| 3.7°C Dublin

We get on well together apart from my sister's hygiene problems

QI am in my 50s, and live with my widowed sister and her two sons, who are in their 20s. It is her house. I have a job and am content with my life. My sister has independent means, stays at home and I go out to work. I contribute to the cost of running the house, help with housework at the weekend and do all the work in the garden, which I enjoy. I also do running repairs. My sister looks after the household bills, food shopping etc. Her sons have their own lives and are often away. We get on well enough and have settled into a routine.

The problem is my sister's attitude to personal hygiene. She doesn't think it's important. She almost never takes a bath or shower, just washes at the hand-basin -- and not much of that either.

It's the same with her clothes -- not changing often, leaving dirty ones lying around on her bedroom floor. When she goes out, she dresses up, and you would never guess from her appearance just how careless she really is. There's a constant stale smell in the house, especially upstairs and coming out of her room. It's not pleasant sitting too close to her either.

A few times, when it was really getting to me, I tried to raise the issue with her. She got angry and told me it was none of my business. I could tell from her reaction that she thought I was mad getting upset about something like that. But hygiene is important to me, both personally and in the house. To me, it's to do with self-respect and respecting others.

I know you often say that we can't change others, but can change our own reactions, and in the process maybe change the situation too. I've thought about that, but I can't see what I could possibly do. Certainly I can't imagine how I can have any effect on my sister's behaviour.

I don't want to have a falling out about it. She is my sister and we do get on well, and agree on other things. But this is starting to really affect me. I can't bring the subject up again. She would see it coming and the defences would be up immediately. It would just be another row. Am I over-reacting?

ATO say anyone is over-reacting is a put-down. Because the feelings are very real. So no, of course you are not over-reacting. You do, however, have to be careful about letting a particular problem become an all- consuming focus for your attention. Even worse, endowing any particular behaviour with too much meaning is the slippery slope to serious discontent. There is no moral dimension to poor personal hygiene. I'm not even sure it's a question of respect, as you put it. It's a convention of modern life, more or less. That's all. Keeping food safe is different. That involves a potential health hazard. But failing to wash to the point of smelling somewhat is a sort of personal choice, isn't it?

Living with anyone is difficult. The trick is to skim over the annoying bits and concentrate on the good bits. Cultivating selective perception is an art form. It's also essential for survival in any relationship.

No, I'm not saying you are wrong to dislike your sister's behaviour. I am saying that you should be careful not to park all your irritation and distress at the door of her failure to wash. I am not criticising you. We all feel irritation and distress with those close around us. It's a fact of life.

Rows are no use. I think they probably almost make you feel rather vulnerable, since it seems you have no ownership rights to the house, and hence, if the chips were down, your sister could pull rank and put you in your place. Well that may be the way it feels anyway. This subliminal sense of helplessness, or powerlessness, is probably feeding your discontent too. But aside from all that, rows are no use anyway.

You could take some direct action -- quietly and innocuously, of course. You could resort to regularly opening the windows in the house, particularly upstairs, you know, just by the way. You could also settle for sitting on the other side of the room, or dining table, or sofa. You could slowly but surely take over the washing, starting with your own stuff, and then asking your sister if she had anything for the machine. You get my drift.

The bottom line? I do honestly think that you are offended by your sister's refusal to do as you ask, for your sake. I also think that for you it's a demonstration of your relative powerlessness in the relationship -- as you perceive it anyway. And I think it reinforces in you your sense of being the one who is dependent. Can I tell you something? That is what happens to all of us, irrespective of our circumstances, when our wishes are not respected. The wise learn to accept that their power is limited. Then the fretting stops, the unhappiness eases, and we are at peace.

Sunday Indo Living