May 28, 2024


The question Since our mother’s death, my brother and I have had no contact. He lives more than 100 miles away. Our relationship has been very difficult for more than 40 years. When we both had young children, things were better for a time. When our father died, Mother’s health deteriorated and she moved in with me and died 12 years later. During this time my relationship with my brother was at its worst. Before retirement we both worked in mental health, but neither of us understood why our family relationship was so broken.

There is a family history: our grandfather didn’t get along with his sister, he and his wife kept secrets, and our father fell out with his twins! Our childhood was difficult as our father had mental health issues.

Friends who know the story advise me not to pursue any recovery; another friend suggested I write to you. Since Mom died, I’ve been sending Christmas cards and the occasional text, but haven’t gotten a response. I tried to contact my nephews, again to no avail. Should I accept that there is too much water under the bridge and stop my attempts to contact him?

Philippa’s answer: People, myself included, are often drawn to work in mental health precisely because they have had their battles with it – just throw that in there!

Children seem to carry the baggage of their ancestors. Fractures – like those you have a history of in your family – are often caused by the family’s parenting style. For example, by parents not taking seriously any feelings of jealousy when a younger sibling comes along, and not intervening, except punitively, when that jealousy plays out. Older siblings who feel displaced need to be handled sensitively and if this is not done, they may resent their younger sibling. After a while, the younger sibling then grows to resent the parent because of how they were usually treated as children. This can cause them to stay away, perhaps without really understanding why.

Another parenting style that leads to trouble is when one child is pitted against another, perhaps by comparing them or making them compete against each other. Overt and covert favoritism and making one child the scapegoat for any disharmony are other habits that can give rise to feelings in siblings that become so entrenched that their unconscious tendency is often to stay away from their sibling.

Parenting styles tend to be inherited if the next generation does not consciously decide to break these patterns with their own children. Siblings can have very different memories of the same events and it can often seem like their sibling doesn’t validate their experience – and when you’re not validated by someone important in your life, it can almost feel like they’re trying to wipe you out Now, I don’t know if any of this applies to your relationship with your brother, but I’ll mention it if it does.

Even though your brother may have had no desire to nurse his mother in her old age, it may have sparked a very old feeling of jealousy in him because you had her all to yourself, or perhaps he felt guilty about you did everything the care. When we have these hostile tendencies towards siblings, the roots of them may be forgotten, but the feelings may still remain. What we often do to make sense of such feelings is to get into the habit of thinking of our brother or sister with judgment and criticism and so sometimes it just feels easier to stay away.

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We are closest to the people in whose company we feel relaxed and self-conscious, then we feel good about ourselves when we are with them. If being around someone causes us to feel shame, it is normal to avoid them. People often feel ashamed that they have a sibling who is not a friend because they feel them should have a close relationship with them. Lack of understanding causes shame, so if you can’t figure out why you feel the way you do toward a sibling, that may also be a source of shame. And if you feel any shame because your brother is staying away, then you can tell your inner critic – the usual source of shame – to shut up.

You and your brother may be very different people, even though you come from the same family and have had similar jobs. Would you be friends if you weren’t siblings? Do you have different ways of looking at and responding to the world that don’t make you particularly compatible? Or maybe you just don’t “get” each other.

Seeking recovery may be too ambitious, but perhaps you can seek more clarity. Maybe you can tell him that you want to further your understanding of the split so you can stop ruminating about it (warning: difficult feedback may be involved). Maybe send him this column. Work out why this is so important to you, perhaps by seeing a psychoanalyst. It is common for siblings not to be close and there may be no reason why you should be.

To understand more about adult siblings, try Dorothy Rowe’s book, My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: Making and Breaking Sibling Bonds.

Philippa Perry will appear at the Also Festival, 12-14 July 2024 (also-festival.com)

Each week, Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to askphilippa@guardian.co.uk. Submissions are subject to us terms and conditions



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