My sister is much older than me, and she recently married a high-earning corporate executive. In contrast, I am currently in graduate school (read: no income) for a notoriously low-paying field.
This year, my sister asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and the gift was signed from (and presumably paid for by) both of them. A few months later, I sent my brother-in-law a happy birthday text and that was that — until my sister called me furious that I hadn’t bought him a present.
Not only does he have the expendable income, as demonstrated by his lavish spending on clothes and travel, to buy me a birthday gift, but he also had the help of my sister to slap his name on it. Was I a jerk for not thinking of something thoughtful to get him? Should I have followed suit and asked what he wanted directly? I have literally no income right now, and everything I buy puts me further into debt. Also, my sister has a long history of condescension when it comes to how I run my life, especially when it’s not perfectly in line with her strict standards. I really want to get off on the right foot with my new brother-in-law, but am I really in the wrong here? Help!
It’s true that your sister has no right to demand that you spend money on her husband, or be angry that you can’t or didn’t. But I’m not sure that’s what’s going on here, exactly. Instead, it seems like there’s some long-simmering sister stuff that both of you are projecting onto this gifting scenario.
To be fair, maybe your sister is a materialistic psychopath who will never be happy until you indebt yourself for her rich husband — but it’s pretty unlikely. Instead, I’m willing to bet that she wants her new spouse to feel welcomed and accepted by you and your family, and his birthday has become a weird proxy for that anxiety. Either way, you can’t know for sure until you talk to her about it, and get a better understanding of the underlying issues that you’re both bringing to the table (like her “long history of condescension” — strong words!).
Let me also say that the financial stress you’re under is a big deal, and I understand why any type of pressure to spend would set you off. Having to account for every dollar takes a ton of mental energy, particularly when you’re in debt, and when someone else seems blasé about money, it can be infuriating. I once had a roommate who was allowed to buy whatever she wanted with her parents’ credit card, and even though she was a great friend and deeply good person, I was resentful of her privileges (“She can’t possibly have real problems, or actually care that I borrowed her coat and spilled something on it,” etc.). It wasn’t until years later that I realized how unfair I’d been in the assumptions I’d made about her and our friendship. I’m not saying that your situation with your sister is the same or even similar. But I do know how easy and human it is to let financial disparities color your views of people — and that those judgments are rarely correct or productive for anyone.
So, you and your sister need to talk. But before you do, it’s important to do some groundwork, says Chrishane Cunningham, a therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “You want to go into the conversation with an explicit understanding of what hurt you, how it hurt you, and how you would like things to go differently moving forward,” she explains. “Think about what you would like your sister to understand about your position, your financials, and how she makes and has made you feel in this moment and in the history of your relationship.” Try writing down these points so that you can think about your wording and be as clear as possible. It’ll also be helpful to have some notes to keep the conversation on track.
Next, and just as importantly, you need to get your sister’s side of the story. “Be curious about how this experience felt for her, what hurt her, and her needs moving forward,” says Cunningham. “Obviously, your sister’s husband will come up, but be sure to maintain the focus on you and her.” You should also prepare yourself for the possibility that her perspective might make you upset or sad or FULL OF BLINDING RAGE — and you’ll need to listen anyway. “Instead of becoming defensive, hear what she has to say,” says Cunningham. Then, thank her and walk away for a little bit. “Reflect on it both in and outside of the conversation, and then decide how you want to incorporate her feedback.”
Throughout this process, try to give your sister the benefit of the doubt. Chances are her intentions are good, even if they’re misguided or tactlessly expressed. Let her surprise you. Sure, you’ve known her your whole life and probably understand things about her that no one else does, including herself, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t capable of acting differently from how you expect.
In fact, holding onto long-standing notions is the source of most sibling conflicts, says Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, a therapist who specializes in sibling relationships. “Many siblings have a ‘frozen image’ of each other that was created when they were much younger,” she explains. “Even if you have changed over the years and you’re not that way anymore, once you get together with your sibling, you revert to those images.” So, say that you’ve always been a bit more independent than your older sister, and she reacted with condescension — it’s hard to break out of that pattern when you’ve seen it play out for as long as you can remember.
What does this all have to do with money? I’m not totally sure, to be honest. But the topic will, of course, come up during the course of your conversations (plural, because this won’t all be resolved in one talk). And when it does, at some point you’ll need to set some clear boundaries around your finances. You could try saying something like this, suggests Cunningham: “I’m living off of a stipend, I have student loans, and I only have so much to cover bills and living expenses. Unfortunately, elaborate gifts are not an option for me at the moment. Given my current financial limitations, these are the types of gifts I can give.” After you explain this, Cunningham recommends that you ask how your sister feels about what you’ve shared with her, and how she wants to move forward now that she has a deeper understanding of your financial situation.
One more point: I noticed that you never mentioned that your sister asked for you to spend money on her husband’s gift. Maybe that was implied, or maybe it’s what you interpreted, but it’s also possible that she doesn’t care how much the gift cost. Some people — like your sister, I’m guessing — are just really into gifts as gestures (some might call it her “love language”). You may never be able to match her or her husband’s ability to buy you things, but you can still be generous and thoughtful in ways that are meaningful to them.