Judy Kuriansky, PhD, clinical psychologist, sex therapist and adjunct faculty, Columbia University Teachers College, New York City. She is the author of five books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to a Healthy Relationship (Alpha). DrJudy.com
Betsy had barely spoken to her sister for several years. For a while, she was too angry about their last argument to mind the estrangement. Over time, though, as her ire mellowed, she started to miss her only sister. But she wasn’t sure how to end the cold war, so she let month after month slip by without trying. Then she got the devastating news—her sister was dead. Betsy had lost her chance to make peace…and now she’s living with the heartache and regret.
Are you, too, experiencing a rift with a sibling? You don’t have to make the same mistake Betsy made. If your sibling is truly toxic—for instance, if there is a history of abuse, criminal behavior or ongoing pathological selfishness that poisons every encounter—you may be better off keeping your distance. But otherwise, making the effort to rebuild sibling ties is likely to boost your own psychological health and improve the emotional well-being of the whole family. Here’s how to get started…
First, figure out what’s really behind the conflict. On the surface, it may seem that the estrangement sprang from the most recent big fight. But chances are that its roots extend back to childhood, when you two saw yourselves as rivals for parental attention and affection. Example: When your grown brother asked your parents for yet another “loan,” you wrote him off as a leech and a loser—because you still resent the preferential treatment he always received as the “baby” of the family. Alternatively, you and your sibling may unconsciously repeat negative family patterns, mimicking the dysfunctional ways your parents treated each other. Whatever the true source of your sibling conflict, identifying it is the first step toward working through your feelings and finding healthier ways to interact.
Resolve to be the one who reaches out. No matter who initiated the schism between you two, you can extend the olive branch. Yes, you may fear rejection—but don’t let pride take precedence over peace. Remind yourself that life is too short to hold a grudge.
In reestablishing contact, appeal to your sibling’s sense of nostalgia. You might break the ice by sending your sibling a favorite old photo of the two of you together. Or mail a birthday card that expresses how much you miss the family connection. Or write a letter inviting your sibling to reconnect in light of an important life event that deserves to be shared, such as a parent’s illness or the birth of a new grandchild. Don’t give up too easily—if your first overture goes unacknowledged, wait a bit and then try again.
Acknowledge your own role. Many people have trouble seeing the truth in this, but in the majority of cases, both parties contribute something to the conflict. Even if the bulk of the blame lies with your sibling, you probably played at least a small part. Admitting this to yourself lessens your resentment…acknowledging it to your sibling may make it easier for him or her to accept responsibility, too. Apologize sincerely—“I’m sorry that I teased you about your weight.” Resist the urge to end with a “but” phrase (as in “but there was no reason for you to call me a nasty name, throw my favorite vase across the room and then refuse to speak to me for months”). Instead, end with a request for forgiveness—“Please pardon me for not giving you the respect you deserve.”
Forge a new friendship. Once contact has been renewed, strengthen ties by planning fun times together. Start small—for instance, with a siblings-only bike ride or an afternoon at a spa. While you’re together, ask about your sibling’s joys and concerns…truly listen to the responses and offer to help with a problem if possible. Remember, it’s never too late to change the competitive, rivalrous relationship of childhood into one based on sharing and caring.