Why Do Adult Siblings Stop Speaking? The Psychology Behind Family Estrangement and Sibling Rivalries
Brother and sister estrangement is a surprisingly common, and unspoken, occurrence. Why ties break down and how real families reconciled.
Ali Blumenthal for Reader's Digest
Hope Rising used to dread holiday dinners with her family. Her older sister made each meal miserable, with snide comments about nearly everything Rising said or did. After one particularly insult-laden meal, Rising’s father asked her sister to apologize or leave. She left, husband and kids in tow.
That was when Rising decided the relationship was over. It took 14 years and a fatal cancer diagnosis for the sisters to speak again.
In many families, there comes a time when a decision is made that someone is done. Sometimes childhood dynamics can metastasize into toxic resentment. Sometimes an awareness dawns that you have never liked the person passing the mashed potatoes and you see no reason to keep trekking halfway across the country to see her. Sometimes an aging parent’s needs—or the prospect of an inheritance—fire the burner under simmering dysfunction.
The number of Americans who are completely estranged from a sibling is relatively small—probably less than 5 percent, says Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University professor. Yet only 26 percent of 18- to 65-year-olds in an Oakland University survey reported having a highly supportive sibling relationship; 19 percent had an apathetic relationship, and 16 percent had a hostile one.
When University of Pittsburgh psychologist Daniel Shaw, who studies sibling relationships in children, discussed a paper on his research on radio shows, he was surprised to get many calls from adults eager to talk about the pain of their relationships with their sisters and brothers. “Something happened, and they never forgave each other, so now they were calling in … to talk about how they had decided to forgive or how they hadn’t spoken for 20 or 30 years.”
Some people cover up their estrangement because it’s tricky or embarrassing to explain. Cynthia Donnelly,* a personal trainer in New York City, used to lie. “I’d say, ‘Oh, my brother’s great, blah blah blah.’” In reality, their relationship ended three years ago, after she checked her phone in an airport and found this message from him: “Hey, if you haven’t left yet, I hope your plane crashes.”
Although the total break with her brother has been a relief in some ways, Donnelly grieves their relationship: “It’s shameful to tell people who ask, ‘Why can’t you get along? What’s the big deal?’”
How sibling rivalry turns to strife
As kids, brothers and sisters fight. They get angry for stealing toys or crossing invisible boundaries in the backseat of the car. “The ability to fight with your sibling and resolve those conflicts can be an important developmental achievement,” says University of Illinois psychologist Laurie Kramer. Siblings who never learn to manage these conflicts are most at risk for adult family estrangement, says Katherine Conger, director of the Family Research Group at the University of California, Davis. “You have no incentive to remain in contact. You just want to stay away.”
There are two personality types who appear prone to being estranged by siblings: those who are extremely hostile and those whom Jeanne Safer, a New York City psychotherapist, calls grievance collectors. “These are the ones who say, ‘You never thanked me for the flowers I gave you in 1982.’ That wears very thin on people.”
Sheryl Booth* has encountered both traits. The youngest of six, Booth was the late-in-life child who unseated her sister as the baby of the family. Since then, Booth feels her sister has resented every positive event in her life—vacations, singing and acting performances, even her decision to take Buddhist vows.
The sight of birthday greetings on Booth’s Facebook page sent her sister into a rage. “She put up a rant on my wall asking why people are calling me a friend,” Booth says, “because if only they knew the truth about me and what a horrible person I am to her, they wouldn’t like me.” Booth unfriended her sister.
Ali Blumenthal for Reader's Digest
Mom did have a favorite
To some extent, evolution is to blame. Siblings are hardwired to engage in rivalry because they compete with one another for one of life’s most critical resources—parental care. “Two hundred years ago, half of all children did not make it out of childhood,” says Frank Sulloway, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “The intensity of sibling competition makes much more sense when you realize that very small differences in parental favoritism could determine whether a child is taken to a doctor or not.”
Two-thirds to three-quarters of mothers have a favorite child, according to Pillemer’s research. When favoritism is obvious or is interpreted as such, siblings are more likely to become estranged.
But many adults shrug off perceived less-favored-child status; others let it fester. The difference is how the siblings feel about their adult lives, says psychologist Joshua Coleman, cochair of the Council on Contemporary Families. Those with successful careers and fulfilling lives are less likely to fixate on the past and even enjoy overcoming their “underdog” reputation.
To break up—or make up?
Completely cutting off a sibling, regardless of how much it may be deserved, has serious ramifications, Safer says. Those who initiate family estrangement often feel deep regret later. “We have our parents for 30 to 50 years, but we have siblings for 50 to 80 years,” she says. “This is the only person who remembers your childhood, and you have nothing to say to them? It’s tragic.”
All the people interviewed for this story say they would reconcile—if their siblings apologized and were willing to start fresh. Hope Rising experienced that, though it took a tragedy. Last year, her sister was found to have terminal cancer. Rising flew to Denver to visit: “When I walked into my parents’ house, she was actually happy to see me.” Her sister apologized for having treated her so poorly. The sisters talk about once a week now. “I’m glad she had a change of heart,” Rising says, “but I’m sorry for the circumstances because she has less than a year to live, and all those years were wasted.”
Christine Parizo had cut off her brother after he said he couldn’t get off work to fly from California to Massachusetts for her daughter’s baptism and she discovered he went to Las Vegas instead. But two years later, Parizo agreed to meet him while she was in California on business. He explained that her daughter’s baptism had been during the final stages of his divorce. “I had no idea what he had been going through,” she says. After that, Parizo’s brother started texting and connecting via Instagram and Facebook. More important, she says, was reclaiming their history. “It’s nice to share memories with someone who has the same perspective.”
This is one reason, Kramer notes, that even siblings in contentious relationships still feel pulled to one another. “Another person knows how your mother gets when she’s packing for a trip or when the car breaks down,” she says. “That shared set of experiences and that shared understanding are very powerful.”
*Name has been changed