Five ways to help you mend broken sibling relationships

Cutting a family member off is like amputating your arm because it hurts. Here’s how to ease the pain.

“Jill” hasn’t spoken to her sister “Sarah” for five years.

Sarah was the executor of their parents’ estate. When their parents passed away, Sarah wasn’t transparent about the assets she was responsible for distributing. Jill believed that Sarah had stolen money from the estate.

All too often family members cut each other off due to disagreements over their parents’ estates, in-law conflicts or hurt feelings.

My aunt Marilyn stopped talking to her brother Mel because he made a nasty remark to her about her husband. They both came to the end of their lives without speaking one word to each other. My mom, their eldest sister, tried to bring them together over many years. They were both stubborn and unwilling to budge. My mother outlived both of them and I saw her cry many times over her brother and sister’s rift.

There are several understandable reasons why siblings may choose to end a relationship with each other — sexual, physical or emotional abuse experienced as a child, for example. But often, there is a path to reconciliation.

Cutting a family member off is a little like amputating your arm because it hurts. Our limbs are part of who we are, just as brothers and sisters are part of us. And even when diseased limbs are severed, there can be phantom pain that continues when the limb is gone. When we sever ties with family members, the hurt and resentment doesn’t go away.

So how can we find a way back to each other?

Reconciliation doesn’t require forgiving and forgetting. It’s never a good idea to forget the past. Our ability to remember enables us to learn from experience and to protect ourselves from danger. Forgiveness is possible but requires many facets that can take a long time, if ever, to come together. But it’s not necessary to forgive your family member to find a way back to each other.

Accept your family member for who they are. My uncle felt hurt by his brother-in-law, who rarely came to family events. My uncle was not a very sensitive or self-aware person. That’s just who he was. Accepting your brother and sister for who they are is a step toward reconciliation. My uncle’s insensitivity had nothing to do with his sister.

Some relationships will never be close. There are many reasons why brothers and sisters may not have a close connection. When there’s been an injury, it’s likely to cause even more distance. It’s possible to have a distant relationship with someone you love, but don’t like or appreciate. Indeed, some people you have to feed with a long spoon.

Letting go. Resentment comes from holding on to anger, hurt or disappointment. Holding on to these negative emotions is bad for your mind, body and spirit. By accepting your sibling’s shortcomings, it’s possible to leave old hurts and missteps in the past. None of us is perfect — we are all prone to insensitivity, greed, selfishness and bad behavior.

Take no offense. My good friend Dixie, when she was in her early 90s, noted that “it isn’t necessary to take offense.” Of course you can, but then you may end up holding onto negative feelings. Believe it or not, whether or not you take offense is up to you. When you choose not to be offended, it’s easier to look beyond the other person’s faults.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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