When siblings fall out

A hostile relationship with an adult sibling is a heartbreaking reality for many people. After 20 years of frostiness, Sophia Smith went in search of a solution

by Psychologies

Her voice sounded so full of vitriol that I could barely make out what she was saying. ‘Hate’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘never want to see you again’ featured highly, though, as did other choice descriptors for me.

When I put down the phone, I was trembling. The shock of being told – no, screamed at – that someone despises you so much that they want to cut you out of their life for good is upsetting enough. The fact that the someone in question is your sister is even harder to bear.

I remained in shock for a few days, playing the phonecall over and over in my head. Waves of anxiety and anger tore through my body as I recalled the sibling venom. I meditated. I cried. Then I got rational.

My sister’s attitude to family has been pretty negative for the last 20 years, even more so since meeting her husband a few years ago. From our teenage years, she started distancing herself, keen to bow out of landmark occasions and holidays, with my other sister and I picking up the pieces of her often-hurtful behaviour.

Our interaction since then has been transactional and perfunctory. We don’t even bother to send each other birthday or Christmas cards any more.

As I emerged from the tailspin, I came around to thinking that actually, this sibling severing would not be such a great loss to my life. The relationship was causing me nothing but stress, irritation and upset so mixed in with the sadness at the fact I’d failed in the big sister stakes was relief. Huge relief. At least we didn’t have to keep up the exhausting sham of forced happy families.

So instead of attempting any kind of reconciliation, I embraced my sister’s proposal of estrangement. It was surprisingly liberating. Perhaps that’s why estrangement is on the rise, say experts in the field, with one in five families in the UK touched by it, according to charity Stand Alone. Many more, if you include people who are in superficial contact, but ‘emotionally estranged’.

Sibling relationships are highly susceptible to this ‘cold war’ type of disconnection, says Stand Alone clinical chair Dr Jason Robinson, where there is ‘increasing frostiness’ between two people. He believes that sibling abuse – physical and emotional – is rife and ‘massively under reported’ but, as a society, we shrug it off by saying ‘oh, that’s just siblings’.

Rewriting the script

I’m still confused about the events leading up to the relationship breakdown. The trigger – seemingly a few careless comments I’d made that she took exception to – didn’t seem proportionate to her extreme reaction. However, shortly after this when her vitriol transferred squarely to my parents, it became obvious the issue ran much deeper; her grievances with us were locked in the past.

Pages and pages of emails and texts, from my sister to my parents, rewrote the script of our childhood, recasting her as the Cinderella-esque character, sandwiched between two evil sisters and neglected by uncaring parents. It wasn’t a fairytale that I, or the rest of the family, recognised. Frustrated and seething, she then ceased all contact with my parents and sister, too.

This scenario is very common, says Robinson, when communication has become superficial, strained or non-existent. ‘We [all parties, not just the estranged] reconstruct a narrative from miscommunication to defend ourselves and reassure ourselves. But we build these stories in the absence of real feedback.’

It’s now been over a year since that phonecall. I’ve not had any further contact with my sister and it’s been a tough 12 months. Not because I’ve missed her, but because I’ve had to watch my parents wither and fall apart, heartbroken. They’ve been living through my worst nightmare: being told by your child that you have failed them as a parent. Witnessing their pain only served to validate my belief that this toxic influence doesn’t deserve to be part of our family. Throughout the year, I was uncannily at peace with my decision to give up on the relationship.

However, that started to change when our estrangement reached its first-year anniversary. As I realise how effortlessly one year could slip into two, 10, 50… I’m nagged by the thought: do I really want to sleepwalk into that? It’s as if I’m edging towards the point of no return with a devil on one shoulder (‘Go! She’s a bitch! You don’t want her contaminating your life!) and an angel on the other (‘What about empathy? Compassion? Where’s yours now?’).

I’ve decided to try and drown out the devil and listen to the angel. Because no matter how liberating, I can’t escape the reality that cutting a blood tie, particularly in such a blasé way, just doesn’t feel right.

