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Family Dynamics

The Shame and Isolation of Sibling Estrangement

Others typically see a cutoff as a personal failure.

Key points

  • Regardless of the reasons for the cutoff, estranged siblings are caught in a swirl of judgments and doubts.
  • A survey of estranged family members found that 68 percent feel judged and stigmatized by the cutoff.
  • The estranged feel judged by a culture that expects family cohesion, and they often view the cutoff as a personal failing.
Jeswin Thomas/Pexels
Source: Jeswin Thomas/Pexels

Tell someone “I’m divorced,” and they probably won’t blink an eye; indeed, they may be eager to share their own divorce saga. Tell someone “I don’t get along with my mother,” and chances are good they’ll roll their eyes empathetically.

But if you say, “I have no relationship with my brother,” people don’t relate as easily. They get uncomfortable, arch their eyebrows, and probably wonder

  • What’s wrong with her?
  • Is this a good candidate for friendship?
  • If she can’t maintain a relationship with her own brother, is she capable of sustaining any relationship?

While writing my book Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, I interviewed a woman who said that people can’t believe the stories she tells them about her family. Nor do they accept her decision to opt out. “Some say I should make things work no matter what because it’s family,” she explained. “One person even told me that it must be my fault since they’ve all cut me off.”

Estrangement casts suspicion on everyone involved. Whether estrangement was a choice or the relationship simply faded away, estranged siblings are caught in a swirl of judgments and doubts. The sibling who ends contact—the shunner—may be haunted by the daunting question: How could I be so heartless as to cut off my own sibling? Meanwhile, the shunned may be plagued by the corresponding question: What’s so wrong with me that my sibling doesn’t want anything to do with me?

Both shunned and shunner find themselves on high alert to others’ perceptions of their possible failings. People often don’t offer their explicit thoughts about an estrangement, but an eye-roll, averted gaze, or awkward silence betrays their discomfort. Those nonverbal signals often give the estranged the feeling that they have something shameful to hide. Many of the estranged I interviewed expressed frustration that a wide array of disturbing topics, from divorce to abuse, are openly discussed—yet sibling estrangement remains steeped in shame.

An important collaborative study by Stand Alone, a British organization that offers support services to estranged family members, and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research sheds light on the stigma of estrangement. Analysis of 807 members of the Stand Alone community who completed the study’s survey showed that 54 percent agreed with the statement that “estrangement or family breakdown is common in our family.” Among adults estranged from one or more family members, 68 percent believed that a stigma accompanies family estrangement. Many respondents cited the fear of judgment and assumptions of fault or blame as a frequent source of shame.

Rejecting the Family Order

The idea of the close, loving extended family is a social construct that isn’t necessarily representative of most families, yet it is reinforced everywhere. Throughout the culture, from opera to sitcom, brothers and sisters are assumed and urged not just to maintain, but also to prioritize, above all else, their families. “Blood is thicker than water!” and “Love thy family!” and “You can’t choose your family!” and—yes, even—“There’s no place like home.”

Many people find the very idea of family estrangement so threatening that they can’t confront, much less discuss, a family model that doesn’t match their expectations. Few who haven’t experienced estrangement understand the depth of this hurt, and even fewer want to talk about it.

As a consequence, the estranged often suffer in silence, isolated twice: not only from our sibling but also from social support against the loss. And, yet, whenever I tell people I’ve written a book about sibling estrangement, they sit up a little straighter and lean in, as if I’ve tapped into something. Even those who haven’t experienced this loss likely know someone who has, and they welcome insights. One woman told me she suspects that the hidden pervasiveness and shame of estrangement resemble those behind the “Me Too” movement. So does the increased risk of low self-esteem that comes with hiding the problem.

Avoiding the Topic of Estrangement

Lacking an empathetic community or cultural support, some rejected siblings cope by evasion. They may dodge even casual questions about their family, redirecting the conversation in hopes of avoiding social disapproval. Some will go so far as to lie about their family.

Denial as a coping strategy can be difficult to sustain, especially in a small town. One woman whose military family lives in rural Arkansas says she doesn’t tell anyone in town about her family estrangements. However, at her children’s sporting events, where large extended families gather to cheer on young players, she can’t hide her alienation. In the stands, she sits—conspicuously and uncomfortably—alone.

To the shunner or the shunned, what’s most shattering is their common question: What does this say about me as a person? Shunner and shunned alike carry the stigma of estrangement as their own personal failing, a character flaw, feeling invisible, meaningless, judged, and found wanting by a culture that celebrates and expects family cohesion.

Facebook image: Bricolage/Shutterstock

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