For at least one party, sibling estrangement can be more painful than loss through death, writes Fern Schumer Chapman, who was excluded from her brother’s life for four decades.
We don’t normally mourn living people, but when a sibling relationship sours with no prospect of rekindling it, we experience an atypical grief at least as devastating as ordinary grief, if not more so. Chapman, a journalist, writer, and author of a book on sibling estrangement, notes that while death is a final farewell, a cooling relationship and its subsequent severance puts the abandoned sibling in a loop of rumination, where guilt and unanswered questions about how to salvage the relationship intermingle.
Eventually, after 40 years of silence, Chapman and her brother rebuilt their fractured relationship and it became better than it ever was. Perhaps that was one of the reasons she decided to write about the experience, after years of hiding the separation, considering it too embarrassing a subject with which to go public.
We live in an age where people reveal very intimate details about themselves, including on social media, but breaking off all contact with parents, children or siblings is a problem that people try to hide because they feel shame, guilt and fear of being stigmatised and people thinking there is something wrong with them, explains Cornell University psychologist Karl Pillemer.
Dysfunctional family relationships are no exception
In childhood, emotional bonds between siblings appear to be strong, but in adult life, for a significant number of people, sibling relationships become optional, strained, toxic or extremely fragile.
Distancing oneself from a sibling is a pain experienced in silence, says Pillemer, who conducted research for her book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, and found that 27% of Americans have distanced themselves from a very close relative. The number of Americans who are completely estranged from a sibling is probably less than 5%, she says.
At the same time, the number of truly close sibling relationships is not very high either: an Oakland University survey found that 26% of respondents aged 18-65 had a supportive sibling relationship, while 16% had an adversarial relationship with a sibling, and 19% said the relationship was characterised by indifference towards one or both parties.
A 2014 survey found that 8% of people in the UK had cut off contact with a family member, 19% had either ended their relationship with a family member or had a close relative who had done so, and 27% said they knew a friend, work colleague or acquaintance who was in this situation.
There is little research on sibling relationships in adulthood, so the number of damaged relationships may actually be significantly higher, says psychologist Daniel Shaw of the University of Pittsburgh. It is a topic that strikes a chord with many adults, says Shaw, who reveals that he was surprised when, invited to speak on a radio show about the subject, he found that many adults wanted to talk about their strained or broken relationship with a sibling.
Factors in sibling estrangement
Most people develop feelings of loyalty to siblings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they like each other, says psychologist Alexis Johnson, explaining that in terms of personality, two siblings are as much or as little alike as two other people chosen at random.
Although they share common genes, the experience of growing up together and a set of memories, there are differences between siblings that we tend to ignore—at the time of their birth, their parents were of different ages, they were born in circumstances that may have been different (they may have wanted or unwanted children), and facing different parental expectations (based on gender, ability, temperament or the order in which they were born), Johnson points out.
How well siblings cope with all the changes in the family structure over time that can lead to conflict and estrangement (from the marriage of each sibling to the care of elderly parents to inheritance issues) is closely linked to the development of resentment in adulthood about the different treatment they received as children.
Emotional abuse, parental favouritism, competition, chronic resentment, unmet expectations, different personality types, opposing views of life, or negative interactions with siblings’ significant others are just some of the factors that have the potential to weaken and destroy sibling relationships.
In general, estrangement between members of the same family is a slow, lengthy process that takes years and decades, in which grievances, disappointments and betrayals accumulate and erode trust, says social worker Kylie Agllias, author of a book on estranged family relationships.
Siblings are unconditional travelling companions, for better or for worse, and their emotional bonds are an island of stability in a world that is constantly in motion. Precisely because the relationship with siblings remains an important landmark in our lives, breaking ties completely, even for legitimate reasons, has profound effects, says psychologist Jeanne Safer.
What parents need to know about their children’s relationships
There’s a lot of conflict between siblings (one conflict every 18 minutes of play, according to psychologist Laurie Kramer’s study of sibling pairs aged 3 to 9), but also many positive interactions that help them tolerate conflict situations.
