Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: Three sisters, all mid-40s, all live within hours of each other and are generally very close. I, as the oldest, like to plan twice-a-year “sisters retreats” where we all travel somewhere fun. Lately, the middle sister is “not feeling” these outings. We all initially agree on plans, and then at the last minute she flakes out with some flimsy excuse and says she really doesn’t want to go to that particular place.
I’ve asked her why she didn’t just let us know that sooner, but she feels she can’t just say she’s not interested.
Lately it seems that if she’s not initiating the plans or event in general, she’s not really interested. Yet, she expects us to show up at whatever event she plans.
I don’t know how to vocalize my frustration without hurting her feelings or turning it into a big deal. If my other sister and I don’t reach out to her periodically, we hardly ever hear from her. How can we get her to open up about what’s really bugging her?
Carolyn says: Maybe it’s just bugging her to be bugged about this.
Maybe she’s not happy with the eldest-directed status quo, and trying to change direction a bit. Here’s how that usually looks: her saying no to stuff you plan, and inviting you to stuff she plans.
Maybe she hasn’t spelled this out for you clearly because she has been met with resistance in the past when she wanted her say.
This isn’t to defend the flake-out-last-minute method; even if it’s painful or awkward to, adults need to act like adults. I’m just offering one way to explain it.
And a way to mitigate some of the frustration:
(1) Don’t “vocalize my frustration” or “open” her up. Just, accept where she is right now and meet her there. Birth orders aren’t marching orders. Let her take the lead for a while.
(2) Or, ask outright, kindly: “Do you want to plan the next retreat? Or, rethink them, space them out, suspend them for a bit?”
(3) Or, take facts at face value and stop interpreting them:
Don’t: “She expects us to show up.” Do: “She invited us” — then go or don’t go as you wish.
Don’t: “If [we] don’t reach out to her periodically, we hardly ever hear from her.” Do: [Thinks of sister.] [Calls sister.] [Quashes expectations.]
It’s a completely different way of thinking, and so is deceptively difficult. But it’s doable and rewarding — and so respectful of autonomy that you might find she’s more present the less you plan for her to be.
Has the sister ever thought that twice a year is just a little too often? My sisters and I go on “sister trips” every 12-16 months. I can’t imagine doing it more often due to just living our normal lives. Also, we rotate through who is responsible for planning.
“She expects us to show up”: I read it as she pouts if other sisters don’t turn up for her plans. That would be annoying in this context.
Carolyn says: Indeed. But the answer still is to go when you want to, and don’t when you don’t — i.e., don’t react to pouting.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.