Families are taught from the beginning that “blood is thicker than water,” but it isn’t always that simple. What happens when one sibling’s passive-aggressive behavior threatens the emotional wellbeing of the other, resulting in a complicated estrangement?
Although siblings grow up together and have a shared family history, there is no guarantee that they will be close as adults. Personalities clash and rivalries occur, especially if one child is perceived as the parental favorite.
There are multiple factors that can trigger sibling estrangement: emotional abuse, competition for attention, a long-festering grudge, the death of one or both parents, or something less dramatic such as diverse personalities that have little in common.
Add brothers or sisters-in-law to the family dynamic, and estrangement can easily occur if the in-law has conflicts with the spouse’s siblings. A strong sense of betrayal has the potential to damage family unity once the battle lines are drawn.
Cutting off a toxic relationship with a sibling doesn’t mean that you’re giving up. It means that you’ve come to terms with a problematic situation that cannot be resolved, and have found the courage to walk away for your own self-preservation.
How do you decide if estrangement is right for you, and how do you cope with your decision once it is made?
1. Stop justifying your sibling’s negative behavior
It’s not uncommon to let a sibling’s hurtful behavior slide for the sake of keeping peace with the rest of the family. If the behavior is so harmful that it’s ruining your sense of wellbeing, it’s time to let your sibling know what you are feeling and why you need your distance.
2. Ask yourself if estrangement is the only solution
Take time to evaluate the situation before choosing to distance yourself. Was your decision made in the heat of the moment, or was it based on something that had been building up for a long time? Make sure that you’re leaving the relationship for the right reasons and not out of spite. Be aware of the emotional ramifications this will cause — your decision will affect not only you but other members of your family.
If your sibling is the one who has chosen to alienate themselves despite your efforts to make amends, understand that they have a different perception of the situation — something that is out of your control. Then ask yourself if the relationship is worth fighting for, or if it’s time to let it go. Recognizing the toxicity of the situation and how it makes you feel will empower you to do whatever is best and to find peace with your decision.
3. Decide if you want a temporary or permanent separation
Is your rift something that can be resolved after a cooling-off period, or is it so damaging that you need an indefinite amount of space from your sibling? Think about a future without them — does it bring relief or deep sadness? If you do decide to patch things up, be prepared to listen to your sibling’s side of the disagreement and to take your share of the blame. Acknowledge your part and apologize.
If you’ve chosen to end the relationship permanently, understand that you may never know the truth behind your sibling’s anger or the trigger that caused the alienation. In extreme cases, the only way to mend a toxic situation is to walk away. Never feel guilty for doing what is best for your mental and emotional health.
4. Don’t expect an apology or a change of heart
Even though you may be able to forgive and forget, that doesn’t mean it will be easy for your sibling. They may not experience the same family loyalty or bond that you do, and they may have little interest in making amends. Accept their decision and move on.
5. Communicate your feelings
It helps to voice your opinion to a close, trusted friend (not a family member), a therapist, or someone who has faced similar circumstances. Expressing yourself to an outside party will help clarify the root of your anger and validate what you are feeling.
6. Refrain from involving other relatives
It’s unfair to expect other family members to choose sides. The problem you’re dealing with is between you and your sibling, no one else. If you force your family to choose sides, you risk being alienated by all of them.
7. Handle family gatherings with tact
Whether the estrangement is your choice or your sibling’s, it will make family gatherings a bit award. If it is absolutely necessary to attend a function where your sibling will also be present, remain cordial, even if they try to bait you into an argument.
Be the better person — ignore their hostility and turn your attention to something else.
If birthdays and holidays are routinely celebrated together by the family, you can lessen the stress by suggesting a separate celebration with them on a different day. Example: celebrate with your family on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day when they gather with everyone else; take your parents out to dinner before or after their actual birthday. Start new traditions by creating your own memories with other family members and friends to avoid feeling left out.
8. Do not gossip or seek retaliation against your sibling
Never play the “he said, she said,” game, even if your sibling is spreading rumors to undermine your family connection. Gossiping or going out of your way to hurt them only puts you on their level and gives them the perfect opportunity to blame you for their grievances.
9. Accept the change in family dynamics
If your relationship with your sibling is truly over, understand that even though the estrangement might bring you relief, it will be difficult for the rest of the family to accept. Depending on the situation, they may think less or more of you, and that will affect how they treat you in the future.
10. Focus on moving forward
Once you’ve made the decision to distance yourself from your sibling, don’t dwell on what might have been. It’s essential to let go of the person they once were to you and accept the reality of who they’ve become. Focus instead on the emotional burden that has been lifted and be happy with the friends and family you have.
Life is too short to carry a grudge; letting go of the anger allows you a sense of closure and relief, and only then will you be able to heal.
Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of ‘Who Stole My Spandex? Life In The Hot Flash Lane’ and blogs at Menopausal Mom.