You and your estranged brother finally come face-to-face at your uncle’s funeral. Your arguments might seem overblown to an outsider. But a dispute over a small amount of cash or a family possession is just the tip of the iceberg. The deeper conflict between you is painful and unresolved.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Common Causes of Sibling Estrangement
- Tips for Reconnecting, Dealing With, or Moving on From Estranged Siblings
So how do you deal with estrangement when family members have to face each other? Tread carefully and keep your expectations modest.
Sibling rivalries can cause old emotional pain to resurface, especially when having end-of-life planning conversations. Arguments can break out and stall the process. Defensiveness and lack of trust can make this stressful situation more difficult. Dealing with greedy family members after a death can give toxic relationships new life. For these individuals, staking a claim on material objects or money is one final chance to even up the score.
If you’re living with sibling estrangement, take a closer look at some possible reasons. Whether you wish to stay away or hope to reconcile, the tips below can help you cope.
Common Causes of Sibling Estrangement
Some family relationships are stressful, either from conflict or lack of connection. Siblings can become estranged for a variety of reasons. Depending on the circumstances, estrangement can be a healthier choice than reconciliation.
Abuse in a family can harm sibling relationships for years. Each sibling develops coping methods to help them survive the abuse as it happens, like isolation or substance use. However, shame and guilt shape these coping methods. Siblings that endure abuse can have difficulty with honesty and trust, especially from each other.
To endure the abuse, some siblings become closer, and others may be rejected. One sibling may be used as a scapegoat while another may be the golden child. These dynamics can pit siblings against each other for years unless they work through the trauma.
2. Death of one or more parents
Grief can cause family dynamics to shift, especially if relationships have been strained for years. Siblings may also handle their grief very differently. One may become irritable, and another might withdraw socially. These reactions could unintentionally cause sibling estrangement.
Some sibling groups may depend on a particular parent to keep everyone connected. When this parent dies, siblings may not be used to interacting on their own. Also, tensions can rise when one sibling takes a more active caregiving role than the others. Unless the more active sibling is well-supported by the sibling group, the death of this parent can cause tensions to rise.
3. Financial disputes
Emotions and money are closely tied together. Money represents a variety of things to people, including power, control, safety, and trust. The exchange or promise of money establishes a basic level of trust between people.
If one person betrays the other, no matter how slightly, trust can quickly erode. And when siblings have a history of conflict and dishonesty, it only takes a minor dispute to trigger a lengthy estrangement. Even if they resolve the money situation, restoring trust can take a long time.
Trauma can change the way a person sees the world and relates to others. A person who has been through trauma may shut down their emotions when they become overwhelmed. They push others away to keep their stress manageable. Siblings can misunderstand this as rejection and pull away from the person. The person’s protective behavior can magnify their isolation.
If a person’s family is the source of their trauma, estrangement can protect the individual and reduce anxiety. Reconnection with family members could be harmful, especially if the person hasn’t been through trauma therapy.
5. Substance use disorders
Some people turn to substances to cope with emotional pain. People who misuse substances often harm themselves, make risky decisions, and alienate loved ones. These behaviors can damage sibling relationships, making estrangement more likely.
A person’s self-destructive actions can break the trust of people who love them. Many family members will only tolerate so much before they pull away. When a person gets professional treatment and support, sibling relationships can improve. However, some sibling relationships have endured too much damage to be restored. This often leads to long-term estrangement.
6. Highly competitive relationships
Sibling rivalries can develop in all kinds of families. When family relationships are strong, mild competition may have little effect during a person’s lifetime. But if competition is strongly encouraged over cooperation, siblings can grow up as rivals instead of allies.
Siblings in competitive families often fight for their parents’ attention and affection. Rather than being a cooperative family unit, each person defends their territory. When young people move out of the family home, they feel relieved to be out of the fighting ring for once. Family gatherings may revive the competitive dynamics, which can be unappealing to some.
Tips for Reconnecting, Dealing With, or Moving on From Estranged Siblings
Reconnecting with estranged siblings can be stressful, even when trying to mend fences. Consider using these tips as you navigate through the uncertainty of estrangement.
