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Monday, February 2, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Reconciling Your Relationship With a Sibling Now That You're Both Adults

In a prior article, Overcoming Unresolved Guilt Towards a Sibling, I discussed how guilt that interferes with a sibling relationship can be resolved.  In this article, I'm focusing on a related topic, reconciling a longstanding conflictual relationship between adult siblings that began in childhood.

Reconciling Your Relationship With a Sibling Now That You're Both Adults

Sibling dynamics are usually developed early in childhood with the possibility of many different influences, including overall family dynamics, age, gender, emotional trauma and other factors.

Many siblings, who grew up with conflictual sibling relationships often feel that they want to overcome the pattern of conflict and reconcile these sibling relationships when they become adults, but this can be challenging, especially if these patterns are longstanding.

The following composite scenario, with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, is an example of these issues between siblings and how they were able to overcome them:

Bob and Joe
Bob and his younger brother, Joe, spent most of their time as young children with their mother, who was diagnosed by her psychiatrist with major depression and borderline personality disorder.

Their mother spent much of her time in bed, too depressed to rouse to get up to cook or take care of her sons.  Their father, who was a salesman, spent most of his time away on business.  As a result, Bob took on the responsibility of taking care of himself and his younger brother.

Bob and Joe as Children

On those occasions when the mother felt well enough to get out of bed, she favored her younger son, Joe, lavishing him with praise for his looks, his personality, his school work and just about everything about him.

In contrast, she criticized almost everything about Bob, and she told him that no one would ever love him when he grew up.

Not only did she criticize and denigrate Bob, but she instigated Joe against Bob.  At a young age, Joe learned that if he wanted to keep his mother's love, he had to side with her against his brother and so, being too young to understand his mother's emotional problems, he sided with her against Bob.

As a result, this set the dynamic between these two brothers from an early age.  It was deeply hurtful to Bob, who was also too young to understand that his mother's borderline traits were the underlying cause of the problem (see my article:  The Effect of Growing Up With a Parent Who Had Borderline Personality Disorder).

Bob tried to please is mother by trying to help her, making things for her in art class, and trying to be as good as he could be.  He did very well in school.  He won academic and sports awards, always with the hope that he could gain his mother's love.

But his mother didn't changed how she treated her two sons--Joe was the "good one" and Bob was "the bad one," and Joe remained close to his mother by disparaging Bob.

Bob grew up feeling that he was flawed and unlovable in some basic way that he couldn't understand.  Even though he had friends, he was lonely.

On the rare occasions when the father was at home, he distanced himself from Bob, Joe and their mother.  She was disparaging of him too.  Eventually, he left the family to be with a new girlfriend who lived out of state, and he had little contact with Bob and Joe.

Bob went away to college, and he moved to New York City for his first job.  Joe went to a community college near home and continued to live with their mother.  He became a sort of emotional surrogate husband to their mother even in his late teens.

As time went on, Bob saw less and less of his mother and Joe because these visits were very hard emotionally.  He was successful in his career, but he was deeply affected by his mother telling him for many years that he was unlovable and would end up alone.  And, each time that he saw his mother and brother for an occasional family visit, he felt the sting of his mother's disdain which, for him, confirmed that he was unlovable.

Reconciling Your Relationship With a Siblings Now That You're Both Adults

Joe never moved away.  He remained with his mother, taking a local job so he could continue to be live with her rather than moving away for better job opportunities.  None of Joe's attempts to have a  romantic relationship worked out because his mother would come between him and his girlfriend and Joe felt compelled to side with his mother.  Since none of the women wanted to put up with this, these relationships ended quickly.

Bob's sense that he was a deeply flawed individual affected his ability to get into a relationship with a woman.  He was afraid that after a woman got to know him, she would discover how unworthy he was and she would leave him (see my article:  Overcoming the Fear That People Won't Like You If They Discover the "Real You").

But when he was in his mid-20s, he met a woman, Sandy, that he really liked.  Sandy took the initiative to ask Bob out for a date.  As they continued to see each other, even though he liked her, Bob became increasingly afraid of allowing himself to be emotionally vulnerable with her (see my article:  Relationships: Fear of Being Emotionally Vulnerable).

Since Bob felt Sandy was very special and she seemed to like him a lot too, he decided to come to therapy to deal with his fear and confusion.  As we explored his family history, the origins of Bob's fear and feelings of being unlovable became clear.

