Dear Carolyn: My sister, Jane, has always been the black sheep of our family. She is perceived by me, my younger sister Sally, and even our mother as self-centered, rude and aggressive. Jane left home many years ago and started her own life, which we are not part of, except when she visits our aging mother every couple of years. We've all been OK with this arrangement, and have slowly begun putting some of our old, hurt feelings behind us.
Two weeks ago, out of the blue, Jane e-mailed us to announce that she, her husband and their child are coming for the holidays.
She wants us all to rent cabins 250 miles away and go skiing for three or four days. None of us is interested in this, and we'd have to use saved up vacation time and money we had not planned on.
Sally and I are trying to be flexible; our mother rarely sees this grandchild, and her health prevents her from flying to visit Jane, so I don't want to rock the boat and have Jane cancel the trip. On the other hand, I don't want to be railroaded by my self-centered sister and her demands.
How can I gently but firmly tell Jane her expectations do not match our traditions and she needs to rethink how she will spend her time here -- and not have the holidays blow up in all our faces?
Carolyn says: I can't think of a faster way to alienate Jane than to deflect her with the shield of "our traditions."
You might as well just say openly "You're an intruder, so do things our way or don't bother coming."
If you really mean the part about letting old wounds heal, then approach Jane warmly. For example:
(1) "I'm so glad you're visiting -- it means a lot to Mom especially."
(2) "Problem is, my family doesn't want to/doesn't ski." Don't gang up on her by speaking for Sally.
(3a) If you're able to travel: "I like the idea of a family trip, though; maybe we can try (a few ideas here)."
(3c) If you're game: "But you know what? Maybe a few days in the mountains would be good for us."
I realize that history has trained every cell in your body to reject this last one, but I'm proposing it anyway: Before you reject Jane's idea on the grounds of it being Jane's idea, see if the resort offers more than skiing; talk to Sally and your mom; check your budgets; weigh the trip's hassles against the value of inclusion.
Maybe you keep Jane at arm's length because she's difficult, but maybe she's difficult because you keep her at arm's length. And maybe you aren't ready to open your heart to Jane, but it'll cost you nothing to open your mind.
If she responds by being petulant or punitive, then resolve to stay calm and stay inclusive. Tell her you're sorry about the trip, and you'd love to see her if she changes her mind or her itinerary; think of it as saying "no" with reluctance and lighting the way to "yes."