don’t have to do any planning or worry about logistics. One year she just asked me if she could do it, and I gratefully said yes.
        So, rather than saying ‘you always boss me around and it’s annoying, stop’ I would have suggested they start pre-emptively taking on an organisational role. Of course, your situations do sound different, but I think ‘let me demonstrate (in an interactions with family context, because I’ve already done it elsewhere) that I am an adult’ goes down a lot more easily than ‘I don’t need you anymore’.
        Finding other things to point out that you value about interactions with them (other than the historic ‘you can advise me about problems I don’t know how to solve’) and mentioning them (e.g. ‘I love how well you and your partner model a relationship, it’s been really helpful for me’ or ‘you always make time for me’ or just ‘you’re so damn funny, and talking to you always makes my day better’) would probably also help. For me, looking after logistics was part of how I ‘contributed’ to family life. Knowing that I’m valued for other things made it much easier to let that go.

        • Or she could say “I deeply appreciate all you have done for me. That being said, I am a grown woman and I do not need your permission to make my decisions. Please stop pushing the issue before I run out of restraint to be kind to you.”

          Back off! is a complete sentence. As are No! and Stop! According to world leading relationship therapists John Bradshaw and Weinhold and Weinhold, no one needs to exonerate the amount of energy and resources you have stipulated to placate and molly-coddle your feelings in exchange for basic respect and emotional boundaries. Falling out of a vagina first does not give you lifetime privileges for invalidating their needs and feelings and always getting your way.

          Whining about how the older sibling’s feelings being hurt is ridiculous, seeing as they do not respect their younger sibling’s feelings enough to shut their cake hole when asked. Really.

          The world will not explode if the younger sibling acts like an adult with boundries.

  4. My sister and I have struggled though many changes in dynamics, we have an 8 year age gap to deal with. It can be challenging to find your footing as adults for sure, she has a hard time getting over the fact that even though I am younger than her I am an adult. In fact I am 41, married and I own a house, so I often feel like, get the fuck over it when she says stuff like “I can’t believe you are 41.”
    She had moved out by the time I was 11, so besides the age difference we had some big gaps where we just weren’t around each other for years at time, she travelled a lot. I did a lot of changing and growing when she was away, and I had space and time to figure out who I am with out an older sister. She would come home after being away, to a sister she didn’t recognize and we would have to take time to get to know each other again. Luckily we have always reconnected through all the changes we have both gone through.

  5. Having 5 siblings makes my family a complicated mess of sibling dynamics, and even though theres very small gaps between each of us, it still means the oldest is going off to university when the youngest isn’t even through elementary. Being on the younger end of the train, it was hard finding an identity and use when there had already been so many before you doing their Thing and doing it well. For us, spreading out and making our homes in different places seems to have helped, since then our first topic of conversation when we get back together is about how each other’s lives are doing, setting the tone of thinking of each other in our current circumstances, not our old ones (though buying a house and getting married have definitely helped things further in my case.)

  6. Such an interesting topic! For my younger brother and I, it’s a bit different – he’s a successful musician and I have a “straight job” and am married. I think he feels like some people might think he’s not “grown up” because of his profession and occasionally he jokes that, “I’m making him look bad” with my career, but I’ve often felt like he’s leading a more fulfilling life than I am. All in all, I guess we’re pretty lucky because we each respect the other’s lifestyles and careers. I have to admit that it is still hard for me to think of him as being an adult, though – maybe it would be easier if we could see each other more often and do grown up things together. I guess to be fair, it’s often hard for me to see ME as an adult, too, ha ha.

  7. My older brothers are 4 and 7 years older than me. They were close growing up, and I was that annoying little sister (I’m also quite different from them, they’re very much ONbeat most of the time). Those dynamics are starting to shift now that I’ve been in contact with them more (we all live within 2 hours drive of each other), but they both spent a long time overseas and still treated me like a 13-yo when they came back for a long time. One thing that really helped was my brother’s wife, actually. Although they both have really sarcastic, teasing senses of humour (not helpful for little insecure sister feeling like she’s 5 again around them), but she does pull him up on occasion and reminds him that his “little sister” is 31, married, with a professional skilled job now, and is actually only 4 years younger than him.

    • Thinking about it, I think that for all of the adults who have partners in my immediate family, the partners have improved the individual’s relationships with their birth family. There’s just something great about having someone who doesn’t have all the history, who loves you unconditionally and is on your side, but also knows how to tell you when you’re being an ass. It really can help smooth things over.

      • Agreed! Our partner’s also provide this window of insight into our ‘outside’ lives, which can be a useful reminder (to the sibling element) that we are all more than our interactions with our immediate family. There’s nuance and complexity there that can easily be missed.

      • I have experienced the opposite 🙁 My younger brother was always the organised one, the practical one, the useful one, where as I was all flights of fancy and grand dreams that never quite got off the ground. We are in our 30’s now, and now he is the flake and I am the organiser and honestly, the only thing I can see that triggered his flakey behaviour (and flakey is an understatement) is his current partner of quite a few years.

      • Absolutely. I’ve done the same for my husband (even though sometimes he hates it!). He was always terrible at keeping in touch with his family and keeping them at a half-a-world-away distance. Exposing him to some more positive family dynamics and the benefits that brings has helped him to rebuild some of that.

  8. I recently had a similar experience, with my dad.
    I have siblings, and I think they’ve pretty much accepted that I’ve grown up, gone to school, got married, and gotten a job. My dad has always seen me as the youngest, the least experienced, and the one he would direct to fix something, instead of the one he would come to and ask for help. In the last year or so our dynamic has shifted, as now I’ve become someone he relies on for help, even some very serious matters. I’ve noticed his struggle with the change – sometimes he seems mad at me for no reason. But in the end it’s because he doesn’t want our relationship to change.

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