Estranged Siblings: Handling Difficult Relationships With Brothers And Sisters

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It’s easy to feel like you’re alone in having a problematic relationship with a sibling when you look around you at what seems to be the majority of people playing happy families.

But that’s not the case at all.

It’s just that the notion of a perfect family, where relationships are cozy, harmonious, loving, and supportive, is a dominant feature in our culture.

It’s an unrealistic stereotype reinforced by film, TV, advertising, and glossy magazines, and it’s mostly make-believe.

If this sugar-coated vision is not your reality due to sibling strife, it’s easy to feel inadequate.

And if you’re estranged from one or more of your siblings, then holidays, family weddings, funerals, and other shared celebrations or events can be fraught with a kaleidoscope of difficult emotions.

No, sibling bonds are not unbreakable.

We are taught that blood is thicker than water and our familial relationships bind us together from cradle to grave.

In reality, though, during the many years sharing the same four walls of the family home, riding the highs and enduring the lows, it’s inevitable that personalities will clash and rivalries develop.

Issues like parental favoritism, real or perceived, are like a tinderbox, kindling resentment and ill-feeling between siblings.

The list of other factors that play a part is long, and features some challenging issues:

– Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

– Competition for attention.

– Differences of opinion about romantic relationships and politics.

– Feeling betrayed.

– Absence of emotional support.

– Financial issues such as unequal inheritances.

The list goes on and on, with many of the triggers being deeply rooted in the psyche and having significant consequences.

And, when brothers or sisters-in-law enter the frame and stir up disagreements in an already troubled family dynamic, that opens up a whole other layer of potential for distancing between siblings: reinforcing old hurts or creating new ones.

Family estrangement statistics.

It turns out that there a more members of the estranged family club than you might have imagined.

A study in the US reported rates of estrangement within immediate families of around 17%.

A survey in the UK suggests that 20% of families are dealing with estrangement – that’s one in five!

So, the numbers of people out there who share your pain are significant.

And yet, in spite of its prevalence, family estrangement is a taboo subject – those affected by it tend not to discuss the matter in a wider forum.

It seems they feel compelled to keep the information private, perhaps because their reality doesn’t fit with the (mythical) ‘ideal family’ model.

And, in situations where they do open up, they feel exposed and unsupported as the stigma attached to the topic is undeniable.

11 ways to deal with a difficult sibling relationship.

Here’s where we offer some advice on how to handle a problematic relationship with your sibling.

Maybe it will be possible to build bridges. Maybe not.

Whatever else you take away from this article, always remember that, ultimately, it’s your own mental health and tender heart that’s at stake. You have to do what’s best for you.

With that in mind, here are some things you can do.

1. Analyze what is wrong and how that makes you feel.

It’s easy enough to let things ride and constantly make excuses for your sibling’s behavior.

But for your own sanity, there comes a time when you need to identify the precise behaviors which are toxic.

Moreover, you should consider how these behaviors impact on you and on the wider family.

The toxicity can present itself in many ways. Maybe your brother/sister consistently ignores whatever comes out of your mouth, exhibits passive-aggressive behavior, fails to show any empathy, or appears to revel in every possible opportunity to put you down.

Having identified the exact nature of the behavior, focus on how this affects your general peace of mind, your mood, energy levels, and self-esteem.

This is the first step toward empowering yourself to handle the situation and understanding your emotional response.

2. Stop trying to justify the negative behavior.

Maybe you’ve turned a blind eye to your sibling’s poor behavior, in spite of the pain it causes you, just to keep the peace with the rest of the family.

But, if the way they’re behaving is so toxic that it’s ruining your own sense of well-being, then it’s essential to put yourself front and center for a change.

If the channels of communication are still open, your troublesome sibling needs to know the way you’re feeling. Exploring the reasons for the gulf that’s opened up is essential.

3. Is estrangement the only option?

An estrangement between siblings has emotional ramifications that go beyond your immediate relationship and impact on the wider family dynamic. Parents and other siblings will feel it too.

Big family celebrations or events are tricky to manage when the fabric of the family is torn.

So, if you decide to leave the relationship, it must be for the right reasons and not just a snap decision taken in the heat of the moment.

On the other hand, you may have made every effort to smooth the troubled waters, but in the end, your sibling may have chosen to alienate themselves in spite of your efforts. Their decision is, of course, out of your control.

Now you need to consider how much you value the relationship, whether you are prepared to fight for it, or whether the time has come to let it go.

4. Just a lull or a permanent break?

Do you see the rift between you as resolvable, given a suitable cooling-off period?

Or does the damage run so deep that the only solution is a permanent split?

It’s worth taking the time to consider the prospect of a future that doesn’t feature your sibling. How does that make you feel? Do you find it a huge relief or does it bring you sadness?

If your decision is to try to continue your bridge-building efforts, then open yourself up to listen to the story from your sibling’s perspective.

This means you’ll need to accept your share of the blame and apologize.

