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Column: How to cope when you fall out with an adult sibling

Brothers and sisters can be a wonderful part of our lives but it takes work to keep them there.

Dr Keith Gaynor

WE OFTEN HEAR about romantic relationships and parental relationships but we read much less frequently about sibling relationships. Yet these relationships are twenty or thirty years longer than those with our spouse or parent. This is the person we shared a bunk bed with. This is the person we fought in the backseat of cars with. The person we endured camping holidays in the lashings of rain. They can be our best friend but all too often they can be our worst enemy.

Ireland is a terrible place for adult siblings falling out. The creation of the Republic was based on a civil war where brother fought against brother. Every town in Ireland knows of two brothers or sisters who haven’t spoken for forty years. It is common. It is difficult to fix and it is deeply distressing for those involved and the family around them.

All the major life decisions that affect a family can have an effect on sibling relationships. Changes like getting married, moving job, leaving the home town, deciding does a parent go into a nursing home, if there is a will do we believe that it was fair, if a parent dies who is the link between siblings or do we just gradually drift apart.

Some siblings are so aggressive or abusive or just push the bounds of reasonable behaviour so far that we can’t keep them in our lives. We have to cut them off. With some people ultimately, we have to prioritise our own wellbeing. But most sibling feuds aren’t like this: it’s about money, or a slight, or anger at not being treated fairly.

We can choose our partners but we didn’t choose our siblings. Often their personality couldn’t be further from ours. One sibling can be driven, the other one relaxed. One worries about what the neighbours will think, the other wants it all to hang out. These two people might never have chosen to be close, if they met in work or in a social situation but due to an accident of birth they are thrown together every Christmas, wedding and funeral. They have to make major decisions together.

So what can we do?

Generally we know what we want from our sibling- them to change!

We want them to agree with us and to go along with our point of view. However, we seldom go out to understand their point of view. It is important to know that your siblings response is less to do with you now, than it is to do with childhood memories (Tom was always bossing me around; Sarah was always selfish); their marital satisfaction; their economic situation; their current psychological state. Although we grew up together, actually we spent a lot of lives apart. Is it possible to see our sibling as an adult with a reasonable point of view?

Character assassination, not so good

We can be quick to blame and slow to acknowledge. We often start with the sibling’s personality, rather than their circumstances. There are two typical responses we have to our siblings (i) we go into lecture mode (ii) or go into quiet resentfulness. This either means we are talking down to them or we are putting the row off for six months until it blows up, out of the blue. The point of character assassination is that we have to keep reinforcing their unreasonableness in order to justify our anger. The truth is they probably aren’t that bad. And our anger is our anger. Something for us to understand and manage.
The most common difficulty between siblings is a sense of something not being fair.

Are we really talking about what’s happening or are we playing out our twelve year-old selves. Can we notice any of our own difficult feelings- jealousy, envy, resentment, shame? Lots of our relationships aren’t perfectly equitable, but we manage to find a way to make them work.

Habits are hard to break

If we stop talking to someone, it is much harder to put it back together again. A feud is every Christmas, every birthday. It drags in all the cousins. All the other siblings are forced to take sides. All feuds end in the same place, a hospital ward, with one sibling being ill and other saying they are sorry. Never forgiving is a terrible waste of time.

Accept what is, rather than might have been

We mightn’t be best friends, but can we be acquaintances? Can we be neighbourly? There’s a large middle ground. We mightn’t be as close as when we were children but there are lots of types of relationships we can have. Is it possible to build a relationship? Give them the benefit of the doubt. It will make you feel better and might mean the ability to develop a relationship, even if it is not the perfect one.

Brothers and sisters can be a wonderful part of our lives but it takes work to keep them there and it takes twice as much work to build that relationship back up again if it is fallen apart. It is hard but it is worth it.

Dr Keith Gaynor is a Senior Clinical Psychologist with St John of God Outpatient Psychological Services, Stillorgan (2771440). For information see www.sjoghosp.ie

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Dr Keith Gaynor

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