Tell Me About It: Tensions mount between adult sisters

Published July 11 2018

Our daughter "Annie" has moved back home at age 33 to save some money while doing postdoc work and teaching college courses. She contributes to household expenses. Our daughter "Bonnie" has moved back home at 29 after a sudden breakup, bringing our 15-month-old grandchild with her. Bonnie works but does not earn much money, and we are encouraging her to save it.

Annie is resentful that Bonnie does not pay "rent." Bonnie feels judged and looked down on by her sister. My husband and I are often caught in the middle.

One or both will probably move out within the next year. Until then, how do we cope?


A: Annie is being shortsighted. Good families don’t take care of everything equally; instead they commit equally to taking care of needs. I use the term "shortsighted" because neither you nor Annie nor Bonnie knows what is in store for everyone, and the pricklier she gets with Bonnie now, the more Annie opens herself to Bonnie’s resentful payback, plus interest.

Annie is paying her way, but she doesn’t hold voting shares in your household. You decide how your resources are allocated, you decide which kid needs what, you decide what’s fair. If Annie isn’t happy to be mooching on less favorable terms than her sister is, then she needs to either take that up with you or move out.

So, time to sit down with Annie. State your policy clearly: Different kids, different needs, same commitment to meeting needs, with the understanding that life is long and bean-counting serves nobody. If she’s not willing to trust that your home is a supportive one and that things will even out in the end, then she can take her complaints to you, or forever hold her peace — because you will not stand for tension or hostility between the siblings.

If there’s old baggage here and either tries to hand it back to you by way of explanation for the current rift, then decline to accept it. Say you will think carefully about your role in creating this dynamic -- toward moving forward, however. Not back.