Brand building through storytelling

When family members don’t get along: do you have a story?

Joyce RonaIn a few weeks my sister Joyce will arrive in Toronto to promote her new novel Labor Day. This is big news for a number of reasons. She’s the only person left from my family of origin. She’ll arrive just in time for my birthday. She lives in California, too far away for weekend visits. And the last time she came to my city, 14 years ago this fall, we had a fight of monumental bitterness. She cried (hysterically, I said at the time); I clammed up. Not long afterwards, she told me it would be best if we didn’t speak for a while. “I love you, Rona,” she said. “But I can’t bear the pain of being with you.”

While the silence between us dragged on, I was writing a monthly column about my life as a woman in these times. My struggle with depression, my working mother’s guilt, my hard-won discoveries about marriage and friendship…I shared all this with the readers of Chatelaine. Not a word about my sister. Just the thought of her was torment because, in spite of everything, I loved her.

When Hollywood families can’t get along, everybody wants the details. Remember all those breathless dispatches about the Spelling family? Latest twist: Tori Spelling’s cruelty is to blame for the death of her father, Aaron—or so Candy, the grieving widow, has told anyone who’d listen. But when we can’t get along with our own families, it’s embarrassing to tell the truth. If we were loveable, good-hearted people, wouldn’t our nearest and dearest want our company? Wouldn’t we want theirs? Are we the only people to be plagued by a silence in the family? In fact the problem is common enough that there’s a website,, designed especially for people at odds with a family member.

Today I couldn’t be happier that Joyce is on her way to Toronto. What changed? For starters, we both reached our 50s—the wisdom years. We both realized we didn’t have forever to set things right between us. And besides, we missed each other.

Healing that rift was among the toughest challenges that either of us has ever faced. I’ve been thinking about family feuds ever since. How do they get started? (The trigger often seems to be the death of a parent.) What’s the impact on other relatives? How do some people make amends? And why do others conclude that the relationship is over?

Do you have a story or an insight to share? I’m listening.


Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

September 30, 2009 at 5:05AM

Ms. Maynard,
You and your sister are truly blessed to have found your way back to each other. Other families are not that fortunate. I have not seen or spoken to my sister since 1998, even though I was informed by other family members that she was at my father’s funeral in 2004. She tied me up in court for almost two years after my mother died. She walked away with over $250,000 in stock options and a $35,000 sports car when I inherited a house with a mortgage and just enough life insurance to cover it! She was furious that my mother didn’t leave everything to her and sued me because I was designated at Executrix of my mother’s estate and had final say so over what happened and she did not. I was also totally responsible for my mother’s care the last three months of her life after my sister abandoned our dying mother to be with her then married boyfriend. In some ways I grieve for the relationship I should have had with her, but I have developed other relationships with people who are a lot closer to me than she ever was.

Tessa Ryan-Lipp
September 30, 2009 at 6:06AM

I am glad that you and your sister eventually made up your differences. (And I enjoyed her book very much, by the way!) But some relationships can never be mended. Case in point is mine with my older sister. I was born five years after her and sometimes I wonder if she ever forgave me for that simple fact. All through my childhood and early adolescence, she tormented me, both physically and emotionally, to the point that I trembled whenever I heard her footsteps. The only thing that saved my sanity was that she left home when I was just into my teens. Consequently, I look back on my teens as halcyon years, unlike most people. That she still hated me, I discovered when my father died in Ireland 18 years ago. We both travelled from afar – she from Sweden, I from Canada – and it was the first time we had seen each other in decades. Within minutes of greeting each other, the torment began again – nasty questions about my son, insinuations about why I had emigrated to Canada etc. This time, though, I was strong enough to ignore her, which seemed to drive her into even further reaches of silliness. At one point she burst out, during our father’s funeral, “I knew him longer than you!” Even if I could forgive her for the pall she cast on my childhood, I really don’t like her at all. That she is my sister is not enough to make up for the fact that she is a nasty, vindictive woman.

