Making up With Your Alienated Sib Is Good for Your Health

Well-being in later life is linked to close sibling bonds.

Posted Mar 11, 2020

Cindy and her two sisters haven't seen or talked to each other since their father died 15 years ago. Now their mother, 79, is in poor health, and so is Cindy, who gets migraines when she bumps into either or both of them at their mother's bedside.

Adam and his twin brother, who is an ultra-Orthodox Jew, haven't spoken to each other since Adam left the their closely-knit religious community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which he chafed at then but now sometimes misses, especially his brother. He feels isolated, in spite of the fact that he has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances and a fulfilling career just a few miles away in Manhattan, where he now lives.

Jackie is always angry about something—a friend who's insensitive, a colleague who takes credit for Jackie's work, a husband who doesn't share his feelings. Her anger, he told her, takes up all the room for feelings in their family. The one time he suggested that making up with the sister who didn't come to their wedding might make her easier to live with, he says, she had a major meltdown.

Siblings who are estranged or alienated in later life often exhibit anger, isolation, stress, hostility and depression, according to recent research, with detrimental effects to their physical as well as mental health. Often the alienation stems from perceived parental favoritism or troubled family relationships in childhood. By contrast, people who have more positive relationships with their sibs enjoy happier, more contented lives, especially as they age.

Making up with an estranged sibling might start with a letter expressing a desire to let go of the disagreement or bad feelings that have kept you apart and to start anew without rehashing or processing the past. Chances are you both remember the past differently anyway.

Suggest a time and a place for a meeting, and if there's no response, or even a hostile one, let your gesture be the last word, at least for the time being. After a while, write another note or a text expressing your desire to reestablish relations.

Even if there's no reply, it will make things easier the next time you find yourself together again, which you're bound to be in the course of family events and rituals from christenings to funerals, celebrations and weddings, and especially, mourning your parents. It will also make it easier for everyone else involved, as long as you don't ask any other family members to step in (triangulation will just make a difficult situation more so).  

If there's room for rapprochement, fine. If not, knowing you've tried will lighten your mind and  your heart. and minimize the effect of estrangement on both.