The Anguish of Not Knowing Why a Sibling Cuts You Off
Without feedback, siblings misinterpret cutoffs, creating their own narrative.
Posted December 20, 2022 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- A sibling cutoff without explanation can lead to rumination. The mind is a natural problem-solver, trying to derive meaning from experience.
- Shunned siblings often feel completely shut out, their reality and emotions invalidated as they are rendered voiceless.
- A cutoff feels personal, but it may not be personal. Some cut off because they feel jealous or competitive. Others are hiding something shameful.
For the shunned sibling, estrangement often carries profound grief. That pain is even worse when the shunned sibling has no idea why the relationship ended. Not knowing the reasons for the cutoff can be its own form of torture.
The human mind is a natural problem-solver. We seek answers and try to derive meaning from any experience. A sibling cut off without any explanation may succumb to rumination. Stuck in a loop, they’re forever circling around the same unanswered questions: Why did things get to this? What did I do? How can I fix this?
Susanna Garth, 35, a Pacific Islands native who grew up in a loving, lower‐middle‐class family, says she now lives in that skewed misery with her sole, older sister, and she’s frustrated that she has no opportunity to talk about their relationship. She has no idea whether the estrangement is temporary or permanent, and that is its own agony.
I always thought I had a great relationship with my sister. I have loads of happy childhood memories with her. I was the only bridesmaid at her wedding five years ago. I spent lots of time with her and her daughter. I was there for the birth of her son. I always assumed she’d be a very important part of my life.
The estrangement felt very sudden. I not only lost my relationship with my sister, but I have lost contact with my four-year-old niece and five-year-old nephew. My sister said she loves me, but she “just needs to walk away for now.” I don’t know why.
The grief is overwhelming—suddenly having someone you thought would be there forever completely ripped from your life, not being able to do anything about it, and not knowing whether it will be for a few months or forever.
Without any discussion, Garth speculates that the estrangement could be traced to any of several factors. “She could feel uncomfortable about our differing political beliefs,” she says. “Or she might feel threatened because the family expressed concern over the treatment of her daughter. Or maybe she’s upset with me because I couldn’t help her out much when I was in postgraduate school, and she was overwhelmed by the needs of her baby daughter.” But, ultimately, Garth says her head spins with confusion.
The shunned are rendered voiceless
When there is no discussion of the cutoff, the shunned feel they have no recourse or self-defense. Many would like the opportunity to address a problem, in hopes of reducing tensions and maintaining the relationship. But siblings who have no opportunity to talk can’t present their side of the story, can’t ask questions, and can’t even apologize for whatever their offenses may be. They feel completely shut out, their reality and emotions invalidated as they are rendered voiceless.
The choice to cut off a sibling wields a weighty club of control, denying a sister’s or brother’s very existence and generating feelings of anxiety, rejection, futility, and powerlessness. In time, this tactic breaks down trust between siblings, and the shunned may feel that silence is employed with a deliberate intent to hurt—its own form of betrayal and abuse.
"Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving the cold shoulder or silent treatment," explains Kipling Williams, a Professor of Psychology at Purdue University, who has studied ostracism for 20 years, "are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realize the emotional or physical harm that is being done."
This tactic is often employed by siblings with narcissistic traits. They are not looking to create connection; they use this tactic to get their own needs met. The tactic, which is a form of emotional abuse, typically draws some reaction from the target, as he or she often feels a desperate need to recover the relationship and return to a state of balance.
The silent treatment is designed to:
- Assert control over the target.
- Silence the sibling’s attempts to assert himself or herself.
- Avoid conflict resolution, personal responsibility, and/or compromise.
- Punish the target for a perceived insult or ego injury.
The rejection feels personal, but maybe it’s not
With neither input nor feedback, each sibling constructs a narrative of what happened and why it happened. Desperate to achieve some sort of understanding, siblings often come to their own conclusions based upon misperceptions, miscommunications, and their own defensiveness.
A cutoff undeniably feels personal, but in truth, it may not be personal at all. Some siblings have deep feelings of jealousy, competition, and resentment that they are reluctant to discuss openly. Some cut off because they are hiding something shameful, such as substance abuse or symptoms of mental illness. Some cut off to set boundaries to protect themselves from more injury from an abusive sibling.
When the reasons eventually emerge, the shunned may realize that they wasted days, months, even years personalizing and analyzing the cutoff—only to discover that it had little to do with anything they did.
That was my experience with my estranged brother. He cut me off because he wanted nothing to do with his family of origin. He wasn’t able to completely cut off our mother, but my manner and presence reminded him of our difficult father, from whom he was estranged nearly all his life.
For decades, without knowing why my brother had cut me off, I personalized his rejection. I thought I was what he couldn’t bear. But when we finally reconciled, and I learned the real reason for the cutoff, I recognized that it was our dad, not me, he was trying to excise from his life. There was absolutely nothing I could have done about his distorted perceptions of me; there was also nothing I could have done to distinguish myself and my presence from those of our dad. And—probably most important of all—until my brother was ready to reconcile, there was nothing I could have done to bring it about.
Williams, K. (2007). The Kiss of Social Death. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00004.x