Carol Harrison
February 06, 2010 at 6:06PM

For your’s and Joyce’s sakes, I’m really happened you’ve hashed out your differences.

Joyce’s visit was almost five months ago and I hope when she left Toronto, it was with sisterly love and a new-found respect for one another.

My sister is the only person left from my family of origin and thank ‘god’ she was born a girl, even though both my father and brother were bitterly? disappointed that she was a girl.
My sister and I, we’ve had our ups and downs and verbal and physical separations through past differences, however, we very much love each other and can to a degree, talk about some thngs.

Once, many years ago, I visited her in Ottawa and things were going very badly for her in her personal life and I didn’t really want to visit her for longer than a week but ended up staying for about three weeks, much longer than I had intended. Whatever went on between us, I couldn’t take her problems added on to mine and I lay on her bed, crying. I felt so totally out of control and neither of us understood the other. When I returned home, I chose to keep my distance from her, by phone and by e-mail.
She has always told me that whenever we were together, I was always angry. Yes…I was, still am, but that’s a childhood problem and as of now, still unresolved.
I’ve said something similar to what Joyce said to you, about maybe she and I should keep our distance and I think at the time, we both felt that was for the best. I have loved her all along, just haven’t always liked her. “I can’t bear the pain of being with you”. I don’t know what my sister’s reaction would have been had I said that, however, I did once say, that I felt anxiety whenever she and my brother-in-law would come to visit and she commented that she didn’t want to visit under those circumstances.

The alienation I felt, and probably hers too, was very uncomfotable for both of us. I felt it daily, in my gut but didn’t know how to communicate my feelings.

I’ve struggled with depression since my mother died in April of 1979 and currently from reactive depression for health-related reasons as well as low-grade depression (dysthymia) and atypical seasonal affective disorder, my personal guilt about the way I handled my father’s circumstances when being requested to visit him when he was living in Windsor, Ontario, and being responsible for having Full Power of Attorney for Financial and Health concerns. If I’d been the person then that I am now, I wouldn’t have allowed to happen with him, what did. I had to meet his care team while he was in a nursing home and I have social anxiety disorder and should have demanded that he NOT be taken downstairs….in a wheelchair by an attendant and not knowing HOW to act in front of his healthcare team and looking at the fear in his face, not knowng WHAT was going on…that haunts me. And this man is the same man who rejected me after my brother was born in England five years after my birth.
My sister and I shared some very rough years in dealing with our father and brother.

We just weren’t getting along and I was ANGRY and she was hurt and that continued for years and she felt a deep resentment towards me for not attending our brother’s funeral along with my father and not being available to morally support her. I couldn’t face my father, the same man who became profoundly depressed after my brother died, wondering, would he have felt the same if I had been the one who died.

I wasn’t sure at the time, if I loved her….there was more anger, bitterness and resentment in my “heart” than love. I probably did love her, deep down but these other overwhelming feelings got in the way.

It doesn’t bother me, the dysfunctional family dynamics between Tori Spelling and her mother; what really gets under my skin, is that the man Tori met on the set of the movie she was making, was married at the time to Mary Jo Eustace and he phoned Mary Jo from the set of the movie and told her, he’d met his soulmate and that he wasn’t divorcing his kids, just her. Hence, her book, “Divorce Sucks”. Tori pronounced this as sour grapes.
Would any woman want to be phoned and told that her spouse had met his “soulmate”? I really don’t think so.

As for Candy and Tori, that’s like an ongoing Hollywood-style soap opera. Supposedly Aaron Spelling was very unhappy with his daughter alienating herself from her family and Candy accused her daughter of being the cause of Aaron’s death. How should Tori have felt, knowing her own mother was accusing of her father’s untimely death and she only got a fraction of her father’s estate, I assume, managed by Candy herself?
I’ve often wanted to get in touch with Dean McDermott to tell him how I feel about how he unceremoniously left his spouse for his true “soulmate”. But getting in touch with him is like breaking into the Mint here in Ottawa….it’s just not doable.

