Dora* has been angry at her sister for most of her adult life. Many years ago, an elderly aunt left Ann a bequest in her will, and Dora is still seething, both because she did not receive a similar bequest, and because Ann did not share the inheritance. “I used to visit Aunt Sadie as often as she did. And Ann knew I needed the money, badly. I’d just had my first son, so I wasn’t working, and Tim wasn’t making much back then.”
Those hurt feelings, nursed over two decades, have resulted in an icy relationship between two sisters who were once best pals.
“And you know,” says Dora, “I still miss her. If only she had apologized. If only she would apologize. I really want her back in my life.”
“So why don’t you give her a call?” I ask.
“Why should I? She started it. She was the one who decided to be selfish. She made it pretty clear how unimportant our relationship was to her.”
At this point, the facts are unimportant. Dora has her version, and, undoubtedly, Ann has hers.
- You want to talk about an important issue with your parents, but you are waiting for them to bring up the topic
- You are angry at your partner, but wait for him to ask what’s wrong, rather than telling him
- You want to have sex, but think that it’s your spouse’s job to initiate this time
- You want to reconnect with a friend after you fought, but are waiting to first get the apology you think you deserve.
No matter why you think the other person should go first, waiting for him or her to make the first move is a great way to ensure that nothing will happen, except that you are likely to get angrier and feel more resentful.
“Why are you so intent on being powerless?” I ask Dora.
“What do you mean?”
“You want something to happen, but not badly enough to do anything about it. So you’re leaving the fate of your relationship in your sister’s hands.”
“If I mean anything to her, she should let me know. Her daughter’s graduating from high school this Spring. Let’s see if she invites me.”
“Let me get this straight,” I ask. “You miss your sister but you’re willing to let your life go by without seeing her unless she decides to reach out to you?”
“Now, why is that?”
“She started it, so why should I…” Suddenly, Dora laughs. “I sound like I’m about 12 years old!”
When you are in a stuck place and don’t want to make a move, you probably believe you have good reason not to act, even if you think you want change. In my work with individuals and couples, I most often hear:
- I’ll get turned down
- I’ll make a fool out of myself
- My feelings will be hurt.
While Dora ultimately decides that she is interested in making the first move to rebuild her relationship with Ann, she realizes that she is terrified to do so, because Ann might reject her overture. “Deep down, I’ve always thought that we’d be friends again, one day. But what happens if I try and she’s not interested? If I make a move, then I have to face the possibility of never being close to Ann again.”
“You’re right,” I say. “You can make the first move, which is your best shot at getting what you want. But you can’t guarantee the outcome. So now you’ve got to decide if you’d rather take a chance, or sit back and wait for something to happen.”
That’s the difficult decision all of us have to make at different crisis points in our relationships and in our lives: Take action in hope of achieving what we want, without knowing what will result; or do nothing. As we become more resilient, it can be easier to take a chance on the outcome and make the first move.
I share this with Dora. “And here’s the good news,” I add. “The ability to manage yourself in difficult situations and survive disappointments is a learnable skill.”
If you would like to work on strengthening your resilience, feel free to contact me. I will be glad to help you.
*All names and identifying details altered in this article.