OPINION: The shame of sibling estrangement

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The following essay is by Fern Schumer Chapman, author of several award-winning books, including Motherland, which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she has taught magazine writing and other seminars at both Northwestern and Lake Forest College. She lives in the Chicago area. For more information about her work, including her newest book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, please visit www.fernschumerchapman.com


My only brother and I are now reconciled, however, for 40 years he and I didn’t speak to each other, and I was in a chronic state of grief. Making matters worse, I didn’t know why he had cut me off, and I never discussed it with anyone. Instead, I ruminated endlessly, wondering what I had done to cause the cutoff and what I could do to fix it.

The estrangement with my brother resulted in other losses. I no longer was a sister, sister‐in‐law, or aunt. My children had no cousins on my side of the family. I dreaded birthdays, holidays, weddings, funerals, family get‐togethers—any and every possible encounter with my brother or, perhaps worse, with his glaring absence.

Recent studies show that siblings are an emotional cornerstone to emotional health. In fact, the longest study of well-being -- the Harvard Study of Adult Development underway since 1938 -- identified a close relationship with a sibling during college years as a reliable indicator of emotional health in later life.

Even when estrangement is a clearheaded choice to move forward from abuse or unbearable discord, the cutoff leaves disconnected siblings in a world of secrecy and shame. Estrangement feels like an utter contradiction of the very nature of family, an aggressive rejection of the fundamental way most living creatures organize themselves.

This rejection can leave the abandoned with a gnawing sense of unlovability and lack of worth that ripples into a sibling’s self-esteem, his or her ability to trust, ultimately affecting relationships with acquaintances, friends, and other family members. Finally, sibling estrangement can create a civil war within the family, as members choose sides.

In general, exclusion can cause pain that cuts deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury, according to Dr. Kipling D. Williams, a distinguished professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University who is noted for his unique studies of ostracism.

When someone is shunned—even by a stranger, even if only briefly—Dr. Williams has found that he or she experiences a strong, harmful reaction, activating the same area of the brain that registers physical pain.

Some siblings are more likely than others to become estranged. In fact, to my surprise, there are risk factors for estrangement: family trauma, parental favoritism, poor communication skills, family values, judgments and choices.

Support groups for the estranged exist, but many who endure this trauma are reluctant to join. Most who can’t get along with a sibling -- roughly one out of three people -- don’t want to tell their heartbreaking stories, so they suffer in silence, isolated twice -- from a sibling and from social support against the loss.

During the pandemic, many who may not have sustained a sibling connection have found themselves weighing whether to attempt to reconcile now. Some have become acutely aware of their own mortality during the last year and a half, and they fear that if they don’t contact an estranged family member now, they might not have the chance.

To approach reconciliation in a rational, self‐protective yet open fashion, it’s crucial to assess one’s own feelings and the prospects for resuming and improving the relationship.

If a sibling should decide to give reconciliation a try, he or she might write an email to estranged relatives, emphasizing a desire to reconnect, and proposing parameters for a relationship – i.e., banning certain topics. To encourage a dialogue and to draw up a relationship contract, family members might ask their difficult relatives for suggestions on how the family can be together.

Tackling and solving any intractable problem alters how we see ourselves. Renewing the bond with a sibling can produce relief, closure, and a rewarding resolution, even if the relationship is less than picture‐perfect.

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