Humor, respect and little white wine goes a long way toward staying connected to the sibling rival who made you cry, made you laugh and still reminds you what it takes to be a family.
We live in five different cities in three different states. We are married, single, divorced; kids, no kids; apartment-dwellers, homeowners; dog lovers, allergic to dogs; teachers, nurses, executives; grandmothers, aunts; conservatives, moderates, liberal and politically uninvolved. On paper, other than our last names, we don't appear to have that much in common. But for the last 12 years, my four sisters and I have not only gotten along, we've worked together. We started Satellite Sisters, our multimedia project that includes a radio show, website and blog, to celebrate the concept that women could have very different lives but still share a powerful bond.
When you are a "professional" sister, you get a lot of emails asking how we manage to work together, vacation together, deal with family issues together—and still stay friends. It's tempting just to write down "denial" and "white wine" and leave it at that. So I took a look at the last several decades of my relationships with my sisters and discovered four behavioral tactics that have really made all the difference.
Isn't It Time to Forgive, Forget and Move On?
Let's be clear, I am not a psychologist or an officer of the law. So if you and your sisters have some issues in the past that require therapy or jail time, then you need to seek professional help for those situations. For the rest of us with sisters, the issues that may be keeping our relationships from moving forward are often small and decades old. They're the tiny little injustices that occurred in the mid-'80s that you can't get over even in 2011. Yes, several of my sisters did share boyfriends, and that remains a taboo subject amongst them. (But that doesn't stop the rest of us from having a good laugh at their expense.) Then there are the issues of unequal parental attention, who had college loans and who didn't, and why Sheila never seemed to do the dishes. But now with decades of water under the bridge, we've achieved de´tente. The truth is we all made mistakes at 17, and letting those hold you back from a satisfying relationship at 37 or 47 with your sister isn't worth the moral high ground.
Don't Let Actual Distance Create Emotional Distance
If you're the Big-City Gal and she's the Suburban Mom, you can both find common ground using technology, even if she lives 3,000 miles away. It only takes a minute to comment on her Facebook photos of Junior's science project or Skype in while she's making dinner to see what's cooking. My sisters and I use technology all the time. I count on my big sister Liz to text me from the Red Carpet Room at JFK about celebrity sightings while I'm standing on the sidelines of soccer practice. Small but frequent connections can sustain a relationship even when you can't see each other as often as you would like.
Be Grown-up Sisters, Not the Sisters You Were Growing Up
One of the most surprising benefits of working with my four sisters is discovering that, as the youngest in the family, I idolized my older sisters, but only in the broadest terms because of a six-year age gap. My sisters weren't my peers growing up; they were glamorous characters in my life. Julie was the class president in high school. Liz was good in English and "the responsible one." Sheila was a fashion risk taker with her bell-bottoms and her Laura Ashley corduroy cape. Monica was "the funny Dolan" with great hair. Had I not had the opportunity to work with my sisters so closely, my impression of my sisters might have stopped evolving in 1976.
But they've learned quite a few skills since they were, say, 15. Julie's leadership skills morphed into an academic deanship. She was my role model as a working mother trying to juggle it all. Liz took those English skills and her work ethic and became a top marketing executive at a Fortune 500 company. Sheila may still be fashionable, but she's also a gifted teacher with several advanced degrees. And Monica has used that humor while caring for thousands of sick patients in her 30 years as nurse.
I feel certain that my big sisters would say that somewhere after my braces-and-pigtails days, I grew up too. When we wrote a book together, I was the "head sister," managing the entire editorial process from my home office with toddlers underfoot. While my sisters may not have appreciated being bossed around by the baby, they did appreciate how I got the job done.
Don't Forget to Bring the Funny
Life is too short to spend a lot of time discussing politics, religion and/or other explosive issues with your sisters. Save the controversial conversations for your college roommates, your walking partner or talk radio personalities. Maybe this sounds gutless if you and your family routinely debate around the dinner table, but preserving a sibling relationship often means focusing on the similarities or, at the very least, approaching serious topics with equal doses of humor, respect and humility. Sisters are there for good-natured ribbing, serving up classic family stories and making fun of Oscar® fashions. If you let the laughter flow, when you need support and advice during a difficult life transition, you will have already built a strong foundation. Can you have differences of opinion? Of course. My sisters and I disagree on-air all the time, on everything from Supreme Court nominees to American Idol. During one heated debate about a presidential candidate, my sister Sheila diffused the situation by holding up a sign that said, "He's hot." Hilarity ensued; tension did not.
Remember You Have to Spend Thanksgiving Together
According to the mail we receive at Satellite Sisters, a lot of sisterly relationships go down in flames because of Christmas. Or Fourth of July. Or Grandma's birthday. One sister wants to have it at her house, and another digs in her heels for the privilege of hosting the event. Then, they don't speak for 10 years. Find a compromise—or let it go. So what if you never host Thanksgiving, there are 364 other days of the year to get the family together to celebrate. Anytime I feel a power struggle coming on with a family member over holiday plans, I remember what one expert said on our radio show about my mother's need to cook the Thanksgiving turkey, even at my house: "It's just a turkey, and it makes her happy. Let her cook the turkey." I can't tell you how many times I've brushed off a potential family blowup by saying to myself, "It's just a turkey."
Lian Dolan is a mother, wife, sister, friend and daughter. She is also a writer, novelist, producer and talk show host. Her first novel, Helen of Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, November 2010), a romantic comedy about a modern mother in transition, was a Los Angeles Times best-seller. Known for her humorous take on the day-to-day issues that face women everywhere, she shares her adventures in modern motherhood on her website and her weekly podcast, The Chaos Chronicles which is currently in development as a half-hour comedy for Nickelodeon.
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The fight to be Mom's favorite child
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Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 7, 2014
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