For more than 40 years, Fern Schumer Chapman had nearly no relationship with her only brother. This estrangement not only was hurtful, but isolating. Trying to understand her own situation, Fern discovered that many others shared her fate, cut off from a sibling and suffering grief and shame. Her journey involved doing research, interviewing psychologists and estranged siblings, as well as coming to terms with her own situation. The result is her new book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers – Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation.
Fern’s book could not come at a better time. Emerging from a pandemic – itself isolating – along with a political firestorm that created rifts in many families, a time of healing is long overdue. Whether you are estranged from a sibling, or just looking for ways to create closer bonds, Fern’s book is required reading. She reached out to her brother to better understand what drove them apart and how they could move forward. These parts of the book are emotional and inspiring. Fern offers advice drawn from her many interviews and her own experience to encourage others to take those first steps towards reconciliation.
Fern is the author of several award-winning books, including Motherland, which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Her work has appeared in many publications. We’re grateful she took the time to answer some of our questions about sibling estrangement.
Why is there a stigma attached to sibling estrangement?
In childhood, brothers and sisters are our first playmates, instilling in one another necessary social qualities—tolerance, generosity, loyalty—that eventually affect relationships with friends, colleagues, and lovers. Typically, siblings spend more time together than with anyone else; for the fortunate, those relationships may continue for fifty to eighty years, outlasting most friendships, marriages, and even relationships with parents, which generally span thirty to fifty years. When we can’t make these fundamental relationships work, questions arise: What’s wrong with her? Is this a good candidate for friendship? If she can’t maintain a relationship with her own brother, is she capable of sustaining any relationship?
Are these rifts often traced back to how children were raised?
Yes, absolutely. There are several risk factors for estrangement, including family trauma, parental favoritism, poor communication skills. Many are rooted in childhood.
Does sibling estrangement happen in all families regardless of ethnicity and socio-economic status?
Yes, estrangement cuts across all cultures and classes. However, in America, children rooted in families with traditional immigrant cultures tend to feel an obligation to maintain relations with their brothers and sisters to honor their parents. Working class and poor families, compared with the middle class, also tend to have stronger sibling ties.
What are the major issues that might come between siblings and impact their relationships?
I mentioned a few of the risk factors above. There are others, including:
- Family values, judgments, choices: Some families simply won’t tolerate certain behaviors that resist or defy the family identity. Prince Harry, for example, married far outside the family identity. Perhaps unwittingly, Harry chose a partner to help him establish distance – even a total break — from his family.
- Political differences
- Addiction and mental health issues
How could a sibling estrangement affect other parts of a family tree?
Sibling rejection ripples into many parts of life and identity. It can affect self-esteem – who you are and how you see yourself – friendships and other social relationships, well-being, and one’s ability to trust. Parents and siblings can get caught in the middle of a sibling rift as each may feel forced to choose sides, resulting in a civil war in the family.
What’s the best strategy for reaching out to an estranged sibling?
· Sit down together, face to face.
· Listen without interrupting, without challenging each other’s stories. The one goal is to seek understanding. Experts agree that reconciliation is impossible without true, genuine listening.
· Acknowledge, with empathy, the other person’s hurt, anger, or alienation. Give them the benefit of the doubt; assume they have sincere, trustworthy intentions. When each party accepts both parties’ experiences, neither feels devalued or shut out.
· Stress and act on your willingness, desire and hope to create a mutual bond.
· Let go of anger.
Are there some instances where an estrangement cannot or should not be mended?
Some relationships are too toxic to sustain. It is important to assess the relationship by asking yourself these questions:
- Why is this relationship important to me – not to my family or to anyone else but to me?
- Does my sibling want to resume a relationship?
- On what basis would we enter, rebuild, and maintain the relationship? As siblings, as friends, as distant relatives?
- Do my sibling and I have enough in common and a desire to make this effort worthwhile?
- Can I set aside the anger, pain, and/or resentment that led to the break to change our pattern of relating?
- Is it possible to develop a different, better relationship?
- Do I want to resume this relationship if I discover that neither of us has changed?
- Do I have the time, energy, emotional resilience, and support of other loved ones—to reconcile and rebuild this relationship?
- Will I compromise too much of myself if I try to sustain a relationship with my difficult sibling?
What about estrangements between step siblings? How are these relationships different?
The closeness of the relationship may depend upon when step siblings were introduced into the family. Often, these relationships are not as intense as siblings, as they do not have the biological connection. Biological siblings feel compelled to deeply invest in relationships with relatives to ensure that the family gene pool continues. One evolutionary theory, kin selection, suggests that the more closely individuals are related, the more likely they are to help one another. Interestingly, siblings are genetically more alike than they are like either parent or anyone else in the world— sharing about 50 percent of genetic material.
Looking back on the experience with your brother, what would you have done differently?
Sibling estrangement is a unique pain. Having no explanation of why my brother wanted nothing to do with me, the estrangement was an open wound, and I was stuck caught in a constant state of bereavement, ruminating about what I had done to cause the break. Unlike death, which is final, some who are estranged have a chronic sense of emptiness as they mourn the living.
With reconciliation, I have gained an understanding of why the estrangement happened. Now I know that there were many reasons for the estrangement that had nothing to do with me or my actions. Understanding this perspective when I was younger would have eased my mind.
What do you hope readers will get form your book?
My primary aims are to offer comfort, to help mitigate the stigma of estrangement, and to tear down the walls of isolation. Each chapter of Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation consists of two parts. The first is a memoir capturing my brother’s and my efforts to rebuild our relationship. In the second, I highlight a salient issue of estrangement that occurred in my brother’s and my story, explore research on the topic, and feature other people’s stories. I hope to shed light on how severed relationships might be repaired. At the very least, readers will learn more about who is at risk for sibling estrangement, why these relationships break down, and how cutoffs can define an individual.
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