By Esther Mann, LCSW
My younger sister Fayge and I are 13 months apart. Fayge has always tried to copy me. I feel so immature saying this, but it’s been a fact of my life for as far back as I can remember.
As little kids, she would want to imitate everything I said and did. Like most older siblings, I found it annoying and we would fight. But this behavior never changed. As teenagers, it started to become a big problem, as teenagers generally want to start finding their unique ways and begin to stand out as individuals. But this was never possible with Fayge watching my every move.
When I cut my hair short, in no time Fayge had short hair. If I bought a red pocketbook, brown boots, or a plaid skirt, you could bet on Fayge showing up with similar items. She was so obvious and as far as I could tell, ridiculous looking, every time she tried so hard to copy me. Somehow, she didn’t notice or care.
When my friends would come over, at any age, Fayge tried hard to be friendly with them. I begged my mother to allow me to put a lock on my bedroom door so that Fayge could never come in. A lock was never allowed, but finally my mother told Fayge she had to stay out of my room when my friends were visiting. That felt like a major victory. But she always seemed to be lurking nearby and would almost accost them when they showed up or were leaving.
We grew up in Queens and both married and took our first apartments in Queens. Yes, she bought a gray couch when she saw that I’d bought a gray couch and she bought a similar bedroom set to mine.
Maybe you would think that over the many years I’d have gotten used to her wanting to basically crawl under my skin if she could, but I haven’t. It makes me absolutely crazy! Sometimes I think I sound paranoid. I avoid telling her anything about what I’m up to, what my plans are, where I’m going. Our conversations are one-dimensional and impersonal.
Last year my husband and I bought a house in the Five Towns. It’s been so great to be living in our own turf, making friends and doing our thing, without worrying about bumping into my sister everywhere. It’s been a year of enormous freedom for me, and I’ve been happier than I can ever remember being.
Well, the inevitable happened. I just learned that Fayge went to contract on a house in my neighborhood, maybe a ten-minute walk from my house, at most. I knew, on some level, that this was bound to happen. I’d sooner believe that she would move to Mars than move to Brooklyn or New Jersey or some neighborhood that is not the one I live in. But actually knowing that it happened is throwing me into a tizzy. I’m a wreck. I feel so invaded—like this honeymoon period is over and once again, I’ll be back in elementary school, watching Fayge trying to pursue my friends, my style, and my life!
I just don’t know what to do. Talking to Fayge is never helpful. I’ve been trying to talk to her my whole life. Either she is a liar, delusional, or takes me for an idiot. When I call her on copying something I just purchased, she’ll act surprised, as if she had no idea that I owned the exact same jacket. If I tell her to stay away from my friends and make her own friends, she’ll look at me as if I’m crazy and insist that my friends have been pursuing her.
Before she moves in, I want to tell her that she is forbidden to join our shul. There are many shuls in the area and she’s got to find her own place, separate and distinct from ours, because most of our friends are from our shul. I also want to tell her that she should send her children to different schools than we send our children to, for the same reason. Basically, I want to tell her that she needs to create her own life and build connections that are completely separate from mine. Otherwise, she will lose me as a sister. If she gets into my space, I will pretend I don’t even know her.
I know this sounds drastic and maybe even disgusting, but I can’t imagine having to put up with her presence in my face any longer. When I moved out here, I felt like I was running for my life. I don’t want to have to run again.
Do you think I have the right to tell Fayge what my rules are for her, and if she wants me to continue to behave like her sister, she’d better get with the program?
Younger siblings, both girls and boys, generally want nothing more than to be just like their older siblings—this is nothing new. Having what they have, doing what they do, and behaving the way they behave is quite natural. However, the situation you describe between yourself and Fayge is so overboard, it boggles the mind. At a time when most younger siblings begin to find their own way and discover their own sense of self, Fayge was still looking to you for guidance as to how to be. It’s as though she has never developed even a clue about herself, who she really is, what her specific likes and dislikes are. She hasn’t developed her individual style, ideas, or even basic needs. There appears to be a void within her, where there should be an emotionally fleshed-out individual who is in touch with her own sense of self.
