Ask Sahaj: How do I handle taking a road trip with my bigoted sister?


Q: My sister and I are both nearing age 70 and love road trips and camping together annually. Over the past six years or so, she’s become more and more “conservative” and has started having the opposite opinions from me about almost everything. She insists on saying demeaning and rude things about everything and everyone, from “California is an armpit” and “higher education is a joke” to “the homeless deserve their lot.” She has become very prejudiced about immigrants and people of color. She tends to require the listener to agree, but at the very least to not contradict her opinions.

I’ll be spending a week with her next month on a long car trip, and I fear our conversations. I have a list of topics that should probably be off-limits. Should I discuss this with her ahead of time? If not, do you have any suggestions on how I should behave? If it’s very bad, I probably will no longer be able to have these trips in the future, which saddens me.

– Sad Sister

A: Differing views on political and social issues can often lead to estrangement between family members. You have to decide if you can differentiate her views from her as a person.

It sounds like your sister is important to you, and I sense that this disconnect in your relationship is weighing on you. So, I do recommend having a direct conversation with her before the trip. This will allow you to make an honest attempt at maintaining your relationship and give you both time to talk openly and process the conversation.

You could say: “I’m excited for our trip next month, but I want to discuss a few things that I’m worried about.” If she’s open to it, you can continue with something like: “I am not comfortable when you make comments about people of color or immigrants, and I don’t want to discuss that with you anymore.”

If your sister is not receptive to your attempt to have a conversation about this, you will have to ultimately decide if you will go on this trip, knowing it will probably be the last one, or if you want to cancel it.

It seems like this is a long-standing issue – don’t expect to resolve it on this trip if you do go. These road trips aren’t the time to try to convince each other of anything. They’re about enjoying your time together. You can be kind and compassionate, focusing on wanting to enjoy the trip, and you can set boundaries. You just have to communicate them to her so she has an honest opportunity to work on bettering the relationship, too.

You’ll both need to respect each other for your relationship to feel healthy for both of you, despite your different opinions. I want to be mindful that with almost 70 years of being sisters, there are probably historical dynamics at play here, too. These could be rooted in birth order, differences in past experiences, attachment styles or communication issues. Consider if there’s anything else impacting your feelings toward your sister or your ability to talk with her about this. This may help you explore if something else needs to be addressed in your relationship, too.

I wonder if the fear you feel about your conversations is tied to a fear of advocating for yourself. If you do struggle to set boundaries, I want to remind you that they don’t mean you are rejecting your sister. Instead, they mean you are asking for a healthier, more comfortable way for you both to engage.

There are ways to prepare for the trip to help mitigate your concerns. You can use scripts if she does bring those topics up. For example: “I would rather not talk about this so we can enjoy our time together.” Or simply, “I don’t want to talk about this.” If she keeps bringing up these topics after you asked her not to, you may have to be more firm: “I asked for us to avoid this topic and you keep bringing it up. If this continues, I don’t think I’ll be able to plan another trip with you.”

You may also want to create a list of other topics you can turn to when you feel like you need to redirect the conversation: “Let’s talk about something else. Tell me more about how [a hobby, a loved one, etc.] is doing?” Having a podcast, audiobook or meaningful album handy for you both to enjoy together will help put less pressure on conversation. Look for ways to keep tabs on, and manage, your emotions on the road trip. This could involve counting to 10 in your head while taking deep breaths or even packing a journal or headphones to get some mental space while she’s driving.

There are different ways to show love, and one of them is to set and respect boundaries so both people in a relationship feel seen and heard. You are allowed to set boundaries with your sister and maintain a relationship with her. The rest is up to her.

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a mental health professional and the creator of Brown Girl Therapy and Culturally Enough, communities focused on people with bicultural identities and immigrant parents. You can submit questions here:



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