Here’s that chapter I mentioned in the introduction¾the chapter I wrote to help siblings reconnect after a distant or contentious connection.
This is the chapter that I need more than any other. I have read my words of wisdom many times over. How can it be that I have been unable to benefit from my own advice and not reconnect with my younger brother?
So many of the adults I interviewed either spoke happily about the recently renewed connection with a sibling or expressed an eager longing to reconnect.
Yet for those who described a sibling relationship as either cordial but distant or bitterly severed, the task of strengthening the bond often appeared impossible.
And that’s exactly how I feel.
But a friend of mine reminded me of all the steps I did take to reconcile with my brother. I listened to him as he talked about feeling like the “black sheep” in the family. I commiserated when he said he’d heard my mother say to a cousin that he was a surprise and not a pleasant one. (I tried to talk him out of that one. A no-no in resolving conflicts.)
During this same conversation in the backyard of my parents’ home while we waited for my mother to die, I even apologized for a visit many, many years before. He’d come to my home for the first time in ten years. I was angry and hurt that he hadn’t visited before.
He wanted to talk and process the dynamics within our family and the roles he and the then three other siblings played.
I wasn’t interested. I’d been down that road long before and didn’t want to give him my time or the benefit of all the introspection I had done. “Been there, done that.”
I’d been an unforgiving sister who, while deep down wanted to make things better between my brother and me, treated him with disdain.
But when we sat on the grass, I listened. And I apologized. I brought up the above incident and said that I was sorry. I said my truth: I’d felt left out by him and wasn’t able to provide the acknowledgment and diagnosis he so desperately wanted.
And he accepted my apology.
I was relieved and convinced that we’d turned a corner toward reconnecting.
My friend also reminded me that, after my parents died and my brother trash talked about them to anyone who’d listen, I wrote him a heartfelt email. I acknowledged that his experiences with my parents were different than mine. I accepted his point of view. But I made it clear that I didn’t share his feelings.
I never heard from him again. Oh, I heard rumblings from other relatives that he continued to complain about my parents and the kinds of people they were.
But he never had the “balls” and/or the interest to discuss with me.
In the intervening four years, he has distanced himself from all other family members, including my sister, two aunts, and uncle and all of our first cousins.
He is a person non grata. It’s as if he’s disappeared into the Ethernet.
So, how pray tell, can we walk through the minefields of the past and at least attempt to reconnect with an adult sibling we don’t really know anymore or never really knew in the first place?
Help out. Think of and write down three strategies you suggest for those of us who want to reconnect with a distant sibling but have no idea how to go about it.
Okay. How about this? Get over your deep down feeling that your sibling got more of something than you did--love from your parents, brains, looks. Face the facts: Your sibling didn’t ask for these supposed advantages. Besides, they may have been projections of your own insecurities and never existed in the first place.
Whether it is true or not doesn’t really matter. What counts are the notions about one another that siblings carry with them from childhood, the sibling baggage that can blind them from seeing brothers and sisters as the mature people they’ve become.
Practice Active Listening
When my then three-year-old son was “out of control,” I jumped at the chance to take what was then called a Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) course. The skills I learned way back when are perfectly suited to offering the proverbial olive branch to a sibling from whom you’ve been disconnected.
So, what does it mean to be an active listener and how can it help reestablish a relationship with a sibling?
The trick here is to encourage your sibling to talk about herself and her feelings toward you. One of the best ways to do that is to be a “mirror,” to reflect back the feelings you think you here and see.
Okay. So, here’s an example:
Sister: I know Dad loved you more.
You: You feel jealous.
Sister: Well . . . I don’t know.
You: You’re confused about your feelings.
Sister: It was such a long time ago.
You: It’s hard to tap into the past.
Sister: Maybe, but I think you felt special and still do.
You: You see me as having gotten something you never got.
Sister: You walked around like some kind of know-it-all.
You: You thought I was bossy.
Sister: Yeah, you were. You always told me what to do.
You: You saw me as the stereotypical oldest child.
Sister: You got that right.
You: I’m sorry you felt that way. I never intended to push you around.
You get the gist. “You” reflected your sister’s hurt by restating what you thought she said. You didn’t repeat what she said but fed back what you think you heard.
That’s great, you’re thinking. But how do I do that without trying to clear your name and what you might or might not have done?
You can take a pause. Put everything through that computer of a brain. Count to ten. Do whatever it takes to think before you say something you’ll regret or that will put your and your sibling right back where you started.
Some active listeners like to you the pattern: You feel _________because ____________. You feel jealous because you thought dad loved me more.
But don’t feel you’re locked into this pattern. The important thing is to catch the meaning behind the words and restate what you think you hear.
Make an Educated Guess
So, what if your sibling is unwilling to talk? The two of you haven’t spoken more than a sentence or two for years. You’ve avoided each other at family events, haven’t called or emailed, and, what information you do get, comes from other family members.
But now at least one of you wants to bury the hatchet and move on. Enough is enough. Still, your sibling doesn’t make a peep. What next?
