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When Siblings Become Estranged

Is ending a relationship with your brother or sister ever the right thing to do?


It’s the secret that many Americans don’t like admitting: siblings often have deep problems getting along and, as a result, cut off their relationships. Sibling estrangement is more common than you think.

Despite all the homilies about “love thy family,” many Americans are unwilling to talk to their brother or sister.

In fact, some siblings say they’re happier terminating their sibling relationships compared to living in abusive, troubled and torturous entanglements. However, experts say that ending one should be a last resort and only transpire after giving a full effort to make it work. When the sibling relationship becomes too toxic, relief can be the result.

In my group of closest friends and family members, my friend Ira hasn’t spoken to his sister and brother in years and says he is happier living without them. My wife cut off dealings with her brother, whom she perceived as nasty and undermining, eight years ago and hasn’t regretted the break-up. And my friend Peter stopped speaking to his only brother 30 years ago; he has never looked back.

“Sibling relationships are our longest, but it’s also an accident by birth. There are no guarantees that the siblings will grow up with similar personalities, interests or like each other,” explained Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a Princeton, N.J.-based clinical psychologist and author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents’ Attention Without Hitting Your Sister.

“When parents have more than one child, their wish is for the siblings to be friends forever and have each other for love throughout their lives. Sometimes it doesn’t work out,” Kennedy-Moore said.

The Sources of Sibling Woes

Family dynamics play a role in fueling family alienation. When one sibling is the clear parental favorite, it can cause resentment that festers over years.

A whole host of reasons can trigger disruption in sibling relationships, explained Geoffrey Greif, co-author of Adult Sibling Relationships with Michael Wooley. Physical abuse and bullying between siblings can create deep-rooted fissures and scars, contributing to eventual separation.

Relationships can suffer after a parent dies, Greif added. “Now that mom has died, there’s no reason for us to get together for Thanksgiving” is a refrain heard from many siblings.

Personal problems can cause familial woes. If a family member is mired in drug and alcohol addiction, without getting help, “sometimes you can’t be dragged down to the morass,” Greif said.

Facing Sibling Estrangement

Sibling estrangement is an outgrowth of “drifting apart and taking different paths. The more painful (break-up) is when it comes out of a conflict or many conflicts,” Kennedy-Moore said.

Often cutting off the relationship arises when one sibling “finds it toxic to have that person in their life,” Kennedy-Moore said. When one sibling crosses the line and the other sibling can’t tolerate the offense, the relationship sunders.

And that line can be crossed in a variety of ways, ranging from “especially cruel remarks, being nasty to a sibling’s spouse or children, going off psychiatric medication (again) or bringing unsavory people into a sibling’s home. Life is complicated,” she said.

But it doesn’t need to reach the point of totally cutting off the sibling, emphasized Kennedy-Moore. Many sibling relationships are fraught with conflict, but most can be negotiated and worked out to each sibling’s satisfaction.

Tips for Dealing with Sibling Challenges

To sustain a difficult sibling relationship, Kennedy-Moore recommends taking these actions:

  • Show compassion for your brother or sister and strive to see things from the sibling’s viewpoint alongside your own. “We know from research that people prone to anger assume the other person is doing something out of a deliberate meanness and that’s usually not the case,” Kennedy-Moore said.
  • Tell your sibling exactly what you want from him or her moving forward. Don’t just vent. Ask your brother or sister to please stop doing something or explain exactly what actions you want. For example, “I’m helping mom and dad move into an assisted living center and I need your help to research the sites.”
  • Cut back on the relationship, without ending it. Negotiate a streamlined relationship that entails occasional emails or telephone calls and a once-a-year family gathering, which may be preferable to fully ending it.

The Price of Ending a Sibling Relationship

Before cutting off a sibling relationship, Greif suggests asking yourself, what kind of narrative do you want to write about your life?  Do you want to see yourself as someone who has cut off your family,or do you need to cut off dealings to protect yourself from pain and anguish?

Greif reminds us that people who establish strong social networks of friends and family, on the whole, live longer. So think twice before precipitously cutting off brotherly or sisterly alliances.

As Kennedy-Moore sees it, terminating a sibling relationship is a last resort. “Cutting it off is a declaration that there is no hope here. That’s a hard thing to do but sometimes it’s necessary for self-preservation,” she admitted.

Given the entangled, long-lasting bond, what’s the price paid for suspending or ending it?  Kennedy-Moore said often it’s ambiguous and difficult to answer that question. Does the sibling have other brothers or sisters whose relationships are satisfying? “If they have no contact with a sibling, it’s losing a shared history and there can be a sense of guilt,” she said.

But many siblings who are estranged from torturous brother or sisterly entanglements express a sense of relief. “They don’t have to deal with a relationship that is emotionally very costly. And sometimes they’re able to shed an old identity; a family will have a certain view of someone and that view is not how they see themselves,” said Kennedy-Moore.

“Cutting off is the extreme answer. Sometimes it’s necessary, but in most cases, you can stay connected,” she said. “Like the end of a marriage, sibling estrangement is always sad, even when it brings relief. It’s not what anyone hoped for, but sometimes it’s the wise and necessary choice.”

By Gary M. Stern

Gary M. Stern is a New York-based freelance writer who has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune.com, CNN/Money and Reuters.  He collaborated on Minority Rules: Turn Your Ethnicity into a Competitive Edge (Harper Collins), a how-to guide for minorities and women to climb the corporate ladder.

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