9 Signs You Might Have a Toxic Sister (Plus, How to Deal)

toxic sister cat

In a perfect world, all sister relationships would look like something out of a sappy Disney movie. Think: sharing clothes, inside jokes and silly but harmless pranks on parents. In reality, though, they can be some of the toughest relationships to navigate. Think about it: This is someone who you’ve known for pretty much your entire life. She knows what motivates you, what makes you tick and what absolutely gets under her skin. And sometimes, if she’s a toxic person, she uses that knowledge against you. Read on for nine signs you might have a toxic sister, plus some methods for improving the situation.

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9 Signs You Have a Toxic Sister

1. She *Has* to Be Right

Your good old sis has hated every person you’ve ever dated, and it’s starting to feel like no one is going to be good enough. She has similar opinions about your career goals, friends and pretty much everything else. If you’ve articulated that you’re happy with your life and the people in it and she still won’t stay out of your business, then your relationship with your sister could be verging on (if not already) toxic.

2. She’s Manipulative

When you ask someone a question ("Hey, want to come over next week?"), you don't have any ulterior motives. When a toxic person asks you a question, though, they might be setting a trap. ("Are you free for dinner tomorrow at seven?" Subtext: "If you aren't free for dinner tomorrow at seven, I'll be mad at you for the rest of the week.") "Their modus operandi is to get people to do what they want them to do," says Abigail Brenner, M.D. "It’s all about them. They use other people to accomplish whatever their goal happens to be. Forget what you want; this is not about equality in a relationship—far from it."

3. She Doesn’t Respect Boundaries

You love your little sister, but she’s always had a hard time knowing her place. She’s made a habit of showing up at your house, unannounced, expecting to be able to stay for dinner. Because you love her, you give in, but even after asking her to stop popping in without calling, she continues to do it.

4. She Insists on Playing the Victim

Sometimes, family members can’t help but guilt trip each other. (“What do you mean, you aren’t coming home for Thanksgiving?”) But there’s a difference between expressing disappointment and creating a toxic environment by blaming everyone else for their feelings. If your sister refuses to talk to you for a week because you’ve decided to spend next Thanksgiving with friends, you could be in toxic territory.

5. Her Apologies Are Never Sincere

Have you ever expected an apology from someone and ended up apologizing to them? This is a classic red flag. Let’s say your sister blew off the brunch plans you had last Saturday. Then, when you confront her about it, she delves into this long story about how she got into a huge fight with the guy she’s dating that morning and she doesn’t think she’ll ever find her soulmate, and it’s all your parents’ fault for getting divorced when she was five. You feel for her, and you want to be there for her if she’s having a crisis, it’s just…she’s always having a crisis. And weren’t you just talking about brunch? Shifting tactics and turning herself into the victim is toxic territory.

6. Everything Is a Competition

Every time you call her to talk about a promotion at work or a potty-training breakthrough with your kid, she inevitably steers the conversation to be about her illustrious career or her parenting wins. Any healthy relationship should be a two-way street, and if you’re your sister is incapable of celebrating your wins—big or small—it’s a sign that there’s an issue.

7. Spending Time with Her Is Draining

Do you feel totally spent every time you interact with your older sister? We’re not talking about feeling like you need to be by yourself for a little while—something that can happen even with people we love being around. Interacting with a toxic person can leave you feeling defeated since their dramatic, needy and high-maintenance tendencies can suck the energy right out of you.

8. Everything Is Always About Her

You just got off a 45-minute phone call with your twin only to realize that she didn’t ask you a single question about your life or how you’re doing. If she was dealing with an important issue or had some exciting news, that’s one thing. But if this happens pretty much every time you talk, then this relationship could be toxic.

9. There Are Always Strings Attached

Sure, your sis will pick up your kids from school, but you’ll never hear the end of how lucky you are to have her help…followed by an immediate request to reorganize her closet. We’re not suggesting our family members should do every little thing for us, but you should be able to ask for a favor without having her hold it over your head or immediately ask for something unreasonable in return.

4 Ways to Cope If You Have a Toxic Sister

1. Pick Your Battles

Sometimes it’s worth agreeing to disagree. Though sisters are often similar in many ways, you have to remember that you’re each your own person. You and your sister might have totally different ideas about careers, relationships and parenting, and that’s fine. It’s important to identify the areas where neither of you is likely to change your mind and agree to respect the other’s opinion without judgement or hostility.

2. Try the Grey Rock Method

We first discovered this handy trick on psychologist Nadene van der Linden’s blog, Unshakeable Calm. In a nutshell, it’s a tool to prevent toxic people from escalating a situation. Act as boring, uninteresting and disengaged as possible and toxic people will find it less exciting to try to manipulate you and choose another target. It takes some acting chops, but you don’t have to be Meryl Streep to master it. During every interaction with the toxic person, the trick is to speak in a neutral voice, talk about boring subjects, don’t make eye contact and give short, generic answers. And if the toxic person tries to get a rise out of you, don’t engage emotionally. Find out more about the Grey Rock Method here.

3. Have a Go-To Phrase on Standby

We get it—dealing with a toxic family member is tough and you never know what’s going to set them off. That’s why it’s useful to have a phrase or two handy that you can repeat whenever they give you unsolicited advice or ask you to do something. For the former, we like the phrase, “You may be right.” And for the later, try “I have to think about it.” Here’s how it works:

Sister: I need you to plan a birthday party for me.
You: I have to think about it. I have a lot of things going on in the next couple of weeks and need to see if that’s doable for me.

4. Recognize If Your Relationship Is Beyond Repair

Every sibling duo has the occasional argument (she totally lied about stealing your favorite sweater—and getting a stain on it). But if you’ve always felt like you become your worst self when you’re back at home, your family could be treading on toxic territory. “Toxic people are draining; encounters leave you emotionally wiped out,” Brenner says. "Time with them is about taking care of their business, which will leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, if not angry. Don’t allow yourself to become depleted as a result of giving and giving and getting nothing in return." Sound familiar? While it can be incredibly difficult to cut a toxic sibling out of your life, there’s no shame in doing so—especially if it feels like you’ve tried everything.

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