1. Focus on your issues
You can only manage your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Whatever your siblings struggle with is out of your control. Start by focusing on these methods:
- Be honest and kind with your siblings.
- Stay aware of triggers like old arguments, harmful behavior patterns, power struggles, and unresolved conflicts.
- Watch for negative thought biases and negative self-talk.
- Think ahead to avoid falling into painful traps from the past.
- Create boundaries for yourself regarding how you and your siblings treat each other.
As you prepare yourself, you can decide how things will be different going forward, even if your reconnection doesn’t go as planned.
2. Consider using a mediator
Sometimes emotional tension is too intense for a family to manage on their own. When conflict seems unavoidable, enlist the help of a mediator. This individual can assist with communication and help diffuse anger before it escalates. They can also help each person clarify their message so the discussion can continue.
A mediator will set expectations and rules, encouraging only cooperative and safe behavior. Their job is to create a safe environment where family members can express themselves and resolve the issues at hand. Professional mediators may be available in your area, but a counselor or another neutral non-family member could take on this role.
3. Understand why you are reconnecting
Reconnection will go more smoothly when each sibling has a similar motivation. If not, the road can get bumpy. First, consider why you want a better relationship. Are you concerned about family assets, wanting more emotional peace, or coordinating care for ailing parents?
One of you may have different and much lower expectations with a reconnection. You may want to see each other at family gatherings, while your sibling may only wish to talk about your parent’s end-of-life situation. It can be difficult to reconnect after a tragedy, but it can also be a way to level the playing field. This difference is not unusual, and siblings can manage it with clear communication. Disappointment can be part of reconnecting, but it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker.
4. Try to understand your sibling’s side of the story
Everyone wants to be heard, and active listening is a good way to start. Take these steps to improve your listening skills with your sibling.
- Tell them you want to hear their thoughts and feelings, and you’ll listen without judgment.
- Listen closely. Try to understand, not to respond.
- Resist the urge to interrupt or argue.
- Repeat what you heard them say.
- Be sure you’ve heard them accurately. Give them a chance to correct you or add to your comments.
You may not agree with what they say, but you can learn to empathize with their viewpoint. Your sibling’s reality is colored by their experience, just as yours is. It's likely that both of you have missing pieces to your story. This difference is not unusual, and siblings can manage it with clear communication.
When you each share your viewpoints, you can begin to fill in the whole picture. With time and patience, you can have a better appreciation of each other’s perspectives.
5. Prepare for possible rejection
Reviving a relationship requires effort from both people involved. You may be ready to reconcile, but your sibling may not. They may not be interested or want to reprocess painful emotions, now or ever.
It doesn't mean that reconnection is impossible. But you need to be prepared for the possibility of rejection. If your sibling does not want a relationship now, respect their choice. You cannot control their readiness, only yours. Make sure they know you’re open to communication in the future.
6. Be ready to move forward
Sometimes moving forward means letting go. You'll need to leave some emotional struggles behind, whether you reconcile with your siblings or not. Talk openly about the most important conflicts between you and try to find common ground.
Reconnection isn't always a fulfilling process, and not all problems or mistakes can be undone. To move forward, some conflicts may need to be left unsettled. And if reconciliation is not possible right now, it may be time to move forward without your siblings. For some, estrangement offers a much-needed boundary between themselves and painful family history.
Finding Ways to Understand Sibling Estrangement and Cope
Sibling estrangement can create tension in a family. Whether you seek to reconcile or need to keep your distance, you can learn better ways to understand your siblings and cope with the stress. If it all becomes overwhelming, the support of a counselor can be helpful.
- “Family Feud: Repairing Damaged Family Relationships.” California Department of Human Services, May, 2013, www.calhr.ca.gov/Documents/eap-article-repairing-damaged-family-relationships.pdf
- Khodyakov, Dmitry, and Carr, Deborah. “The Impact of Late-Life Parental Death on Adult Sibling Relationships.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, August 3, 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2914328/
- Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death And Dying. New York: Collier Books/Macmillan 1970, c1969. Print.
- “What to Consider When Reconnecting with Estranged Family.” Pepperdine Graduate School of Psychology, March 22, 2019, onlinepsych.pepperdine.edu/blog/reconnection-family-estrangement-forgiveness/