Dear New Shrink,
I am very troubled over my relationship with my brother. We were pretty close growing up and then even closer when our father died during our teenage years. We now share the responsibility for our ailing mother so it is important that we get along. But for some time now, we seem to be at odds. I think my sister in-law dislikes me so that does not help, but I honestly do not understand why he seems so angry toward me. I would really like to be closer to him. It is really painful now that the holidays are approaching. I dread being in the same room.
Dear Hurt Sibling,
This is most unfortunate and I hope that I can help. Thankfully, most siblings remain close and actually provide a great emotional attachment for each other for 20 years or more beyond their parental ties. They are clearly lucky but it goes beyond luck. There are many siblings at odds as you say, or in a kind of cold war. There are even studies that show that siblings account for about 60 percent of domestic violence, when living under the same roof.
There are many causes for sibling problems and I hope parents that read this will pay attention because this can truly be a great source of pain for everyone later in life.
Sibling rivalry is common place among Americans. The good news is that parents can do a lot to intervene if they understand it, look for it and do something about it.
I advise parents to find a way to include their first child when they have the second. Have that child help with the new baby; find special time for the first and realize how easy it is for that child to become jealous if you don’t. Often sibling problems are rooted in one child being viewed as favored even when it isn’t so. Even if it is, one hopes that the parents will go out of their way not to show favoritism.
Sometimes there is family dysfunction and one child becomes the scapegoat. This clearly leads to the perception of one or more being favored. Sometimes a parent is ill and the eldest has to assume a parental role which can lead to hostility toward that child. This is because they are either perceived as bossy or sometimes because they did not fulfill the subconscious needs and expectations of the younger ones who hoped that they would be more like the missing parent.
Of course, even in the same family, all children are not alike. Some may be better looking, more popular or end up more accomplished and as adults, perhaps have a better socioeconomic status. Jealousy is definitely a big factor in sibling problems. Even as adults, new problems can occur because of jealousy or anger. It might be over one having more success, or over lifestyle or politics. It can also happen when one has or feels like they have the lion’s share of responsibility for the family or aging parents.
In-laws can definitely be divisive, especially if they have an agenda or ax to grind. This is especially difficult to deal with if your sibling does not honor your attachment or have the courage to stand up for it.
Finally, money causes more problems when it gets toward the end of the line with parents, and the family as you have known it draws to a close. It’s hard to know when it is really about greed or when the sadness is replaced by anger at feeling cheated by the loss. If there is a will that is fair, there should not be a problem, but we have all heard the horror stories.
As for the holidays, your first priority should be to get through them in a peaceful way. If you get together, consider your seating arrangement and definitely keep alcohol at a minimum. This may be when you want to drink the most but it can only lead to disaster. Also, go in with a promise to yourself that you will not react. Refuse to fight!
After the holidays, consider writing your brother a letter, one that is kind and expresses your sadness over the loss of your relationship. Tell him that you miss him; extend a hand. Perhaps apologize for your part and if you don’t know what that is, be prepared to listen to his side of the story. You may have hurt him unwittingly. It is better to be happy than to fight or be “right.”
Dr. Barge is a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Brentwood. Please e-mail your questions and responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, Please let us help you with your life matters.