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posted: 7/14/2013 6:14 AM

Creating strong relationships out of sticky situations

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Q. I have always been the smart one. The sister was an average student, and I have always excelled in all areas of academia. This sounds conceited, I know, and I'm not writing off my sibling. She has many talents I simply don't possess, like the ability to make people feel comfortable.

My problem is my sister despises me for my brains. I started school a year early, putting me just a grade behind her, though there is more than two years' difference in age between us. I got better grades and more awards, and the attention paid to my successes made her feel horrible. I knew this and tried all through high school to downplay my talents.

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After graduation, she became a hairstylist and insists she loves her job. I went on to college. I am 19 and about to begin my junior year. I love my university and my studies, but every time I mention school in any way (an organization, a football game, a paper that's due) my sister bashes the school and reminds everyone she is out in the world earning money, not just studying "useless abstract things." She has even become a fan of our rival school's football team!

I try to avoid these "trigger" topics, but academics are my life. I want to pursue a career in research and teaching. I hate that my abilities have poisoned our relationship, but I think this is her problem, not mine. If she is as contented with her life as she claims to be, then she shouldn't feel the need to bad-mouth my studies. How do I make the insults stop?

A. How can I make the simplistic assumptions stop?

Maybe you were born many points brighter than your sister, and maybe that alone is what cut you out to be an academic to her mocker of all things abstract.

Maybe, instead, you and she are a lot like most other people, whose adult selves are a result of countless influences large and small, natural and nurtured, chosen and coincidental, under noses and out of view.

Maybe, for example, you babbled a 10-cent word at a surprising age, and your parents weren't familiar with the hazards of drawing lifelong conclusions about intelligence in young children, and used mistaken assumptions to pop you into kindergarten at 4 and raise you to think you were brainy -- at least compared with your sister -- and as a result both of you built lives around ideas of your intelligence that don't track with your actual gifts. Maybe you're both equally smart. Maybe she's the "smart one," but bloomed late and was never trained or encouraged to apply herself academically.

If there's a grain of truth to any of this, then wouldn't it be your parents who ultimately poisoned your sibling relationship, and not your giant brain? Not to make them the villains; they could have had the best of intentions to give each of you the right encouragement for what they perceived to be each of your strengths, and merely were wrong in what they perceived.

If instead there's no truth to my alternate theory, then I still have this: You've nevertheless distilled to one simplistic narrative some of the most complicated things humanity has to offer, including family systems, self-determination and the nature of intelligence. Please give a nod to your academic aspirations and look at the relationship with your sister, and your paths in life, from all conceivable angles. Right now, you're stuck in one position: defensive.

"Sometimes I think we haven't changed our opinion of each other since 2nd grade. I'd like to change that": Maybe you're not ready to offer this kind of peace overture, and she's not ready to hear it as one, but I suspect if you opened your mind to alternate theories on your comparative excellence, then you'd be less assured of it. I also suspect she'd read this attitude change in you, and lower her dukes just a bit.

Q. A friend of mine has been serially dating for over seven years now, jumping from one failed relationship to the next. In most instances she has been on the wrong side of the breakup.

She usually spends a few days lamenting her misfortune before reactivating her online-dating profile, which I think is the wrong approach. How do you tell someone they need to find (or work on) themselves before finding their partner ... without having them feel even more inadequate than their recent breakup has left them feeling?

A. You wait till she asks you.

The one respectful bypass, if used sparingly, is "Would you like my opinion?" But you need to zip it if she says no.

Even better, though, is to learn and care about what she thinks. Seven years say she's thought about this, and just maybe she's resilient and knows what she wants.

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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