My biggest life mistake is asking people to read my mind and do what I want without my having to say it.
Dear Thoughtful Pastor: My sister is separating from her husband and will soon move in with me while they decide to stay together or get a divorce.
I want to be there for my sister. I really do. But how can I ask my sister NOT to tell me intimate things about her marriage or gripe about her husband to me?
If they decide to stay together, I know I’ll be mad at him for the things he’s said and done and will run my mouth about it. But I know she wants to confide in me and our parents. How should I tell her to keep the details between her, her husband and her therapist?
My biggest life mistake–and I have done this consistently–is asking people to read my mind and figure out what I want without my having to say it. I compound that mistake by then getting upset with them when they lack finely-honed and accurate mind-reading skills and thus don’t comply with my unexpressed desires.
It’s stupid. It’s also a nasty power-play, especially if the person I expect to read my mind is someone who needs to stay in my good graces, perhaps needing to live in my home for a while.
Now, you are willingly opening your home to your distressed sister. You know that she wants to confide and or vent about how awful her husband has been to her.
I’m going to assume that this has been her pattern in the past.
You also know yourself well enough to know that if you hear a lot of bad stuff about your brother-in-law that hearing these things will poison any future relationship with him. You’ve admitted you are not good at holding your tongue.
I’m going to assume that this also has been a pattern in the past.
So you’ve got two people, you and your sister, with habitual and possibly less-than-healthy relational patterns preparing for a collision course.
The “read my mind” scenario
The typical, “read my mind but don’t state my position clearly” plays out this way: look and act uncomfortable when she starts talking with you and make excuses to leave or change the course of the conversation. Eventually, you blow up at her for making your life miserable. Your relationship tanks; she is living with you; your home becomes an unholy hell.
Another option, and this comes straight from the words of Jesus, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’”
Speak your own truth here–not hers. Your truth is: “I don’t handle it well at all when I hear bad stuff about your husband. Therefore I will not participate in conversations about him.”
Your truth is NOT: “I know you are going to tell me bad stuff about your husband and I forbid you to do so.” You are now trying to read her mind, tell her story, assert your power over her. Your story is the only one you get to tell here.After stating your “yes” and “no” limits, stick with them. The moment she starts to “confide,” AKA badmouth, her husband, end the conversation. Immediately.
This is the one time you may legitimately interrupt the speech of another without being rude. Something like, “Sister, I must stop this conversation for the sake of my integrity. If we can’t find a different topic of conversation immediately, then let us find silence and enjoy the sounds of nature companionably together.”
The pressure will mount
Trust me; she isn’t going to like this. She’ll pressure you to return to the listening role. You can’t stop the pressure, but you can insist, with kindness and consistency, on maintaining your boundaries.
She’ll probably accuse you of not loving her. Your response, “I am sure it feels like that to you. I’m genuinely sorry, but I know I must not cross this line.”
The initial explanation of the ground rules must take place before she moves in. If you wait until after the fact, the tensions between the two of you could quickly become untenable. This will bring real damage to the long-term viability of your relationship with your sister.
Remember, anger on your sister’s behalf, particularly if her estranged husband has mistreated her, is normal. But you know the negative long-term outcomes if you get drawn in. Protect yourself.
Part of her movement to healing may very well involve what I call “getting the poison out” as she processes the relationship. That’s the therapist’s job.
You offer home and safety. That’s your job.
Your parents have to set their limits. If they choose to listen and then complain to you, give them the same suggestions I offer you. Then stop listening to their complaints.
These actions give you power. You decide where you will and will not listen. You communicate your decision lovingly and clearly. You control your own actions. You put your relationships on the higher ground. Everybody is healthier.
[Note: A version of this column is slated to run in the April 28, 2017, edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions.]