I have almost always had a complicated relationship with my sister. Whether this is due to sibling rivalry, our closeness in age (she is 18 months my junior), or because we are the same sex, I am not sure. What I do know is that our relationship often feels tense and restrained. There is no doubt that we love each other fiercely, but when it comes to showing one another that love, we fall short. To the outside observer, we may appear a couple of compatible 30-somethings, but each of us feels the divide between us, like an invisible brick wall.
We have tried to explain away this separation – we’re just too different, we don’t look at things the same way. Much like I’ve tried to live as if my job doesn’t need to be personally rewarding and based on passion, I’ve tried to live as if I don’t need to have a close relationship with my sister. But this has never been satisfying for me. And, I suspect, for her. As much as we try to make it appear otherwise, we both yearn for a more fulfilling sisterly bond.
When the tension peaks between us, it’s usually because of something supremely silly. The source of our latest conflict was a jeans jacket. She liked mine, I ordered it for her in what I deduced was the right size, and she ended up returning it for a different size. Not a big deal, right? But when she told me she was returning it, I felt as though she was rejecting me and my love! I took offense and told her it was “annoying.” In response, she “stepped back” from the situation, and didn’t respond to my text messages or emails. This went on for a couple of weeks until I wrote her a long email explaining that underneath my snippy response were hurt feelings. What’s more, I told her that I felt rejected, unseen, and unappreciated.
The day after I sent the email, I was at my parents’ house on Long Island, getting ready for a baby shower for my cousin’s wife. While changing clothes in my childhood bedroom, I noticed a picture sitting on my chest of drawers for the one-thousandth time: A 3×3 inch square photo of my sister and me smiling at the camera. She is about 3 years old and I’m about 5. We are standing near the front door of our grandparents’ house in upstate New York; we are in our bathing suits, probably getting ready to go swimming in the old watering hole. My sister has on some kind of cape, and I’m tying it in a bow at her neck. The picture is in a small plastic frame that my sister decorated with our names and the words “Sisters are forever.” She gave it to me as a gift years ago; I don’t remember the occasion but she probably does. In the picture, we both look so carefree and happy (and are approximately the current age of her two daughters). There isn’t a trace of our current conflict on either of our faces. Looking at it again, I realized how we were wasting time being so unkind to one another. That in addition to feeling love for one another, we needed to practice showing it.
When my sister read my email, it hit her like a ton of bricks. There is no one that I know who tries harder to be a good person, friend, neighbor, wife, and mother. No one who thinks of others more, or spends more time caring for others instead of herself. The suggestion that she had hurt me flew in the face of everything she tries to be and do. When she called me to talk, it was with guns blazing because she felt as if she needed to defend herself.
At first our conversation was adversarial. She was fixated on the fact that there wasn’t anything else she could have done about the jeans jacket to make me not feel rejected. I insisted her “stepping back” made matters worse. She reminded me how different we are, that we have different lives and different priorities, and that we’ve had this type of conversation before and yet here we were again. I suggested that we could try to put the past behind us and focus on what we wanted from our relationship now.
And then something shifted. The bottom fell out of whatever short-term satisfaction we got from pointing out how we had been hurt or wronged more than the other. Suddenly we were able to hear one another. I asked her “Would you like our relationship to be different?” She responded “Yes.” I asked her “How would that look and feel?” She responded “I would call you to talk about my day or to discuss something I’m going through.”
I asked her if she ever felt the same things I wrote about in my email – hurt, unappreciated, unseen. She said she did. We talked about how we love one another differently than we love anyone else in the world and how, given this fact and the knowledge of our respective sensitivities, wishes, and needs, we are in a unique position to give one another exactly what we yearn for – to recognize one another, to cherish one another, to make the other feel special and loved.
Since our conversation, my relationship with my sister has changed; the confusion and hardness we felt before has softened. The brick wall has come down a bit and with it the barriers to reach out to one another via phone, email, or text. We seem to reveal ourselves more fearlessly, show one another our vulnerabilities and to invite the other in. It feels as if we are appreciating each other more, and in doing so, we are appreciating the moment more, giving it the respect and gratitude it’s due. By dropping our stories about how we have been wronged, we are able to touch that soft spot we both have in spades. And (at the risk of sounding like Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy) to recognize that we deserve to love and to be loved in return.