I feel I’m both loveable and good-hearted, deep down, I just feel there are often a great many misunderstandings between my sister and I. Maybe it’s MY fault, I really don’t know.
I’m going to check out the website you mentioned in your column. I keep a file folder of my favourite columns, particularly those you write that resonate with me, personally.

My sister and I can be considerably close even though there’s a 14 year difference between us and she has given me advice about many different personal matters. Sometimes, she’s almost like a psychiatrist. She has a way occasionally of saying something I’d never considered.

I’m 62 this year, the “wisdom years” as you so insighfully suggested and I’m STILL learning.

What you say about realizing neither of you had forever to get things right….my sister often tells me pretty much the same thing when there’s an unspoken, misunderstanding between us….that we’re all we have left. Good advice, some I need to learn to practice. I too, miss my sister.

I agree…healing a sister rift is very difficult and I hope I personally, get there someday, but sooner than later.
My SIL created a permanent feud between she and I because of a reaction to me using the “F” word in her company which I believe I had good reason to use and she YELLED at me and I yelled back that I refused to be censored in my own home and I still feel the same way. I cried, she opened my bedroom door, apologized, even giving me a bracelet/watch set which I gave away after a while. I lost a lot of respect for her, after her volvanic eruption. I’m currently trying to decide if she’s worth forgiving and will discuss the matter with the professional I’m seeing to discuss major ANGER on my part. Sometimes, there are relatives-by-marriage who are know-it-alls, obnoxious and controlling and this particular person gives the impression that those around him are profoundly stupid.

Yes, you’re right….my father’s death did indeed, trigger a major family feud between my sister, myself, our brother and my spouse.

To summarize the answer to your one question about the impact on other relatives…I’d say profound family dysfunction. There’s no way around it….not always. There’s no way for me to make amends….yet, with my SIL or her spouse. As far as I’m concerned, the relationship between my spouse’s BIL and me…is over! He’s disliked me from the first day I met him and even though he’s been dying for the past 3 or 4 years, he’s mellowed to a degree but having grown up with an alcoholic father, now controls his spouse and her brother and her sister-in-law and I won’t tolerate that, not even from him.

If you believe I’m wrong Rona, please…say something, Sister rivalry or feuds is one thing, but family you can’t choose, whereas friends you can….you tell me. I’m open to suggestion or advice. I’m already getting professional help.

Rona Maynard
February 07, 2010 at 4:04 AM

Welcome back, Carol. Considering the legacy of dysfunction that you and your siblings inherited, I don’t wonder that you’re still driving one another crazy. There’s hope, though–especially for you and your sister. You say she’s capable of clarifying wisdom. That’s a rare gift. Wouldn’t you hate to lose it? Here’s some advice that has worked for me: focus on the aspects of your sister that you cherish instead of the ones that make you angry and frustrated. Address her loveable side, trusting that it’s real and strong. The more she feels valued by you, the more valued you’re going to feel by her. I’ve just started a book you might find helpful, Deborah Tannen’s You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! Sisters in Conversation throughout Their Lives. It looks both illuminating and practical. As for your sister-in-law, at least she had the good grace to apologize to you when she crossed the line. So many people never do. (I have to ask: what about you?) It seems to me she’s really tried to make amends, yet you continue to judge her harshly—e.g., you ask if she’s “worth forgiving.” Your attitude towards her (and the rest of your extended family) comes across as extremely judgmental and dismissive, yet she’s made an effort to keep you in her life. From where I sit, it seems she’s indeed “worth forgiving,” and that you might feel a lot better about your life and the people in it if you could learn temper that judgmental streak. It will always be part of you (I ought to know; I too am on the judgmental side) but can be balanced by appreciation of people’s good qualities.

D. Brown
May 12, 2010 at 11:11AM

I am older than my sister, Wendy by 18 months. I have always been big sis, friend, confidant, protector and helper when we were growing up. We shared a room together. There were three of us. My brother, was the oldest, then me by a couple years, then Wen.

