Dear 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 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.
I'm giving daughters their space, but younger feels overpowered/punished by older whenever she tries to speak her truth. Help!
Carolyn says: 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.
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. And prompting Older to call, then following up to criticize how she did it, is not "let[ting] them work it out"!
So Older might not be the most supportive and present sister ever. She might also have a good point, albeit made dysfunctionally, that Younger's health issues are in charge and therefore Older feels powerful only through not showing up.
Either way, Older is entitled to choose where and when she shows up, and why.
Younger, meanwhile, is entitled to feel however she wants about that — sad, angry, disappointed (indifferent, relieved), whatever. But if she expects Older to fix these feelings for her, she enters the realm of dysfunction, too. Her being angry at you for not raising Older well enough is merely dysfunction 2.0; she blames her sister for her disappointment and blames you for her sister.
Younger's feelings are her own to manage. She can ask for understanding, she can explain herself, but she can't control what anyone else does. She can only take others' responses as-is and decide how to proceed.
In this case, she can put Older's no-show into lifelong context, consider that she has her reasons, and choose to stop expecting Older to show up. Younger can, hereafter, assume Older won't come and be touched and surprised when she does.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.