When All Else Fails…Apologize?

Q: Last year, my younger sister and my only sister-in-law decided to open a dress store together. The plan was to put an upscale shop on the outskirts of a frum neighborhood. Unfortunately, the business was not successful. And they each blame the other for the failure.

When the business went bust, my sister told me that she expects me to cut off all ties with my sister-in-law. Her feeling was that if I am a loyal sister, I should choose her over my husband’s sister. I said I thought she was being unreasonable. I simply could not do what she was asking because I have always been quite close with my sister-in-law who has gone the extra mile to help me on numerous occasions. My sister responded that as a result of my “decision,” she would no longer be speaking with me.

It is now a month later and my sister has not called or returned any of the messages I have left on her answering machine. She has even ignored messages that my 11-year-old daughter has left. Recently, my daughter asked me why her favorite aunt does not call her back. How should I explain this to her?

A: Regarding the eino yodei’a lish’ol, the Haggadah advises, “At psach lo,” that we should bring up the subject. Similarly, you should be asking two more important questions: why is your sister acting this way and what can you do about it?

To put it bluntly, your sister is throwing an adult version of a two-year-old’s temper tantrum. Her behavior is plainly unreasonable and irrational. She is clearly hurt by the falling out with your sister-in-law. And she is incapable of accepting any responsibility for the breakdown of that formerly idyllic relationship. In order to soothe her wounded ego, therefore, she has set up an impossible test for you to “prove” your loyalty. In her twisted logic she is thinking that if you are willing to sacrifice your hitherto solid relationship with your sister-in-law, then you really do love her as much as she feels entitled to be loved by you. If, however, you refuse, then you “prove” that you do not care enough for her and, therefore, deserve to be totally expunged from her life. This is a classic example of an “all or nothing” attitude. If you are not meeting her criteria for loyalty today, therefore, your previous track record of any “good behavior” is completely discounted and disregarded.

You were right to refuse to accept your sister’s absurd, controlling demand. But you were misguided in attempting to get her to see how inappropriately she was acting. Reasoning with someone who is being unreasonable is an exercise in futility. What you need to do, however, if you ever hope to restore contact with your sister, is to apologize.

No, you did nothing wrong. And your sister does not deserve an apology. Nevertheless, for the sake of restoring family harmony, the strategy with the highest chances of succeeding is to ask your sister to forgive you, as difficult as that will be.

In order for this approach to be most effective, you must be certain of two things. Firstly, you must be convinced that you were no way at fault. If you feel even slightly guilty, you will become an easy target for your sister’s manipulation.

The second thing you must do is eliminate even the slightest traces of defensiveness from your words and tone of voice. Do not offer excuses or justifications. And do not attempt to convince your sister that her demand was unreasonable. Remember, you are not looking for validation of your innocence from your sister. You are looking to reconcile the relationship.

Start with a phone call. If your sister does not pick up the phone, ask her to return your call. If you do not hear from her in a couple of days, leave an apology on her voice mail. If she does not respond, follow it up with an email or a more strongly worded plea for forgiveness. Tell her you feel terrible that she was so hurt by you. Say that you and your daughter miss being in touch with her. Leave a week or 10 days between each communication. And make each one more passionate than the one before.

When asking forgiveness from someone who has refused to accept an apology, the Shulchan Aruch advises approaching that person again and again, each time with a quorum of three (Orach Chayim 606:1). What is accomplished by adding this “delegation”? The answer is that when you humble yourself publicly, it is more of an ego boost for the injured party. This, in turn, makes him/her less vengeful and thereby more willing to accept your apology and resume the relationship.


 

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.