Everything seemed fine, I mean, we’ve had spats like any family siblings would. She use to borrow my things and without fail, break them. Even a pair of high heels didn’t stand a chance with Wendy wearing them, especially if they were mine. Those were the worst fights we had as kids.

We grew up, I moved away, married, had two boys. She stayed in town, married and had two girls. Thats when the problems started. Her first child was born on my birthday. She saw this as a sign that now she could take out on her daughter everything she ever wanted to take out on me, since we had the same birthday and all. She had no mercy on that poor girl the entire time Nicki lived at home. Hating everything about her, and everything she did. Never happy with her, always making her feel bad and comparing her to me constantly. My mom went along with it for years, agreeing, yeah, she’s like your sis, but after a decade or more of this and my niece’s self esteem in the toilet my mom FINALLY told my sister that’s enough. Quit bagging on your daughter comparing her to me. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right. So, my sister stopped, but now she has a pattern set. She never says anything nice about me, or my niece for that matter. Preferring to treat us both, like we are beneath her level, and should be happy she still bothers to communicate with us. She never phones her daughter (who is away at college), getting news about her from either her husband or other daughter (whom she treats like a queen). I can’t have one conversation with her without her putting me down at least once. I never say anything; trying to “keep the peace” as my mom asked us to try and do. It angers me that she thinks it’s OK to talk that way to me and about me so I don’t call her anymore. Its just easier. It makes my life feel hollow, knowing my own sister doesn’t have any respect for me, or appear to care much. I don’t know how it will be when my parents are no longer here. We are both in our 50’s. When does it end? Why can’t we just get along? I have no answers…

Rona Maynard
May 12, 2010 at 3:03 PM

Welcome, estranged sister. As you see from the comments on this page, there are lots of fractured families like yours–and lots of people silently wondering what went wrong. I’m struck by the sense of loss in your account of the rift with your sister. Your bond with her was once a source of pleasure and comfort, except when she borrowed your stuff (my sister had the same habit, and it provoked some ferocious screaming matches). You have a mother who believes in biting one’s tongue and making nice instead of confronting a problem and working through the hard feelings. She has set the emotional tone in your family. Your sister must have been harbouring grudges long before your niece’s birth. Perhaps things were never as rosy between you as they seemed. But for your sister to voice her feelings would have been to break your mother’s rules. Now it’s anyone’s guess what the real grievance is that your sister holds in her heart. I don’t get the sense that you’re ready to know or that she’s ready to have an honest conversation. You’re clearly thinking ahead to the death of your parents and the shrinking of your family—always a sad business. So if you miss having her in your life, why not try reaching out with a birthday or Christmas card? I know of siblings who have rounded sharp and treacherous corners this way. If she sends it back unopened (that happens, too), you can always try again another time. Keep your expectations low and don’t push for a breakthrough or—even worse—an apology. Remember, even the most difficult and troubled people are capable of change for as long as they’re capable of thinking. Meanwhile, I recommend Deborah Tannen’s wise and illuminating book You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives. My sister and I are both quoted in it. You can read more about our journey out of silence right here on this website:

September 06, 2011 at 12:12PM

What a sad club to belong to….the estranged sister club. I was told by my sister that I only cause her extreme pain and she can not have me in her life. That was after I sent 4 e-mails to her begging her to talk to me. To tell her the silence between us was never going to go away if both of us did not TRY. I was devastated by her response, as I still did not understand what I had done to deserve being thrown away as a sister. I responded that I never wanted or intended to ever cause her pain, but if she truly did not want me as her sister, then I would give her what she wanted. She would never have to acknowledge me again. And she never has. Not even at our father’s funeral last year. I know I am prideful, but I will never force anyone to have me in their life that does not want me.

I have 3 other siblings and we all get along very well. We are all in our 40’s and 50’s. I am sure it is awkward for them (as it is for me) because they still have a relationship with my sister. I have never tried to get them to “take sides” in this, as it is not their conflict, but I am increasingly hurt that I am the one that has been thrown away, not any of them. My elderly mother says that “I need to keep trying” but I have reached out all I can and my sister never has. I accept that she does not love/need me but it still hurts. I could never have done to her what she has done to me. It is bewildering how a sister can just throw away a sister and never look back. My attempts to reconcile were fruitless, but I am so very glad that you and your sister had a different outcome.

