#AskTheTherapist: ‘Should I break ties with my toxic sister?’

Yeah, it’s messy. Our advice columnist, therapist Minaa B knows how to clean it up,

#AskTheTherapist: ‘Should I break ties with my toxic sister?’

Dear Minaa,

I’m a twin, so a lot of people naturally assume my sister and I are super close. We’re not. Honestly, I wouldn’t even call what we have a relationship. It feels more like an obligation because we shared a womb. If I am being real, I don’t even like her as a person all that much—she has some very mean traits that I just cannot ignore anymore. Like, recently she begged me to go to a party with her, drove us there...and then left me stranded without warning or cause. And trust me, that’s a mild example.

If it were just me, I would have cut her off years ago. I only stay semi-connected to her for the sake of our mother, who still wants us to have this storybook-sister relationship. It bothers her that her twins don’t get along, and she low-key manipulates us into hanging out. One time, she got me to come home for a weekend because she said she really missed me...but didn’t mention that my sister would also be there. Mom has been resistant to the strict boundaries I have tried to set.

She knows I am ready to put a permanent end to any dealings with my sister outside of family functions, but that hasn’t changed her behaviour. And the thing is, my mother is my actual best friend—I don’t want to lose her in all this. How can I honour my own feelings without ruining my relationship with mom? What can I say to get her to be okay with the decision that I know is best for me?  

Dear Reader,

First, it sounds like you are doing everything in your power to maintain your peace when it comes to your sister. It takes a lot of mental maturity to respect that she might be present at family functions and to be able to still go and say hi (or not) and enjoy yourself. If that’s working for you, keep at it. Just know that if spending any time together at all is too much, it is also okay for you to skip these events. 

Now, about your mom: You are right—she is manipulating you. Her actions show that she is not truly considering how you feel. When she invited you to visit without telling you that your twin would be there, that was a breach of your trust. And when people demonstrate that they cannot be trusted, you have to put up guardrails to protect yourself. It might help to know that these situations are really common in families. That’s likely because when a parent loves a child unconditionally, they are able to tolerate that kid’s hurtful behaviour. But sometimes they forget that their other children don’t have to do the same.

It sounds like you need to have a very direct conversation with your mother. Before that talk, prepare yourself emotionally. Remember that you have no control over your mom’s reaction—staying aware of this can help you stay grounded in the moment. Because you two are so close and this may be a really tough conversation, it is worth mentioning at the start how much you value your relationship with her. Try saying, “Mom, you are my best friend and you mean a lot to me. I don’t want to lose you in the process of letting you know that I truly don’t want my sister in my life. But I need you to understand that I feel unsafe and unheard around her, and that isn’t healthy. I am choosing to protect my emotional safety, and I need you to honour that.”Then name your boundaries, and be specific. Maybe one is that you need a warning any time your twin will be included in plans.

Another could be that when you are together, your mom and you won’t talk about your sister. Or any other parameter you have in mind. You can add that if your mom were to cross boundaries like these, it would hurt you and make you feel betrayed. You can also explain what your reaction will be. You might say something like “If I show up to hang out with you and my twin is there, I am going to leave” or “If you bring up my sister, I am going to change the subject.” After that, it is up to you to follow through by reiterating your boundaries and actually doing the things you say you will. The biggest way we communicate is with our actions; if your mom keeps planning brunch with your sister, and you keep showing up, neither of them is going to take you seriously.

I know that you are concerned about hurting your mom’s feelings with this talk, and the idea of doing that really bothers you. That’s fair and thoughtful,  but I also want you to consider the alternative: Would you rather keep people pleasing to make your mom happy while you stay miserable? The truth is, there’s nothing else you can do to mitigate how your mom reacts. You cannot tell someone how to feel about the boundaries you set for yourself, even if the thing you are asking for is totally reasonable (which, I assure you, it is). There is a good chance your mom won’t like it, but that part is for her to manage—not you.   

MINAA B. is a New-York based licensed social worker, mental health educator, and the author of Owning Our Struggles. She operates a mental health consulting practice that assists organisations in developing  psychological safety. She also shares resources on creating healthy relationships in her Substack newsletter, Mindfl With Minaa.

Illustration: Sofie Birkin 

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