Why this happened is anyone’s guess. Perhaps you were the prettier sister, the smarter sister, or the more fussed-over sister and she not only felt literally small around you, but insignificant as an individual. By modeling herself after you, she may have figured in some way that this behavior would assure her being noticed and would earn her respect and admiration. That’s one theory among many. But you’re not writing in to me for theories. You’re wondering, now that you are at the end of your rope, what options are open to you and what you can and cannot demand of Fayge.
Past conversations on this subject probably never worked with Fayge because they came from a negative place and she naturally reacted in a defensive manner. If you begin a discussion filled with anger, reproach, and threats, my guess is that you will lose her before you even get started. I think it’s necessary to come from a place of encouragement and even excitement over her move, despite the fact that nothing could be further from the truth. But it’s your only shot at getting her to hear you, if that’s even possible.
Before I suggest what a conversation might look like, let me say that I agree that it is an excellent idea for the two of you to belong to separate shuls. I agree that it’s probably healthier for each of you to have your own base of friends, and enjoy the feeling of being appreciated as individuals rather than as part of a pair of sisters. Though there is nothing wrong with sisters belonging to the same shul and even enjoying the same friendships, in many cases it just doesn’t work. Why it often doesn’t work can fill a column of its own, but for now I happen to agree that in your case, a separation is a great idea.
However, insisting that Fayge send her children to different schools than you send your children to is pushing it a bit. Unlike shuls, there aren’t that many schools to choose from that offer the same hashkafah, assuming you and Fayge share a similar lifestyle. Hopefully, your children are in different grades and it won’t present such a big problem.
O.K. Now for the “conversation.” Arrange a lunch with Fayge, so that the two of you can sit together undisturbed and have the opportunity to calmly share your feelings. And they might go something like this: “Mazel tov Fayge, on your new house. That’s so exciting. I’m sure you’ll love living here in the Five Towns and I wish you and your family all the best success with your move. When you move in, I want to be the first to host you for a Shabbos meal. Any guidance you need, just call me up. I’ll advise you about the best supermarket to shop in, the finest cleaners, the most caring pediatrician, the best shoe repair shop, everything. I’ve done all the research and I can save you lots of time and energy. By the way, there is a terrific shul a few blocks away from your house. I hear that it draws a great crowd. Lots of people I know you’ll enjoy getting to know. We daven at ‘so and so,’ but I’m sure you’d agree that it would be best for our relationship if we each had our own separate friends. At least I know I feel that way very strongly.”
And now you’ve not only been kind, positive, generous, and encouraging, but you’ve made it clear what your position is and you’ve opened the door for an honest conversation. If she can’t understand why you don’t want to “share” friends, that’s O.K. She doesn’t need to understand, but she needs to respect your needs in this regard. And you should tell her up-front that you will be quite unhappy if she not only joins your shul, but pursues friendships with your friends.
Maybe you’ll get lucky, and Fayge will realize that she is starting a new chapter in her life, that you are prepared to be there for her as a big sister, and that she has much to gain by respecting your boundaries. However, if she digs in her heels from the start and refuses to play by your rules, she will quickly see that your generous offer to help get her settled and happy in the neighborhood is not necessarily going to be forthcoming.
Most important, what you need to know is that whatever happens, you’ll be all right. Your closest friends will stay true to you and understand that you’re not real good at “sharing” friends with sisters. Maybe they aren’t so good at it either, and that’s O.K. If some of your friends appear to jump ship and connect tightly with Fayge at your expense, then probably they weren’t such meaningful friends to you after all.
If Fayge starts parading around as a clone of yours, she’ll look silly—not you. If she furnishes her home in a similar way to how you’ve furnished yours, who cares? We are all grown up and frankly have more important things to worry about.
You know who you are and you should feel comfortable with that knowledge. Fayge may still have a bit of growing up to do. That will be her challenge, not yours. But unlike the child or even teenager you once were, who felt compromised by Fayge, you should embrace your adult self. Know that you are the real deal, understood and appreciated by many, I’m sure. There’s no need to keep running. Hopefully, you’re here to stay and nothing Fayge can do should affect your sense of belonging and happiness.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.