Rona Maynard
September 06, 2011 at 6:06 PM

Dear Sher, This is a terribly sad story and part of what’s sad is that you speak for many others who’ve been cut off by a sibling, a parent or a child. These stories aren’t told very often because they challenge the myth of the family as a haven from life’s disappointments and betrayals. Your sister’s adamant refusal to engage with you under any circumstances whatsoever says nothing about you and a lot about her. You’ve done your best to repair that bond. For whatever reason, she can’t or won’t meet you halfway. Why you? These things aren’t rational. Chances are you’ll never know for sure; you can only speculate. You have a life to live and I’m sure there are many who want to be part of it. Draw strength from those people, the ones who love and understand you. Forget about trying harder, as your mother urges you to do. No amount of effort will melt your sister’s heart; the change will come from within her or not at all. If ever there was a time for the serenity prayer, it’s now. This is not something you can change. You’ve done everything you can, and I commend you for leaving your siblings out of the battle zone. Wishing you well/ Rona

October 21, 2011 at 10:10AM

I have a sister story too. We are 8 yrs apart and she is older.My sis and I never actually grew up together. She lived with my grandparents and I lived my parents till she was 15 . Dad was travelling due to work and thought it best she have a stable education . We are now settled in different cities and each have husbands and pets. Through the years we have always talked on the phone and she has supported me through grad school and all. But anytime we meet we cant last more than 1 day without fighting.

The fights are nasty and start over petty small things. Recently in the last 4 yrs she has visited me 3 times and each time it ends with her leaving the house / cutting the vacation short. We have similar personalities to make things worse. [So if one person is angry the other will also be]. It doesnt help that her husband always supports her including emotional abuse. So if she/her husband is visiting me, i need to say/ok to everything she wants/thinks or says or else god forbid she will get mad [ a ticking time bomb], bringup every old fight. Abuse and walk out saying i dont need you. It takes about a year to patch up after such a fight , given we have full lives/jobs n live in far away cities. I feel bad that we can’t get along. I dont know what I can change to make it work for atleast an annual visit, I am 30 now and i dont want it to be this way when i am 50.

October 24, 2012 at 5:05AM

My fathers family has always been a bitter bunch! Fighting over who owns a gun or who said what behind whos back! Every argument isnt just about the fight its self at hand, its about something that happened 3 years ago or 40 years ago! Every family argument ends up being this long draw out process where everything the two parties have ever did is aired like dirty laundry!

They have always tried to settle everything with a fist fight and then not talked for years on end, then theres a death in the family and everyone tries to bare to be around each other, make amends , then the next holiday rolls around and theres a fist fight, a gun drawn or a knife!

Some one may move in with another family member upon hard times then screw them outta bill money or steal something, then thats a family fight!. This is my father and his siblings! Then it pours over to cousins fighting cousins and aunts fighting nieces! My father has always picked his youngest sister over my sister and myself.

Now its spilled over to my father trying to fight my husband over something that wasnt even his fault. My father feels the need to shove on me and my husband, like thats gona solve anything!
My fathers 6 ft 4 and goes 250 lbs, my husband and i live in a land of giants! Everyone is 6 ft plus and us only being 5 ft 4 and going about a buck and a half!

IM JUST SO SICK OF MY FAMILY! No one can get together and just like each other.

THEN theres my husbands family, every ones mad at him because we moved outta state and refuse to bank roll his lazy aunt and her grown children! So no family get togethers there either! We have just given up!

Having feel on hard times, my father purchased my grandfathers house from his fathers widow. The house was left to myself to live in as long as I may need. Everytime my father gets mad at me, he threatens to throw myself and my 3 children out in the street! He thinks he can control every aspect of my live! Im 31 years old! He tries to swindle me into giving my things that were left to me from deceased great and grand parents to my aunt, simply because she asks for it! Then she wants to pawn the things.

