11/9/2021 | By Seniors Guide Staff

Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation: Q and A with author Fern Schumer Chapman

Author Fern Schumer Chapman knows her subject firsthand. Her book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, reflects her personal experience as well as a wealth of scholarly research and the experiences of others.

For years, Fern Schumer Chapman’s only significant connection to her estranged brother was through their mother. Chapman’s 40-year emotional separation from Scott, her only sibling, led her to write a book that blends memoir with research and guidance.

She tells the story of rebuilding a relationship with her brother. She uses research and words from experts on family studies and behavioral science to highlight common aspects of sibling estrangement. She also digs into stories from other people who have been through similar experiences.

“Our culture has avoided and neglected the sensitive subject of sibling estrangement, which can start with a brief silence and turn into years and decades of cutoff,” Chapman writes. “The estranged are a large, undisclosed group … Specific numbers are nearly nonexistent, in part because people are often reluctant to admit they are estranged from a brother or sister.”

Nor are there rules for maintaining family ties. “In today’s cultural environment, where the family structure has transformed from an interconnected, extended nuclear group into a smaller, decentralized, loose network of relatives,” she says, “sisters and brothers often lack clear guidelines for their relationships.”

Brothers, Sisters, Strangers begins with the importance of sibling relationships and moves through the grief of emotional separation, issues of reconnection, challenges of mental illness and addiction, irreparable splits, repercussions for the rest of the family, and practicalities to be faced after reconciliation.

For families torn apart, for many reasons, Chapman’s book can help bring healing – or keep the rift from occurring in the first place.

Seniors Guide reached out to the author for more insights.

Why does it matter that people stay connected with family?

Humans have a deep need to belong. The need to belong – whether through family, friendship, shared interests, or sexual intimacy – ranks just after the essentials: food and water, shelter and sleep, physical safety. Like these fundamentals, the human need to belong is lifelong.

Absent a sense of belonging – this feeling of emotional safety and context – people come to fear that their very lives are at risk. They lose the ability to trust and connect with others, instead becoming consumed by the task of surviving alone. The family – that original constellation of relationships – offers an opportunity to belong to a group and a chance to develop deep, lifelong connections that may transcend the transient nature of our existence.

Sibling rejection ripples into many parts of life and identity: It affects self-esteem – who you are and how you see yourself – your friendships, and other social relationships, your well-being and ability to trust, and many family relationships as members choose sides.

Do you think there are times when it’s appropriate to disconnect?

Absolutely, even though estrangements are stigmatized and inculcate a sense of failure, some relationships are simply too toxic to sustain. When the family member is consistently treating you in an abusive manner – being disrespectful, ignoring boundaries, gaslighting – it may be time to access the toll the relationship is taking on your well-being.

Do you see siblings growing apart after the parents pass away?

Yes, there are several perilous moments when a sibling relationship may be at risk. They include:

  • Adolescence: A teenage sibling, individuating and creating his or her own identity, leaves home for college or a job. He or she may change the established sibling relationships and dynamics in the family.
  • Marriage: A new brother- or sister-in‐law may seek to reduce and/or control the couple’s involvement with one side of the family.
  • Birth of a baby: As a sibling focuses on his or her new family, some family members may feel abandoned or betrayed. Siblings may even compete with each other through their children.
  • Divorce or illness: The physical, emotional, and financial responsibilities of helping a sick or divorcing family member may overwhelm one sibling, creating resentment at an unevenly shared burden.
  • Parental illness, death, or inheritance: Siblings may stage a last-ditch competition for power, love and family loyalty. Conflicts arise over health care and payment for an elderly parent, as well as inheritance of family treasures and assets.

In my survey, most people who were estranged from a sibling identified the last category as the catalyst for their cutoff.

On the road to reconciliation, how does a person get past built-up hurt and distrust?

Both parties must be willing to rebuild the relationship. First, ask yourself these crucial questions:

  • Why is this relationship important to me – not to my family or to anyone else but to me?
  • Does my family member want to resume a relationship?
  • Can I set aside the anger, pain, and/or resentment that led to the
  • break to change our pattern of relating?
  • Will I compromise too much of myself if I try to sustain a relation‐
  • ship with my difficult family member?

If siblings should decide to try to rebuild their relationship, they can gain understanding by:

  • Sitting down together, face to face.
  • Listening without interrupting, without challenging each other’s stories. The one goal is to seek understanding. Experts agree that reconciliation is impossible without true, genuine listening.
  • Acknowledging, with empathy, the other person’s hurt, anger, or alienation. Giving them the benefit of the doubt; assuming they have sincere, trustworthy intentions. When each party accepts both parties’ experiences, neither feels devalued nor shut out.
  • Stressing and acting on your willingness, desire and hope to create a mutual bond.
  • Letting go of anger.

Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, by Fern Schumer Chapman. Viking, April 6, 2021

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Seniors Guide Staff

Seniors Guide has been addressing traditional topics and upcoming trends in the senior living industry since 1999. We strive to educate seniors and their loved ones in an approachable manner, and aim to provide them with the right information to make the best decisions possible.

Seniors Guide Staff