The ability to resolve these conflicts is an important step in children’s development, Kramer says. On the other hand, siblings who don’t learn to manage these conflicts are more likely to become alienated in adulthood, says Katherine Conger, director of the Family Research Group at the University of California.
The way parents handle their arguments with each other plays a significant role in how siblings will handle conflict episodes, experts say.
Parents can help reduce rivalry between their children by teaching them social and problem-solving skills, so that they can learn that family conflict can be healthy but should be prevented from escalating.
Each child’s level of sensitivity and resilience is an important piece of the sibling puzzle, says psychologist Joshua Coleman, who talks about the differences between “dandelion children”, who can easily cope and even thrive in adverse circumstances, and “orchid children”, who need a nurturing environment to develop harmoniously.
Favouring one child over another can lead to sibling rivalry, and studies show that many parents have a favourite child. Up to 74% of mothers and 70% of fathers in the UK favour one child over the other, according to a 2005 study.
Children who grow up in families where parental preference for a sibling is easy to spot can feel unworthy, insecure, and lacking in the qualities needed to be loved, says psychologist Vijayeti Sinh.
While preferential treatment can increase the risk of sibling alienation, the variable that ultimately pulls the trigger is how people perceive themselves as adults, says Coleman, noting that people who have successful careers and fulfilling lives are less likely to dwell on what happened in the past.
The best predictor of sibling relationships in adulthood is the relationship between siblings in childhood, says Shawn Whitehead, professor of human development and family studies at Utah State University, US, adding that there’s always room for change—events in the family over the years can either strengthen or weaken sibling relationships.
Still, the factor that distinguishes relationships that endure from those that fall apart is the personality of the people involved, Whitehead concludes, noting that sibling relationships are “unique and multifaceted, and there are often as many differences within families as there are between them.”
From estrangement to closeness: What brings siblings together?
Some relationships are so toxic that experts say distancing may be a measure to protect one’s emotional health, as well as accepting that the situation cannot be resolved. Before making this decision, it is necessary to assess the situation (Is the decision made in the heat of the moment or after a long period of reflection? Is it for the right reasons or is it an attempt to punish the other person? How will the decision affect the rest of the family?) and have a discussion in which you tell the other person how their behaviour affects you and why you need to distance yourself.
The key element that distinguishes relationships that recover from those that remain in a deadlock is the ability to let go of trying to make the other person see the past through your eyes, concludes psychologist Karl Pillemer, after conducting hundreds of interviews with people who had become estranged from close relatives.
While the desire to get your loved one to see things your way is “almost indelible,” it’s unrealistic, says Pillemer, noting that people don’t easily agree on what happened, let alone how to interpret it.
Those who rebuild their relationship have very similar stories in terms of the causes of the estrangement, the pain of the dysfunctional relationship and the length of time they have been apart. The difference is that they have decided to break the ice between them, either because the situation that caused the conflict has changed or because they themselves have changed, explains the psychologist. The strategy that worked best was to stop discussing the past, and the precautions that most people took revolved around setting healthy boundaries for the new relationship.
Even if reconciliation is imperfect, its effect is positive, Pillemer points out, noting that while for a minority distancing is a good choice, for most people the experience of reconciliation is beneficial and may even be the best thing they’ve ever done, given how closeness changes their lives. It’s a conclusion that shouldn’t surprise anyone, since we’re talking about a relationship that often lasts longer than those with parents, partners, and even our own children.
And precisely because it is one of the closest relationships we will ever enjoy, from the time of nappies, bottles and first syllables to the edge of the grave, it would be worth treating it in the same spirit of love that James Wells, the presbyter of the Free Church of Scotland, wrote about in 1884. In his book The Parables of Jesus, Wells tells the story of a little Scottish girl carrying a baby boy who is smaller than she is, but big enough to be heavy in her baby arms. When asked if she was tired from the effort, the little girl promptly replied, “No, he’s not heavy; he’s my brother“.