Although Bob was able to understand intellectually why he felt unlovable, on an emotional level, it didn't change how he felt about himself, so we began to use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to help him overcome his traumatic family history and his feelings of being unlovable (see my articles:  What is EMDR? and EMDR: When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough).

Bob Came to Therapy

Gradually, over time, as Bob processed the emotional trauma of having a unloving, critical mother who played his brother against him, he began to feel better about himself for the first time in his life.  He was able to open up to Sandy in a way that he never believed possible.

He also began to feel that he wanted to try to reconcile his relationship with Joe, if Joe was willing.  Even though he wanted this reconciliation, Bob knew that he couldn't force the issue and that he might have to accept Joe's refusal, especially since Joe remained very close to their mother.

Bob and Joe hadn't been in touch with each other for more than a year when Bob called Joe.  Bob could hear his mother in the background telling Joe to get off the phone after she found out that Bob was calling.  After that, Joe's voice sounded shaky and he ended the conversation abruptly.

We had prepared for this possibility in therapy and although Bob was deeply disappointed, he took Joe's rebuff in stride.  A few months later, feeling that he was doing well and his relationship with Sandy was going smoothly, he left therapy knowing that he could return at any time.

About a year later, Bob contacted me because his mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer and she was already in hospice.  Bob was preparing himself emotionally to see her, possibly for the last time and to see Joe.  So, Bob returned to therapy (see my article:  Returning to Therapy).

We met for a couple of therapy sessions that week before he went home to see his mother and Joe.  His mother, who was heavily sedated, spent time with Bob alone while Joe waited outside.  To Bob's amazement, with tears in her eyes, his mother apologized to him for how cruel she had been over the years.  She asked Bob for his forgiveness and, to Bob's relief, they were able to reconcile just a couple of days before she died.

Although he was relieved to have made amends with his mother, Bob also felt sad for all the time that he and his mother allowed to pass before they reconciled.

After the death of their mother, Joe was so bereft that he asked Bob if he could come stay with him.  Bob realized that, without their mother, Joe felt desperately sad and confused. Joe also expressed shame for the way he treated Bob and said he would understand if Bob refused to have anything to do with him.

Bob hoped this could be the beginning of a reconciliation between them and he took Joe in without hesitation.  It was awkward at first for both of them.  So many years of being at odds with each other couldn't be erased immediately.

After a few weeks, Joe agreed to come to a few sessions of therapy with Bob to try to reconcile their relationship.  He was able to see, for the first time, how their mother influenced the dynamic between them and he felt deeply sorry.  They each expressed sadness, anger, and resentment.  They also felt hopeful, for the first time, that they could have a better relationship now.

Reconciling Your Relationship With a Sibling Now That You're Both Adults

When Joe went home, he also began his own individual therapy to deal with the effect of his enmeshed relationship with his mother now that she was gone.  He struggled but, over time, he began to put his life together and he maintained contact with Bob in the context of their new relationship.

Reconciling Sibling Relationships as Adults
The composite scenario above isn't unusual.  Children are often influenced by their need to remain close to a parent who might engage in splitting between siblings.

This is usually an unconscious process for the sibling who sides with a parent against another sibling.  The child's need to have his or her emotional needs met by the parent can overshadow everything else.  And this doesn't automatically change when a person becomes an adult, especially when the sibling remains overly attached to the parent, as in the case with Joe.

Even though the siblings in this scenario weren't able to reconcile until after the mother died, many siblings do work out their relationships as adults before the parent who is engaging in splitting dies.

Reconciling Your Relationship With a Sibling Now That You're Both Adults

This type of reconciliation requires that each sibling has matured enough to be his or her own person; s/he sees the splitting dynamic for the destructive pattern that it is; and s/he is willing to risk the anger of the parent in order to have a better relationship with the sibling as well as to be his or her own person.

Getting Help in Therapy
The scenario that I presented above is one example, among many, of how siblings can grow up to be estranged from each other and how they can reconcile.  There are many variations on this theme.

As adults, many siblings have been helped by seeking the assistance of a licensed mental health professional to help them navigate the emotional difficulties involved with a reconciliation where there has been longstanding animosity or estrangement.

Getting Help in Therapy

If you and a sibling want to explore the possibility of an emotional reconciliation, you could be helped by a psychotherapist who has experience with this issue.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapy, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

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