Welcome to the second installment of Help Me, Harpies! You can read the first here.
Reader A explains:
I have a problem with my boyfriend and his younger sister. I would greatly appreciate some Harpy help and insight. (And I’m really sorry that this is so long.) Here it goes…
The sister is one year younger than me (21), all three of us live in a small college town, and I’ve been with my dude for 2 1/2 years. This is the first time I’ve been in a serious relationship, and it’s the same for him. The sister has never had a boyfriend, developed bulimia a few years ago and currently takes medication for depression. She’s been on the upswing for a while, however, and she is very social. Her parents live 5 hours away, she has a pretty good therapist from what I understand, and needless to say she has a wide support network of friends and family.
Their sibling relationship and her individual actions have been a big issue throughout the course of my relationship with the dude. At the beginning, when I only saw him on the weekends, she called him constantly. Like 1 to 3 times a day. Since he works from his computer (damn lucky programmers), he could go anywhere during the day and used to meet her three or four times a week at Starbucks while she studied. I originally met him at a salsa dance class, and eventually she started coming to class, too. The dude did martial arts, and I became interested and started taking classes. So did she. Needless to say all three of us began to see each other every other day, during which she was super clingy around him and exhibited behavior that suggested she was competing with me for his attention, like coming up and pushing him when he was talking to me, or trying to pair up with him in the salsa class. She would sigh loudly if we displayed couple-ish behavior (which was not very often b/c we’re both really shy, btw). One time, the phone rang three times the hour before salsa class because she wanted to know whether or not he was going. Stuff like that.
As the dude and I got closer, I started to become more aware of all this and inevitably more bothered. She seemed to depend on him for every single thing, big and small, and he happily picked up every phone call. He reinforced her dependency on him and didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. He never saw a conflict between his relationship with his sister and his relationship with me, and he never seemed to be bothered by her competitive behavior in public. It began to feel like the dude was not only my boyfriend, but her stand-in boyfriend as well. (By the way, I mean “stand-in boyfriend” strictly in the emotional sense. I have never suspected anything sexual going on, and believe me, if I did, I would have already been gone.)
For a whole freaking year I said nothing. I felt guilty because of her circumstances (bulimia, depression), because it’s his SISTER, and because admitting that I felt threatened and bothered by the whole situation made me feel like a huge Jealous Controlling Bitch. But, it all became too much and eventually I did start trying to talk to him about it.
Long story short, it’s been a huge fucking struggle. I can count on one hand the number of positive conversations we’ve had about the situation. Over time, however, he’s stopped picking up her multiple daily phone calls and has passively discouraged her competitive behavior in public. He doesn’t hang out with her as often, and she’s stopped making comments like “ughhh you guys are so obsessed with each other!” I am really grateful for these changes.
But little things still happen, and we still have a huge fight about it once a month, probably. It’s wearing me down, and honestly, if we weren’t moving in a few months (I’m going to graduate school in a different state and he’s moving with me), I would seriously be considering breaking up with him. Originally, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we decided to plan on moving away, thinking that a few years apart would solve the situation (she would mature a little, I would stop jumping every time his phone rang, etc.). But, his mom casually mentioned that she might want to move to the same city as us. And, since she finishes her nursing program next Spring, that means it could be as soon as 1 year. If she does move to the same city, she won’t be living with us (I’ve made it clear that I could not handle that), but I’m afraid it’s merely going to be Part 2 of this big unfortunate situation.
So, here are my questions.
In general, is competitive behavior exhibited by a sister around her brother’s girlfriend a common thing (or vice versa)? Is it common for a sister to be so dependent on her brother, even in situations involving illness (assuming she is still capable of living independently)?
Specific to my situation, should I have expectations of the sister “growing out of” competitive behavior and/or emotional dependency? Should I expect my boyfriend to place permanent limits on his relationship with his sister for the sake of our relationship? And finally, am I a huge Jealous Controlling Bitch if one day I can’t deal with it anymore?
(Please excuse the fact that these questions assume hetero-normative relationships.)
SarahMC: This sounds like a difficult situation. Neither my manpanion nor I have a sister so I have no idea what it’s like to deal with this sort of issue.
Does the boyfriend agree that his sister’s behavior is a problem and that she is coming between the two of you? You say you fight about it fairly often so I’m guessing the answer is no. If he is not bothered by her behavior or doesn’t want to confront her if he is, there’s no telling how long this will last. Where is their dad (because she seems to be treating her brother as a surrogate father)?
PhDork: The Dude and his Sister are emotionally close, but physically distant (halfway across the country), so I don’t have any direct analogue–also, Sister Dude, while human and flawed, has always been pretty independent, even though she had a bout with cancer early in her college years. But she adores him, confides in him, etc. in a way that is unfamiliar to me, another sister of an older brother.
I don’t think competition between sister and gfs is normal, but if the sister has no other relationships with guys–and if she’s absorbed all those “you’re not important unless you’re important to a man” messages–then I can see why she might feel threatened. I still think it’s inappropriate.
As for growing out of it? I’d hope so, but she’s already 21, not 13. She’s already extremely dependent on him. Multiple daily calls (uni-directional)? Tailing him in his activities? And if she’s talking about moving across country to be close? That sets off my EEP! meter.
I don’t think you’re being a Jealous Controlling Bitch. I think you’re going “WTF?” and for good reason. If/when y’all move in together, you need to have a conversation about sister, ’cause things don’t just magically change because you’re no longer in close proximity. The bad part is, you can’t really do anything. That’s bf’s job. I get that she’s vulnerable, but there’s a line between helping and enabling, y’know?
I sound like Dr. Phil, but there some co-dependency action here. Deep patterns have already been established, and unless/until your bf does something to change them, they’ll continue. The question is, does he WANT to change them at all? Or is he perfectly happy with his relationship with sis?
BeckySharper: I completely agree with Dork about their being co-dependency here. Problem is, it existed before your relationship with the bf and it doesn’t sound like it was a problem for him. Nor does it sound like he’s nearly as upset about it as you are–you say you have huge fights about it, but is that because he knows it’s a problem, or because he’s angry that you’re angry?
I can’t say I’ve ever encountered this specific situation in my own life, but I’ve dated men with children, and putting myself in competition with them in any way–for his time, his attention, his affection–was a guaranteed lose-lose proposition. And believe me, little kids are competitive as hell and they pushed my buttons in ways that were pretty similar to what your bf’s sister is doing. It sounds like your bf’s sister is emotionally immature, needy and troubled. You can’t change or control that. That’s how she is. That’s how she’s always been. Your bf is plenty aware of it. He can choose to change his relationship with her but YOU can’t. (Sorry, that part sucks.)
When someone acts like she does, it’s easy to get sucked into the sense of competition–it sounds like you have a little already, even without wanting to. The big question is this: if she continues to behave this way, and your bf continues to behave his way–i.e. not doing much to distance himself or let his sister know her behavior towards you is not cool–is it a dealbreaker for your relationship?
If so, you probably should have a discussion along those lines. Not “Your sister’s an immature brat; it’s her or me!” but “Your sister’s upsetting for me and the negativity of it is going to erode our relationship. Is there anything different we can do to make sis feel loved and supported so she’ll cut this out?”