Both of our families are the definition of dysfunction! We are both so sick of it! We are newly married (6months) and my sisters wedding is this winter (which I dead even being a part of)! I just wanna skip all holiday and family events, even my sisters wedding to avoid seeing all the butt heads I hate being around! BUT that will start another family argument! Im tired of having to watch my back and or knocking people in the head!

If you get the cops involved then everyone hates you because “thats not the way we settle things” ! Any advise? Life is hell ! Id love to move off and just forget about all them BUT I have 2 young children with my ex husband and dont wanna move my kids away from their father, hes a great dad! Im not sure how much more I can take though! Thanks again!

Rona Maynard
November 10, 2012 at 4:04 PM

Whoa! Definition of dysfunction, indeed! My advice? I hate to say it, but you’d be wise to give this bunch a wide berth at holiday times, or anytime there’s going to be drinking. Holidays are rough when you can’t gather around the Christmas tree with people you love and trust, but your two families, while I’m sure you love them, are not to be trusted. Of course your ex needs to continue in his role as great dad; it’s your blood relations that concern me. You might want to focus on the family you and your husband are forming. How will you be different?

dorothy smith
June 08, 2013 at 3:03PM

My trouble is with my ex daughter- in law.She keeps doing anything she can to upset my life and my sons life. If we say anything she tells the kids lies and then we don’t see them for a while. They love her because she allows them complete freedom to do and say and live any way they want.She booses with them, parties with them and thinks its fine to move in with anyone.At times I worry about their lives.They are all over twenty one but she and they act like wild teen agers. Their Dad and I are worried sick but can do nothing about it.We have almost given up trying to have a relationship with the kids.

Rona Maynard
June 09, 2013 at 3:03 AM

Dorothy, I’m not a professional counselor but here’s my advice for what it’s worth. Take the stand you need to take with your former daughter-in-law. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained by letting her push you around. As for what she says about you to her kids, they are adults now. If they have warm memories of you and your husband, they may well approach you on their own one day, although perhaps not as quickly as you’d like. Do what you can to keep that door open so that they can walk through it when the moment feels right. A birthday card is a small thing but small things can add up over time. Meanwhile, here’s a book that might give you some practical guidance–Slouching Toward Adulthood by Sally Koslow. She’s done lots of research on families like yours and how they can cope with the struggles they face. Good luck.

July 07, 2013 at 9:09PM

My sister and I are 22 months apart; almost Irish twins. She’s older and I think tht she holds this above me. We sometimes have those sisterly moments but every single time I try to help her, she always gets mad. And unfortunately I happen to have a short fuse, so whenever we fight, it gets a little explicit. Occasionally it gets physical and I feel like I don’t belong in the family. My parents usually take my sister’s side. They also compare me to her just because she skipped kindergarten. And when I was younger, my sister was selfish; she took every single toy I could even lay my hands on. She was also just starting school so she got more attention because of schoolwork. We compete for every single thing: school, dance, athletics, Sunday school, etc. And this always makes my mom sad. She cries and asks why we can never get along. I always feel bad for making her upset because she has done so much for our family. And we’re under so much pressure because my grandmother just has…issues. My sister really doesn’t like having my grandmother around and always insults her. I get so upset at it. I really don’t know how to react to anything my sister says. She not only insults me, but she feels the need to insults my friends and what I like as well. It makes me so mad yet I want to have a good family life. Can anyone help or give me advice? P.S. I’m pretty young, but it isn’t natural sibling rivalry.

Rona Maynard
July 20, 2013 at 5:05 PM

You’re right, Keshal, this is not normal sibling rivalry. You do need help with this. Is there someone you trust at school, a favorite teacher or coach? Another idea: check out the discussion forums at These forums are moderated by trained counselors equipped to deal with all kinds of challenging issues, including the one that’s on your mind. Good luck.

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