The Last Taboos

What we all think about, but never talk about

Sibling Strife at the Holidays: A Survival Guide

Tis the season for sibling strife.

this is the time for family fights
I ran into an acquaintance right around this time last year after Cain’s Legacy, my second book on contentious sibling relationships, was published. “I wish I could have read it before Thanksgiving with my family,” she said regretfully. “When I walked into my parents’ living room, my sister was there—and she didn’t even say hello to me.” “And what did you do?” I asked, although I was pretty certain of the answer. Back it came: “Nothing.”  “Luckily for you,” I said, “Christmas is coming, so you’ve got another chance. This time when she doesn’t bother to acknowledge your presence, walk up and say hello yourself. What do you have to lose?”

It never ceases to astonish me how hard this advice is to take, how thoughtful, self-aware people like this woman—a compassionate and perceptive hospital administrator—become tongue-tied and brain-dead when confronted with sibling conflicts around the year’s-end holidays. This is the time when our fantasies of family harmony, and the realities of family cacophony, are most compelling. Not every sibling relationship can, or should, be saved, but you’ll never know unless you resolve to think about it.

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A little investigation revealed what was really going on between this particular pair of silent sisters and, I was not surprised to discover, it had to do with parental favoritism in childhood and envy by the original non-greeter of her sister’s more successful life—which the other painfully and guiltily admitted.

Why is breaking through the silence so difficult? The most common reason is that behind every awkward encounter is a long history of unspoken, and usually mutual, resentment, pain, anger and buried sorrow that brothers and sisters would much rather avoid than acknowledge to themselves or to each other—even though they must have an inkling that the other person already knows and most likely has similar discomfort. That maybe he or she would actually welcome a way out of a lifetime of discomfort, even if the person is unable to figure out how to do it. Unfinished business with siblings is one of the biggest sources of regret among older adults, when they, no matter how difficult, are the only family left. A true reconciliation takes enormous, mutual effort, but it can never happen without somebody taking the initiative; why not you?

season's greetings--time for siblings to go at it
I recommend a little internal homework in anticipation. Trying to grasp a sibling’s point of view, including what legitimate gripes he or she may have about you, any happy memories you can recall or character traits you still admire, can give you a window into how to approach this stranger you grew up with.

Then there’s the question of what to say after hello. Unless you are dead-set against having any relationship with this person, if you feel there might be something worth redeeming  (which is not always the case), I suggest candor. A statement like “I know there’s been tension between us, but you’re my sister and I’d like us to try to have a better relationship. How are you really?” can do wonders.

Start thinking about this now, in advance. You have at least two chances coming up soon.

Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City for 40 years, is the author of 5 books on taboo topics.

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