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Silence and shame: Memoir examines 'devastating' impact of sibling estrangement

Author who had no relationship with brother for 40 years explains why adult siblings become estranged and how to repair rifts.
Prince William and Prince Harry have "some very deep risk factors" for sibling estrangement, author says.
Prince William and Prince Harry have "some very deep risk factors" for sibling estrangement, author says.
/ Source: TODAY

The world’s most famous brothers are barely speaking and many families who don’t have palaces or royal titles can relate.

Britain’s Prince William and Prince Harry are a high-profile example of tensions that can turn into sibling estrangement — a family dynamic that’s often wrapped in silence, secrecy and shame.

Fern Schumer Chapman knows all too well how devastating it can be. She had almost no relationship with her older brother Scott for 40 years and for much of that time, she didn’t understand why he didn’t talk with her.

They reconciled seven years ago and Chapman, now 66, described their relationship today as the best it’s ever been. She examines the pain such a cutoff can cause in her new book “Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation.”

“It's in some ways worse than a death because it is not final. There is this chronic rumination that goes on when someone has been shunned. I kept blaming myself and asking what I had done, why is this happening and how could I fix it?” Chapman, who lives in suburban Chicago, told TODAY.

“There are a lot of siblings who simply have no idea what happened and why it happened. A lot of times, like in my case, there's never any huge blowout. It's just that you become adults, you move in different worlds and it's difficult to find connection. And in time, there is no connection.”

More than a quarter of Americans, 27%, are estranged from a close relative, with almost a third of this group estranged from a sibling, according to previous research.

Chapman weighed in on why a rift can be particularly painful for sisters and brothers.

Why are people so reluctant to talk about sibling estrangement?

Because there's a stigma: If you can't get along with somebody in your own family, are you a good candidate for friendship? There's a great sense of embarrassment and humiliation that you cannot maintain family relations.

That’s what contributes to the little research that's out there. People don't want to admit they don't have a relationship with a brother or sister.

Is there something wrong with you if you are estranged from a sibling?

No, there are a lot of hidden reasons and very complicated situations that result in this. For example, my brother couldn't separate his anger towards my father from me, and that was a piece of why we ended up estranged. He was angry that I was able to sustain some sort of relationship with my father, who was very difficult, and he couldn't.

How do you feel about being pushed away for so long?

I'm not angry; I'm relieved that we're finally talking. I feel sad that we lost all of those years, particularly because our children never had the opportunity to form a cousin relationship. But my brother was a different person, I was a different person. Sibling relationships wax and wane, and they have different levels of closeness at different points in life. I try to remember that and accept it.

"My brother was quite desperate for help and I showed up unexpectedly when he needed me most," Fern Schumer Chapman said of the moment she and her brother reconciled after 40 years of almost no relationship.Bruce Wasser

Why does the possibility of reconciling improve as people age?

There's more reflection as you get older and you start to remember your history more. You miss the only person who has some of the shared memories.

Siblings are shared historians. There isn’t anybody else who you were in the tub with as children, so it creates a very strong connection, even if it's not a bond.

If someone wants to reconcile with a sibling, how should they do it?

It's important that you start softly, slowly and try to gently re-enter each other’s lives. One of the key points is that you sit down together and listen to each other without interruption or challenging each other’s stories. Listen to understand, which is what we often don't do. We become extremely defensive rather than actually hearing one another.

Acknowledge, recognize and honor what the other person has been through. It requires a lot on both sides. It's important to lose the anger and try to start fresh. It's not going to happen in one conversation.

Should family members try to reconcile siblings?

That's a really complicated question. I think it's dangerous to get mixed up with this. It's important to insist as a parent that every family member is invited to events, but I'm not sure how much farther you can go than that.

Is a limited relationship a good option for siblings who don’t get along?

Yes, it's devastating to be completely estranged from a sibling, so if you can have some relationship — occasional emails or phone calls — it reduces that acid drip on the back of your brain that you don't have this connection.

If you can set boundaries and curb your expectations, a limited relationship will relieve you of some of the sadness and grieving that comes with a complete estrangement.

What’s your advice if the rift is irreparable?

That’s a really difficult situation. It is a tremendous loss.

It's going to take a lot of work in therapy, through meditation, leaning on friends and partners for support, dealing with the feelings as they come up, trying to recognize the triggers that bring up the pain and creating a family of choice, which is surrogates who can step in, love you and give you some of that connection you might have had with a sibling.

Can Prince William and Prince Harry reconcile?

One of the sad things about Harry and William is that the royals fit into four risk categories for estrangement:

Family trauma: The brothers experienced the death of their mother at a young age.

Parental favoritism: You really can't get more favoritism than when your brother is going to be king and you're relegated to a supporting role.

Poor communication skills: The monarchy is notorious for not resolving their personal problems and the boys probably never learned to negotiate their differences.

Family values: Harry married way outside the family identity and some families just don't tolerate certain behaviors that resist or defy that family identity. In Harry's case, he may have chosen a partner — wittingly or unwittingly — to help him establish distance and even a break from his family.

They have some very deep risk factors. But love, loyalty and effort could pave the road to a royal reconciliation. I hope William and Harry can find a way.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.