Dear Family Advisor

Is it ever okay to just end your sibling relationships? We've been pushed to the brink.

Last updated: Sep 19, 2009

My husband's siblings have taken complete control of his mom. How do we end rare phone calls from them in a peaceful, adult manner? Whenever we talk, it turns into false accusations, frustration, anger, and disappointment.

When they lived with her, they wouldn't return our phone messages. (She lives out West; we're in the South.) She had asked us to set up and monitor her finances; suddenly we were kicked out of her financial affairs with no warning. Then, after we attempted to help her pay for the deposit on assisted living and move her in, we were pushed to the side.

After she was hospitalized, suddenly they started calling up, complaining about money. But now the three sisters have taken my husband off of the emergency contact list at the assisted living facility. I hope they didn't drain her bank account. At this point, we just want to be left alone. Is that so terrible?

Sibling issues often rank at the top of a long list of caregiving challenges. They're also one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of this journey. Misunderstandings, differences of opinion, and hurt feelings often drive a wedge that seems impossible to heal.

The thing to keep foremost in your mind is that you can separate the issues you and your husband have with his siblings from your relationship with his mother. She needs you, and no one can keep you from seeing her. Yes, you have to fly and stay in a hotel, or pick up the phone and call long distance, but those are the hurdles every long-distance caregiver faces.

Because you and your husband can't be there every day, his siblings might assume that you don't care. They're dealing with the day-to-day issues, and maybe they think you're not doing your share. Most of us tend to sort people into good guys and bad guys. We like to think of ourselves as the good guy -- which means someone else becomes the bad guy. In fact, you and your husband care deeply, but his siblings aren't seeing that.

Examine your own assumptions, too. You think they're after money. Might they want it for your mother-in-law? Can you find out if she has needs that aren't being met that you and your husband could finance, like a health aide or treatments that her insurance doesn't cover? Most of us have mixed motives. We try to do what's right, but things get muddied.

That said, some people love to argue and they're really into the drama. You don't have to play that game. If this situation is too hard for you, you and your husband can choose to not interact with his siblings for the time being.

Just beware that cutting off communication can make it twice as hard to ever heal the gap. Right now, you might think you don't care if things ever work out -- but it would break your mom's heart to know that her care was such a bone of contention between her children.

I doubt all three sisters feel the same way, though, because no three people think exactly alike. Is there one you can reach out to?

Consider writing a letter or e-mail to each sister. You and your husband can share how much you care about his mom and that you're sorry your relationships have deteriorated. Let his sisters know that you'll continue to find ways to contribute, emotionally and financially, and that it's hard for you to be far away. Wait a week or two before you send it to make sure you feel good about what it says.

If you do opt not to talk to them for a while, then simply state that you'll be in contact with his mom, but you feel it's best if you take a break with the sisters to let things cool off.

You can't control others' stinkin' thinkin', but you can do something about your own. I hope you and your husband will also take a hard look at how you may have contributed to the conflict. None of us is perfect -- I'll bet there are areas you could have handled differently. Own up to that in your heart.

Take the high road and keep the most important issues in mind -- your mother's care and the meaning of family. So many families fall apart during times of stress, yet it can help us look at what was already there, under the surface, and give us a chance to make new choices.

No matter what his siblings say or do, show your husband's mother that you love her. Shower her with heartfelt attention. Call often, send cards and gifts, and call the staff to see how she's doing. Your husband's mom still needs her son, and he has every right to be in her life.