The heartbreak that time doesn’t heal

My sister’s birthday passed last week without my thinking about it. She got her wish. I was the last one in the family still trying to keep the door open after sheMission Impossible walked out of it.

I bring up the subject because summertime is family reunion time – time to haul out the usual petty BS about relatives. It’s pretty easy to sort out the gossipy aunt, the rude brother-in-law, the cousin who spills too much personal information. Then there is adult sibling jealousy, a one-sided condition that leaves its victims baffled. It’s basically the jealous sibling’s self-imposed retribution for her own feeling that she was short-changed by parental comparisons and expectations while growing up.

My sister has adult sibling jealousy. The name sounds like a condition for grade-schoolers, but it’s not. It’s also not as simple as a family feud. In a family feud, both sides can kiss and make up. With adult sibling jealousy, that will never happen unless the jealous one overcomes her feelings. It’s estimated that 45 percent of adults have a jealous relationship with a sibling, and that it’s often one-sided. In fact, the brothers and sisters who are victims of this abuse may be stunned by it, never realizing it exists. I was.

I’m not going to haul all the skeletons out of a walk-in closet, but I do want to give you a couple of early examples. It took a long time to figure out that the problem wasn’t me. After I left my parents’ house at 19, my sister called only when she needed something. Otherwise, I called her. No matter which way it was, she talked for at least an hour about herself before asking anything about me.

The night before I left our hometown, things became clearer. I had asked my sister to have a girls’ night out with me, just us. As I was dropping her off, she unloaded. She told me how she had always competed with me for grades, how angry she was that the teachers called her Holly, how rotten it was that H came before R alphabetically when we crossed the dais together at our community college graduation, how she felt it was unfair that we did similar activities and shared friends. She hated that, with our birthdays two weeks apart, Mom and Dad combined them into one birthday party. She hated that Mom had sewn us the same dresses in different colors when we were little girls. And on and on.

She was 24, and I was 25. How do you deal with a chronologically mature adult who has considered you her lifelong personification of life’s unfairness? The answer is that you can’t. Nothing you do makes a difference. Only the jealous sibling can choose to deal with her jealousy – or not.

My sister chose “not.” The night before our mom’s memorial service, the pastor visited us to run through the plans. My sister left in the middle to pick up someone at the airport. The pastor noted that she seemed not to want to be there. The pastor knew the situation, because our mom had talked with her about it. So I asked her what she thought I should do.

She told me that the best thing was to keep the door open, should my sister ever want to come back. Then, she said, my sister and I and our brother could iron things out. But I tired of sending letters and cards into a black hole, of sending general apologies over nothing to try to make her feel better – and maybe that’s not what the pastor meant anyway.

Our brother, who is younger, gave up before I did. Now it’s my turn. We didn’t shut the door; we only stopped beating ourselves up. It’s oddly liberating to stop. And so our sister finally has her wish. If she ever wants to come through the door, it’s still unlocked.

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