Like it or not (and I don’t particularly like it) she is a link with where I come from and who I am. There’s also the guilt that perhaps, ‘estrangement is one of the tools we have in our toolbox as a family member, but it’s played too often and too quickly,’ says relationship psychologist, author and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, Dr Joshua Coleman.

But where do I go from here?

According to experts, the first step in healing a rift is to honestly consider your role in causing and maintaining it. The next step is to try and see the situation from the other person’s perspective. Dr Coleman, for instance, recommends ‘empathy, empathy, empathy’ because ‘you’re not going to get anyone’s attention if you’re only criticising or blaming them; people don’t come back into families because you’ve shamed them to, usually it’s because they feel more understood. If you have it in you, reach out to them and take responsibility, even if you don’t agree with the intensity of their feelings.’

Struggling to take responsibility or empathise, I decided to explore the conflict using an approach called Constellations, where participants assume the roles of the family members, which I’d heard can help you see a wider perspective. Its premise is that deep emotions usually arise because somethingis out of kilter in the wider family dynamic. The process tries to reach a resolution and, in facilitator and philosopher Robert Rowland Smith’s experience, ‘as a general rule, it’s better to include the excluded; the cost of excluding them is heavy for everybody in the family.’

Fascinating insights

It was a gruelling, fascinating, uplifting, surreal hour. It reminded me that, not long ago, I was fighting the same demons from childhood that my sister is grappling with now – low self-esteem, comparison and catastrophism. Hours of therapy had helped me overcome them and see that, while our parents always wanted the best for us, inadvertently their strong influence left me feeling like I wasn’t good enough if I wasn’t achieving. Whereas I got depressed and blamed myself, my sister reacted by becoming aggressive, and blaming everyone around her.

But I no longer feel angry with her – just sad. I know how painful that headspace is.

Rowland Smith noted how much judgement there was loaded in the way I spoke, particularly about what a family ‘should’ be like. He made me realise that, while I may have worked hard to ease my self-judgment, I haven’t done this in relation to my sister.

Take what I said earlier about her not deserving to be part of our family. What gives me the right to decide that? She is part of my family and her relationships with other family members are just as valid as mine. Any fracture damages the whole. Being open about my sibling situation has prompted many friends to share similar woes of unsisterly (or unbrotherly) relationships, revealing a dark, stigmatised underbelly of family life. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone. They may not have severed the link as dramatically as my sister and I, but they’re very often emotionally distanced; the socially acceptable face of estrangement.

Ultimately, however, as Rowland Smith says, any kind of estrangement is ‘a futile gesture’ because even if you cut someone out of your life, mentally they live on in your head, cropping up in your dreams, worries and preoccupations. He offers me comfort, though, with his philosophy that conflicts like mine can ultimately strengthen the family unit if worked through.

‘If we have a completely successful, unblemished personal life we are slightly weightless, less real. We’ve got to learn to embrace the negative; it’s a stage in building ourselves,’ Rowland Smith points out.

‘Perfect family’ pressure

We’ve also got to relieve the pressure to have ‘perfect families’ and accept the reality of messy human relationships. As Becca Bland, journalist and founder of Stand Alone says: ‘It’s worth being open because there will be a huge number of people who may be experiencing what you’re experiencing.’

I like Rowland Smith’s idea that this annus horribilis could be a catalyst for rebuilding my sibling relationship on more solid foundations. If I could go back to my childhood and treat my sister better, I would. Like many siblings, we spoke to each other in a way that I would never speak to a friend and made no attempt to hide the fact we didn’t get on, or try to see the good in one another. She’s also one of the few people I’ve ever wanted (and tried) to physically hurt in my life.

But alas, as a 40-something grown-up who can’t go back in time, I can only deal with the present. I have often wondered what I would do if I saw her in the street. A year ago, I would definitely have walked the other way. Now, I think, I wouldn’t. I’d move towards her, a small step perhaps, and see what happened. That, at least, is progress.

Photograph: Corbis

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