How Men and Women Cope With Sibling Estrangement
Women may acutely feel responsibility, and guilt.
Posted November 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Typically, men don’t join support groups or readily explore their hurt over sibling estrangement.
- A man may fear that if he approaches an estranged sibling and he is rejected, he’ll look like a loser.
- Women feel responsible for the family, they've failed when there are cutoffs and the entire family doesn’t attend holiday events.
When my brother and I reconciled eight years ago, I was finally able to pose a question that had haunted me throughout our 40-year estrangement. His response, I thought, would reveal whether he truly cared.
“How often did you think of me when we didn’t talk?” I asked.
His surprising answer: “Every day.”
I was completely flummoxed by this seeming paradox until I learned that his non-response is common among men. In two Facebook groups dedicated to sibling estrangement, men total less than 5 percent of the membership. Only 2 percent of the self-selected respondents to the survey I conducted for my book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, were male, and fewer than 1 percent identified themselves as “undeclared.”
Sibling estrangement therapist Karen Gail Lewis reports that in her 50 years of practice, 99.8 percent of her referrals have come from sisters who bring in their sisters or brothers for joint therapy.
Are men fazed by estrangement?
The answer to that question is a resounding yes, according to Lewis, whose book, Sibling Therapy: The Ghosts from Childhood that Haunt Your Clients’ Love and Work, is scheduled for publication in April 2023 by Oxford University Press.
“Both men and women suffer with estrangement, but men are less likely to join groups,” she says. “The core identities for men and women are different. Women historically are more relational, and men are more concrete.”
Lewis identifies two reasons that men do not discuss estrangement. First, many men subscribe to the old adage, “men don’t cry.” This typically leads to avoidance of any discussion at all about emotional hurts. Second, men tend to view much of their lives, especially relationships, in a win-lose framework. When for any reason a relationship doesn’t work out, men want to avoid being seen, even by themselves, as losers.
“To contact an estranged sibling is a risk,” Lewis explains. “If the man admits he misses you and wants to work things out, they worry: ‘What if he or she says no? Then I’m a loser.’ Society dictates that men don’t want to intentionally set out to be a loser.”
Why women suffer more from ‘holiday blues’
Meanwhile, women carry the family forward. It’s a responsibility they feel especially keenly as the holidays approach. When a falling-out has separated some family members, and not all are willing to gather together for holiday celebrations, women often feel that they personally have failed.
Women generally are socialized to “get along.” Even at the cost of suppressing their own feelings, they’re expected to keep the family going. They are the traditional stewards of family community and continuity: organizing social schedules, hosting holidays, attending ceremonial events, providing gifts, communicating regularly, nurturing relationships, and mediating or adjudicating as necessary. Being responsible for such a pivotal role in the family, a sister may blame herself when a sibling relationship doesn’t work and the family fractures.
“Women tend to talk and talk and talk about their hurts, sometimes too much,” says Lewis. “They are given the societal support for working on their relationships; they tend to address issues and often initiate therapy.”
Surprisingly, Lewis says she has noticed that this pattern is beginning to change in her practice, as she has seen an increase in the number of brothers who have asked for help over the last year. Recently, she says, younger brothers specifically have been calling her and saying, “I have to do something about my relationships with my siblings.”
“Men are just as upset as women about estrangement,” concludes Lewis. “But, they are not given societal support for working on relationships. In general, they carry the hurt, but they don’t know how to talk about it. They just don’t have the language.”
Instead, they mull over the estrangement, every day.
Facebook image: Daniel Jedzura/Shutterstock