Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Sister Stress

Whenever this reader's sister calls from Dubai the conversation quickly turns into an attack. She's tempted to cut off all contact, but this is her only living relative

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,


I have always had a troubled relationship with my sister. Now she lives in Dubai and I live in England and we don’t see much of each other, but we do talk on the phone. Every so often she starts attacking me and I get extremely upset. Each time I speak to her I feel I have to pretend that I’m not as happy as I am in order to stop her feeling jealous. This last conversation has left me so upset that my partner says I should cut her out of my life, but she’s the only family I’ve got. I only wish I knew how to get on better terms with her.


Yours sincerely,



Virginia says...

You probably remember the story of the scorpion and the frog. If not, here goes. A scorpion and a frog come to a river. As the scorpion can’t swim, he asks for a ride on the back of the frog. “No,” says the frog. “You’ll sting me.” “No I won’t,” says the scorpion. “Because if I sting you we’ll both die.” So the frog agrees to carry him and halfway across the scorpion stings  the frog. “Why did you do that?” asks the dying frog. “Because I’m a scorpion,”  says the dying scorpion.

Your sister is a scorpion. You ask how you can get on better with her and the answer is simply: you can’t. There are only two things you can do. First you can, as your partner suggests, cut her out of your life – which I never think is a good idea if you can possibly help it. And the second is to become resistant to her hurts. Never imagine that you’re going to have a friendly conversation with her. If you do manage one, don’t see it as a sign of her becoming kinder and softer. See it as a warning that next time you talk, the sting will be harder. I’m sure she has moments when she’s not unpleasant, but remember that the pain and cruelty are part of the package. You wouldn’t tangle with a rose bush without wearing thick gloves. Put on protective psychic clothing before you talk to your sister.

Sometimes I’ve actually done this physically, and spent a good few minutes in the car miming putting on an imaginary helmet, breastplate and chainmail. Then, clambering out of the car, I lumber up to the front door of whoever it is I fear may be out to do me harm. Oddly, when I’m prepared like this they don’t usually attack. I know it sounds mad. They can’t see my armour, but I think the very fact of pretending to put it on does give one some kind of distance, a look in the eyes that says, “Watch out! This isn’t the day to tangle with me!”

Stop treading on eggshells and pretending you’re more miserable than you are. Be honest and brave – like a knight – and if your sister throws poisoned darts at you you’ll be surprised how much less they hurt if you’re expecting them.

Failing this, if she rings unexpectedly, keep a pad and pencil by the telephone and head the paper Hurtful Remarks. When they come flying, write them down and number them. You’ll be surprised how this can take the sting out of their tail. They’ll hurt, sure, but not  so much.

Readers say...

Be positive

I’m in a similar situation myself: a long-distance relationship with a family member, and any contact leaves me wretched and upset for days. I sought professional help and was advised to cut off ties. This didn’t help as I was castigated for this, making the stress worse. 

What to do? I’ve set boundaries. I will not be bullied and I will not have alcohol-fuelled conversations. For a period of, say, six months, for every bad episode you have, instead of feeling dreadful, send her something, in the post or an e-card, that has a positive message. She will get the message that her hurts have no effect on you and at the same time I think you will start to feel stronger. If after this time there is no positive change then step back into your own life and let her start to miss you. The important thing is that you have control of the situation and do not allow anyone to bring toxicity into your happy life, because that is no good for either of you or your partner.

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Get rid of her

I agree with your partner. I also had a toxic half-sister who was screwed up, disliked me and was profoundly jealous. I always had to play things down so she did not feel too jealous. I last saw her in 1994 at our father’s funeral. She has since died. Get rid of her.

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Next week’s dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My son’s not doing well at school. He’s nine and he had a really bad report last term. My husband’s always felt that coming down on him like a ton of bricks and punishing him is the way to get him to work, but it doesn’t seem to have much effect. It just makes him miserable. But certainly encouragement and praise hasn’t worked. I spent all last year telling him how well he was doing, and it had no effect at all. Do you think bribing him might work? We think it might be worth a try, but my instinct tells me it’s not a good idea.

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise Hattie to do?

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