According to relationship psychologist Dr Joshua Coleman, “empathy, empathy, empathy” is the key.

He goes on to explain that “people don’t come back into families because you’ve shamed them to, it’s usually because they feel more understood.”

While you may find it in your heart to forgive and forget, your sibling may struggle to do the same. That is something you’ll need to come to terms with so you can move forward.

On the contrary, if your decision is to terminate the relationship permanently, you need to accept that the reasons behind the anger and alienation will forever remain unknown.

In a chronic, irresolvable and extreme case, walking away may be the only possible course of action for the sake of your own emotional and mental health.

Never feel guilty for that; your biggest responsibility is for your own well-being.

5. Understand that you may never know the underlying cause of the behavior.

It may be possible to ask your sibling directly the reasons why they act the way they do.

Or it may not, particularly in a situation where all contact has ceased and communication channels irrevocably closed. 

Even in the former case, there’s little guarantee of satisfaction for you, since their behavior will be governed by the unique way they’ve processed and responded to their life experiences; something which they have little control over.

You may think that you have shared a life within the same four walls for nigh on twenty years, but the same stimulus – harsh parental treatment, for example – can result in a totally different response.

Learning to appreciate that toxic behavior stems from unhappiness or deep angst within an individual, whether you recognize its root cause or not, will help you realize that hurtful actions are a reflection of a person’s inner state.

As a result, their effect on you may be less damaging.

6. Don’t involve other relatives.

Asking other family members to pick a side is unfair and is only likely to deepen the divide.

If the problem is just between you and your sibling, then involving the wider family will put you at risk of compromising your relationship with them all.

7. Avoid spreading gossip.

The blame game is one you can never win. It will gain you nothing if you go down the ‘he said/she said’ route.

No matter if your sibling is doing their level best to undermine your relationship with wider family by spreading rumors and gossip, you need to be the better person. Don’t let yourself sink to their level of behavior.

If you retaliate, you’ll only be adding fuel to the fire and giving them ammunition to use against you.

8. Acknowledge that fixing a relationship is a 2-way street.

Try as you may to mend fences between you and your estranged sibling, if the will isn’t there on their part, you probably won’t get far.

Until they are willing to change, your relationship will remain in its broken state, but you should take no responsibility for that. You have tried, but they were unable or unwilling to meet you half way. That is not your fault.

If you allow your own mental state to be dragged down by their stubborn refusal to mend fences, the only person who will be damaged is yourself. Don’t let that happen.

9. Don’t let things fester.

As mentioned earlier, the subject of estrangement between siblings is rarely discussed.

It is worth remembering, though, the old saying that ‘a problem shared, is a problem halved.’

Bottling up these strong feelings will create a growing emotional burden within you, so it’s important to find a way to share your feelings with those you trust.

Not only is talking through your feelings with a trusted friend therapeutic, it also helps you gain perspective about the overall situation, to identify the root of your anger, and validate your feelings.

Just be aware that involving family members in such discussions is unwise, for obvious reasons

In the absence of a friendly listening ear, talking to a therapist may be the best solution.

10. Approach family gatherings tactfully.

Family gatherings marking significant milestones and celebrations are never going to be easy when sibling relationships are strained or broken.

Since these occasions are often difficult to avoid without hurting feelings, you’ll need to steel yourself to remain cordial toward your sibling.

Be the better person and rise above any hostility or any attempts they may make to get you riled.

You may be able to avoid contact and therefore conflict if you can find a way to share in the celebration on a different day. This could be a great way of lessening the stress, not just on you, but on the wider family too.

For example, you could celebrate a family birthday one day early or one day late, leaving your sibling to take center stage on the day itself.

Or consider meeting the rest of the family on Christmas Eve to avoid a potential Christmas Day clash.

You can lessen any feeling of being left out by creating new traditions on these special days and therefore making your own memories, but without the stress of sharing the occasion with your estranged sibling.

11. Set your sights on moving forward.

Whether you decide to go all out to build that bridge and recover your broken relationship or opt for a permanent severing of ties, you need to focus on the future and not dwell on past anguish.

In the latter case, you’ll need to draw a line in the sand and accept the reality of the person your sibling has become, regardless of the relationship you may once have enjoyed.

While that may bring you a deal of pain, the lifting of the emotional burden will bring relief as compensation.

Don’t allow bitterness to creep in and do its worst.

Instead, focus your energies on friends and family who do appreciate you and don’t let a grudge weigh you down.

As someone once said: “While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing.” Not a happy prospect – don’t let it happen!

Still not sure what to do about the difficult relationship you have with your brother or sister? Speak to an expert today. Simply click here to chat online to someone right now.

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About Author

Working as a freelance copywriter, Juliana is following a path well-trodden by her family, who seem to have 'wordsmithing' in their DNA. She'll turn her quill to anything from lifestyle and wellness articles to blog posts and SEO articles. All this is underpinned by a lifetime of travel, cultural exchange and her love of the richly expressive medium of the English language.