This post is for a friend of mine, who is in the midst of a friendship break up. But it’s also in response to a New York Times essay about Sisters and Happiness.
My sister and I are two and a half years apart in age, and we were three years apart in school. We are, in many ways, opposites: I am fair skinned and a redhead, she’s brunette and has more of an olive complexion. I am full of logic and facts and science and emotional self-protection; she loves freely and is sometimes hurt for it.
For most of our childhood, we were in sibling rivalry: when we sprawled at opposite ends of the sofa, with our feet in the middle, we grappled for space. When she got my hand-me-downs, I was jealous at her getting so much “new” stuff all at once. She followed me quickly on milestones — using a steak knife at dinner, learning to ride a two-wheeled bike — all things I can now see was loving on her part. She wanted to be like me, she looked up to me, and so she pushed the boundaries I had already pushed.
My sister and I stopped being playmates when we moved to a neighborhood with many kids her own age; she discovered her innate social nature, and indulged it every chance she got. I remained a bookworm, a home-body, a child who needed to be prodded to go out and play. By the time I started high school, and she started middle school, I don’t think we were talking anymore. We coexisted, but we were not friends.
When I went away to college, this got a little better. While she pulled high school all-nighters after I was home for the Holidays, I would bring her snacks, and I would give her advice. But then she started college — same college I went to — and things got worse again.
I resented her asking me for rides around town — to the pharmacy, to the grocery store, to buy booze for her and her friends. I resented the weekend she went home, taking the car that we were supposedly sharing, but was my main source of transportation. She returned late, and I resented that too. Through all this, we were having weekly breakfast dates, and I let her know that I disapproved of her life choices (parties versus studying), and that I thought she could do better.
I had all these ideas about what she should be doing to be a better sister — I saw her being really good friends with her friends, why couldn’t she treat me the same way? As far as I could tell, I was a person of last resort — a person to ask to do all the things she didn’t want to ask her friends for, because I couldn’t say no, and we were stuck together.
I don’t know what changed my mind, looking back, but I decided on a different tact. Instead of resenting her, I would be the best friend that I could be — and even if she didn’t respond, I wouldn’t let it bother me. Because her response was not something that I could control, and maybe if I treated her as a friend, she would treat me as a friend too.
The next time she called and asked for a lift to the grocery store, and it could be worked into my schedule, I cheerfully gave her that lift. The next time she asked for my advice, I gave it, but decided that I would support her no matter what decision she made. Our relationship slowly got better.
It wasn’t perfect, by any means. Once, I asked her if I could crash on her apartment floor after a wedding I was too tired to drive home. Though she was home at the time I asked, she went over to a friend’s house, and was soon unable to drive home to let me in — I had to go across town to get the keys.
But because I had built up a base of trust with her — because I had been the best friend I could be, thus inspiring her to think of me as a friend, and not as a sister — I told her the next time we talked that granting me a favor and then making me work for it was really not in the spirit of friendship. And because I had been the best friend that I could be, she agreed with me, apologized, and asked that I let her know if I thought she was treating me badly.
Since then, my sister and I have relished our weekly coffee and/or tea dates. We recognize strengths (I help her think through decisions, she helps me dress better), and help one another through tough emotional times. We were told in the midst of our young sibling rivalry that our sister was the only permanent friend we had, but it hasn’t been easy in any way shape or form.
So, any of you out there struggling with friendships, or relationships in general, here’s my advice: Be the best friend you can be. Because in the end, all you can (and should) control in a relationship is yourself. After all, you know what a good friend is — someone who listens, who supports non-judgmentally, who helps out where they can honestly (i.e. without over extending themselves), who sees differences as strengths and not as sources of conflict, someone who lives reciprocally and understands that relationships are two way streets.
Go on, be that person.