Virginia Ironside: Dilemmas - Features - Health & Families - The Independent

Virginia Ironside: Dilemmas


Dear Virginia, I don’t know what to do about my sister, who’s she’s three years olderthan me. Wemeet about twice a year and each time, she criticises me in front of mychildren, tries to include my husband in jokes that make fun of me, and constantly tellsme I’m hopeless and drags up old stories to illustrate it. I’ve tried to be friends, but itjust seems a hopeless task. Should I just cut her out of my life? Our kids get on fine andenjoy seeing their cousins, so it would be a shame. But each year I dread our meetingsand if I try to talk to her she says I’m paranoid and then laughs at me for it. Yours sincerely, Faye

I have heard this story time and time again. It's an archetypal situation. And it must go right back to the very day you were born.

Just imagine the situation. Your sister is three years old, without a care in the world. Her mother is besotted with her and her father calls her "my precious girl". She is the apple of everyone's eye.

Now, one day, her mother disappears. Your sister assumes the worst. Perhaps she's died. When her father explains that mummy is in hospital having a new baby, she doesn't have a clue what they're talking about. She doesn't know what hospital is. Her world is completely devastated, and she feels nothing will be the same again. How right she is. Then a few days later, her mother returns from hospital, and in her arms is – you!

Now to be honest, can you imagine anyone of three years old in their right mind actually rejoicing at such an intrusion? I wouldn't be surprised if every moment your mother's back was turned, your sister was trying to poke out your eyes with a pencil. The fact that you were the same sex must have made things even worse – at least a little brother would be something "other". But suddenly your sister had to learn to do all kinds of ghastly things like "sharing", something she'd never had to do before.

You, on the other hand, found it easy. You never knew any different to having a sister around. You knew exactly how to share because you'd never done anything else. You couldn't feel in your sister's shadow because the shadow was in itself part of the home scenery.

Now, I'm not saying that your sister's behaviour isn't intolerable to you, and nor am I saying that as she's now grown-up she should be able to put aside such childish jealousies, but these emotional scars run very deep. And in the same way as if you'd been frightened by a dog when you were tiny, you might well shrink from dogs now, even the sweetest little dachshund, so your sister, whenever she sees you, becomes enveloped in a mist of jealousy that she finds it almost impossible to control.

It doesn't sound as if your sister has much self-awareness. But perhaps by understanding her feelings you might be able to be a bit more forgiving of them. And the more you can expect this reaction from her, rather than imagine that "just this once" she might be nice, the more you spot the jibes coming, the easier it will be to grit your teeth and get through these meetings. And the less she gets to you, the fewer remarks there'll be, because without your pained reaction, there's no point in your sister digging her claws in.

Write her a letter

You are allowing yourself to be victimised. Assuming your sister is over 35, her personality is settled, so that her nasty and immature attitude will never change. Write her a short letter explaining that you will not meet her any more, simply because you will not be victimised by anyone. Stick to this decision. Explain the situation to your children, that most people grow up but some do not. It will be a valuable lesson for them!

Tony Blades

By email

See how she likes it

No, Faye, it would not be best if you cut your sister out of your life. Your children have a relationship with their aunt and enjoy seeing their cousins. Deal with the acrimony between you and your sister separately and do not let it sour your children's healthy family relationships.

It is apparently futile asking your sister not to be horrible and embarrass you. In front of her children, subtly and jokingly bring up some of her teenage tantrums, shortcomings and naughtiness. I suspect that she will not find jokes that make fun of her amusing and hopefully this will stop her belittling you.

Mark Kumar

By email

Be ready to sever ties

Sadly, you have come to the crossroads that I too, reached recently with two of my older siblings, when breaking from them seemed the only option. What your sister is doing is systematically destroying your self-esteem. This is just an extension of childhood bullying, which some continue to do to younger siblings right through their lives. This is the kind of experience I have had from an older brother and sister. Does the rest of your family know how upset you are about this, or do you suffer in silence? If it is the latter, take courage to tell others how you feel. Just knowing that they understand may help you to cope better with this spiteful woman.

Do you visit her, or she you? If you normally go to her, ring the changes and invite her to you. It is less easy to bully someone in their own home and easier for you to control the situation. If she rakes up stories from the past, tell her firmly you prefer to live in the present and that the two of you are not little girls any more.

Try thinking about whether, if you met her for the first time yesterday, you would want her for a friend. I have applied this test to my siblings who belittle me – it is really an eye-opener. This may help you to judge whether you want to stay in touch.

I guess your children are young and would not see their cousins unless the parents met up, but could you invite just the children for tea or a weekend stay? You wouldn't have to see your sister for long and excluding her from the event will put you firmly in the driving seat. Hopefully she may at last take her own behaviour towards you more seriously but, if she doesn't, then I'm afraid she is no loss.

Name and address supplied

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,Ten years ago I had an abortion.I never thought that I wouldn’tone day get pregnant in thefuture and now I find that Iregret bitterly what I did.At the time I thought I wouldn’tbe able to look after a child, andthe father was a violent manand the prospect of having toput up with him for the rest ofmy life, even only as a visitingfather, made me scared. Butnow I find that I can’t stopmyself thinking about “whatmight have been”. It’s too latenow, at 42, for me to have a child– I’ve had tests and they showedit’s unlikely I would be able toconceive – and anyway I haven’tgot a man in my life at themoment. How can I ever getover the agonising feeling ofhaving made such a big mistakein my past? Yours sincerely, Lola

What would you advise Lola to do?Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas, or go to Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucher from the wine website Fine Wine Sellers (

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