Love and Relationships

[Two Pronged] I told my sister to stop playing peacemaker, and now she’s mad at me

Margarita Holmes, Jeremy Baer
[Two Pronged] I told my sister to stop playing peacemaker, and now she’s mad at me
'How do I foster healthy communication among us siblings when we seem to unnecessarily trigger each other?'

Rappler’s Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr. Margarita Holmes.

Jeremy has a master’s degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in three continents, he has been training with Dr. Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives

Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.

Dear Dr. Holmes and Mr. Baer,

I hope you can help me.

I was getting mad at my brother in our sibling chat (there are three of us), and my older sister (our ate) was trying to placate me. We are both in the mental health field. I told her that she shouldnt play peacemaker and it wasnt her job to regulate my feelings and she got really, really upset!

She said she didnt do anything wrong, and I said, yes, she didnt. I apologized if I made her feel that way and said that wasnt my intention.

She ended up leaving the conversation. Im confused because I just told her not to exert emotional labor on my behalf and to let me deal with my own emotions, and somehow, Im the bad guy. Did I say anything to make it seem otherwise? How do I foster healthy communication among us siblings when we seem to unnecessarily trigger each other?

Thank you.


Dear Confused,

Thank you for your email.

Adult sibling relationships can be very complex, if only because of the extensive history between the participants which often stretches over decades. Ancient slights and rivalries, often from childhood, can linger in the memory and, if given the chance, poison the waters between brothers and sisters. Add to this the sometimes rigid application of status awarded by order of birth (ate, kuya, etc.) and resentments, real and imagined, can fester, stored up to be recycled at some future date. Over time, each family member becomes associated with certain qualities and each takes on a role or roles such as the joker, the responsible one, the quiet one, the wild one, etc.

You feel that you are able, and entitled, to fight your own corner when it comes to disagreements with your siblings. You therefore seem to have established and value personal autonomy and independence. Your sister however sees herself as the peacemaker, ensuring harmony and resolving disputes among the three of you, and as the eldest (ate) she probably feels she should be obeyed. Clashes between you are therefore likely, especially if your brother likes to muddy the waters.

Perhaps one way of improving matters would be for you to spend some time analyzing more closely the various relationships between the three of you, identifying the triggers, considering different ways to avoid or cope with them. If your siblings are open to discussing this topic, so much the better. If not, concentrate on the ways you can change your behavior to reduce the friction, remembering always that it is very much easier to change yourself than change others. Also, if you change, the dynamic between the three of you will of necessity change as well, and you may be able to steer a path that leads the three of you into a less volatile place.

Best of luck,
JAF Baer

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Dear Confused:

Thank you very much for your letter. While I strongly agree with many things Mr. Baer wrote — especially his perspective on possible relationships with adult siblings and his analysis of why it is thus difficult to change their attitudes and behavior — I disagree with his suggestion on the best way to assert your independence.

Not that independence-asserting is the most important issue at hand; however, independence IS important – even necessary – in any mature relationship between two people. This is especially so when you are siblings and in all likelihood have these often-practiced patterns of behavior from when you were as young as 2, 3, 4 years old.  Even more so if your sister was used to “blind obedience with no questions asked” in the past.

Perhaps, what your sister felt, while perhaps not being aware of it, was how what you did was not just between you and her, but was also something that could have heralded a change even in her relationship with your brother! 

In an ideal world, your sister would realize that, even if she “didn’t do anything wrong,” her behavior did not encourage your sense of agency. Some might even see it as a ploy to maintain old relationships where she ruled the roost. 

Her leaving the conversation can definitely be construed (among mental health professionals) as a very strong message she did not approve of your saying what you thought, no matter what you said. It seems like the mere fact that you wanted to take responsibility for your own messages to your brother, and did not feel it necessary (or even want) for her to mediate was what upset her.  And yet, this is what we in the mental health profession should celebrate, when the children we used to take care of, are strong enough to fly off by themselves.

In an ideal world, what transpired need not have happened. Yet, even in a less than (but still somewhat ideal) world, she could have realized the implications of her past behavior and apologized for it. And you could have graciously accepted her apology, said no more about this, and perhaps even started a conversation about internal family systems, and/or laughed about how people have unrealistic expectations just because they are in the mental health field (admittedly, including this columnist), etc. etc.

While we are not responsible for our feelings, we are responsible for our actions, and if feelings overcome us so much that even our actions are affected, we can always apologize and even use this as an opening for a better conversation, diba?

Should none of the above happen, then I wholeheartedly suggest you think about Mr. Baer’s advice, especially if smooth interpersonal relationships are what you want among the three of you.

All the best,
MG Holmes


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