Family: the people you love more than anyone and the ones who can hurt you the most.
Family dynamics are complicated, and often become more so as we grow older. As children we never stop to question whether we actually like our family. Our parents and siblings are just there and that’s all there is to it. We might argue with them frequently as we change and mature, but the ties that bind us are generally strong and seemingly unbreakable.
Until they’re not.
Lingering sibling resentment
My 43 year old husband Mark has been estranged from his two older sisters for over 5 years now. When we first got together as a couple 14 years ago they all still talked and saw each other regularly. But this was generally only when Mark and I took the time to visit them. As the years progressed they gradually stopped making the effort towards us, making various excuses along the lines of being busy with their children or other, obviously more important, things.
Mark had explained to me previously that his sisters acted as if they were superior to him and that he had always felt separate from them as the youngest and being a boy. When I first met them I couldn’t see what he meant – they seemed fine towards us and often helpful, offering us second hand baby items when I became pregnant for the first time. We noticed a change though when Mark’s agency contract as a HGV driver ended and he was left unemployed and reluctant to go back to lorry driving.
I recall visiting his eldest sister shortly afterwards when he was talking to her about potential new jobs and explaining why a certain job he’d seen wasn’t quite suitable for our circumstances. His sister’s curt response was to remind us that “beggars can’t be choosers.” After that we noticed subtle changes and it became obvious his sisters looked down on us, despite me having always worked full-time since finishing University and Mark having only just become unemployed for the first time.
Mark explained again that his sisters’ attitude towards him ran deep, and I could see what he meant now; there had been no obvious falling out when they were all young, but he had always felt a simmering resentment from them towards him as the youngest for taking their mother’s attention away, especially given their father wasn’t on the scene. To his mother’s admittance Mark was the ‘blue-eyed boy’ and this didn’t sit well with his sisters.
We talked and Mark stated that he wasn’t going to visit or communicate with them at all for a while; I know he was hoping his sisters would get the hint and start making more of an effort. They didn’t. The final straw was when our youngest Charlie was born in 2015 and Mark decided not to inform his sisters of this. They were hugely offended and, in my opinion, used that as a reason to finally cut ties with Mark. And that was that.
Over five years later and he has no relationship with them. They would not acknowledge that they had neglected him in any way or done anything wrong – it was all Mark’s fault as he had stopped seeing them. Him putting his foot down and refusing to bother any more with two people who didn’t bother with him, despite being family, was the end of that relationship.
Mark is still hurting and unable to understand why his sisters couldn’t at least just acknowledge how he felt, but their refusal to admit any wrongdoing revealed their willingness to let the relationship end. It also ruined any chance of our children and theirs enjoying a relationship as cousins.
Replanting family roots
It’s a bitter pill to swallow – to accept that your family, your flesh and blood, could be willing to cut you out of their life for good for what you perceive to be unjust reasons. The truth Mark has had to accept is that his sisters just don’t like him and maybe never have.
I’ve heard it said many times that you can love someone but not like them, but I find the idea of family members not loving or liking each other unconscionable. I also have two sisters, one younger and one older, and we’ve always been quite close. But the sibling relationship does change as you get older, meet a partner and have children of your own.
The creation of your new family marks a major shift as your siblings are demoted from the spot of most important people in your life in favour of your children and partner. The ground beneath your feet splits apart, either violently or subtly, and the fragmented pieces of flowering earth find new pieces to attach to, forming new ground. If you all have strong roots you might stay attached to your siblings underground, but if not you may have to plant your roots firmly in your new piece of earth and hope they stick.
How to cope with sibling estrangement
Sibling estrangement can happen for many different reasons, evolving from subtle unresolved resentments (as in Mark’s case) to full blown betrayals. Mark ultimately decided that the hurt his sisters’ neglect of him was causing was worse than the thought of not seeing them again. That seems to be the tipping point – when the solution is less painful than the problem.
It hasn’t been easy for Mark to accept the situation and move on though, and he’s still grieving for the loss of that fundamental relationship. As his wife, I’ve been unsure what to say when he’s been upset about it. I feel more angry for him than anything, but I realise my anger isn’t what he necessarily needs.
I’m not a therapist so I can only advise anyone going through a similar situation based on my experience with Mark. I’ve researched articles about coping with a sibling estrangement, and a few things I’ve gleaned ring true for our situation:
- Don’t expect the other party to eventually come around and apologise. Chances are if they have never admitted being in the wrong or that they’ve been remiss in any way, that’s unlikely to change. This does mean accepting the estrangement, which is a state I think Mark is gradually moving towards.
- Try not to involve other relatives too much. Mark’s mum has inevitably been caught in the middle of the situation at times, but now, years down the line, she and her son largely avoid talking about it. Of course a parent will not want to take sides, and may try to mediate and placate both parties. But I think it’s important to be assertive here with your right to feel as you do about what’s happened.
- Remember that your emotional wellbeing and self-respect is of paramount importance – don’t feel guilty for walking away in order to preserve these.
- Try to let go of the memory of who they were and accept who they have become. It might be hard to do this when you can’t fathom what has changed between you, but I think it’s about letting go of who you perceived them to be and acknowledging that they’re someone else now with different thought processes and reactions to life; unfortunately that new person’s character isn’t in alignment with yours, so often the best course of action is to let them go so you can preserve the important values that govern your life.
Of course sibling estrangement is very sad, and it strikes me as one of the biggest losses one can experience in life. But sometimes it happens for uncontrollable reasons. I would always advocate trying to patch things up if you can, but only as long as this doesn’t mean compromising your sense of self. If that’s not possible then you know the best thing for all involved is to let go and wish them well.