Try paying attention again to those nonverbal messages. If your sib is gritting his teeth, you might say something like, “Looks like you’re really angry.” “You seem nervous.”
“I’m nervous and angry. I don’t see any reason for this conversation.”
And there’s your opening.
Another way to get the conversation going is to ask a question. “How’s it going with you and Sarah?” “Is Marc still working for that commercial real estate firm?”
You may get a one-word response: “Great!” “No.” Or you just might get a conversation going.
“Marc left that firm last year. He didn’t get along with his boss and wasn’t making enough money.”
What now? Yep, you guessed it: mirroring.
“You must feel relieved that he’s moved on.” “It’s hard to see your kid having a tough time.”
Your brother may admit that you’re right and maybe even ask you how your two grown children are doing.
Asking Good Questions
Here’s another tool. Ask good questions.
Questions that can be answered with a “yes,” “no,” or defensive response won’t get you anywhere. “Is Marc still working for that commercial real estate firm?” Not a good question. Rather, questions that begin with where, when, what, who, which, or how encourage more than one-word answers. “When did Marc leave the real estate company?” “Where is Marc working now?”
The Proverbial Olive Branch
Karen S. may not have been schooled in the tools of active listening, but she intuitively offered an olive branch to her distant sister in a way that led to their reconnecting.
Karen and her younger sister Sarah had grown apart after each married and started a family. Even though they lived in the same city, they spent little time together. Then, for some reason—maybe it had to do with getting older and watching her children grow up; maybe it was her mother’s bout with cancer—Karen wrote Sarah a letter. She tried to explain why she thought they had drifted apart, beginning with some childhood hurts. “You must have felt like a second fiddle,” she wrote. “Mom, Dad, and I were so close and settled, and then you came along. Looking back, it couldn’t have been easy for you.”
Karen wrote that she was anxious to see whether she and Sarah could rebuild their friendship. She admitted that putting their relationship together might not be easy but that she was more than willing to try. Finally, Karen invited her sister to meet her for a picnic lunch on a stretch of beach where they would be alone, unencumbered by the outside world.
Sometimes it takes one sibling reaching out to begin to break through what appeared to be a brick wall. Karen and Sarah are still in the process of getting unstuck. What has helped immensely has been both sisters’ willingness to talk openly about their feelings and to try to see the other’s perspective. “Now that some of our defenses are down,” said Karen, “I’m beginning to enjoy my sister. In some ways, what we’re doing must be like an estranged husband and wife trying to get back together. But with us, there’s a history that goes all the way back. She is family; she’s my sister.”
Reconnecting When a Sibling Is Ill or Dying
Cheryl’s brother David was fighting cancer. She was concerned and volunteered to help. Cheryl realized many years later that there was nothing she could do to change her relationship with her brother’s wife, one of the main reasons she and her brother disconnected. Still, the tension remained.
Cheryl’s first visit to see David and his family after fifteen years was a disaster. But Cheryl ultimately accepted David’s sincere apologies for having, if not encouraged, than unwittingly caused the disconnect when he refused to talk to his wife about the ways in which she treated Cheryl with disdain and did everything she could to put a wedge between her husband and sister-in-law.
She succeeded for fifteen years!
But when David got sick and Cheryl insisted on seeing him, the connection between brother and sister began to heal. An important part of that healing was talking about their childhood. Neither of them knew then that their father was an alcoholic. Neither understood the negative effects their father’s drinking had of the rest of the family.
But when David and Cheryl started talking, they turned to each other for understanding and validation. Yes, their father had a serious problem. Yes, he had been particularly harsh on David. Yes, he ramped up competition between the two siblings by constantly favoring Cheryl over David. Yes, his angry outbursts followed by heartfelt apologies confused the family and made then wary of trusting others.
David and Cheryl stumbled their way through their recovery and reconnection. It took more than a little courage to change their relationship. They had to learn new steps to an old dance. In the end, they stumbled their way back to one another and to many happy times.
Researchers like Stephen Bank, coauthor of The Sibling Bond, are, in general, hopeful about brothers and sisters reconnecting as adults. “I’m optimistic for about two-thirds of the people,” he said in an interview. “The other one-third are just stuck, angry, and alienated from life. For them, there is no forgiveness. But I do feel that people like to grow and develop, and that most of them like to be able to put things in perspective.”
Siblings: Reflections of Ourselves
My siblings and I are older than I ever thought we’d be. As I age, I recognize how the connection between us has had a hand in shaping the person I am, the risks I take, the insecurities I grapple with, and the relationships I choose.
All of us search for inner peace and self-knowing throughout our lives. And there are many people along the way¾parents, friends, spouses, partners, children, teachers and more¾who help us on that journey.
There was a time not that long ago when siblings were just a footnote in that list. But slowly that view has changed, and the major role siblings play in our lives has been put front and center. The connection between siblings is powerful, emotional, and lifelong.
Without our siblings, we would be different people¾not necessarily better or worse, just different.
With our siblings, we see a reflection of ourselves¾why we are, how we are, and what we may hope to be.
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