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The sibling bond is the longest relationship most people will ever have. When things go wrong, it can cast a long shadow. That's where sibling therapy can come in.
Laura, who lives in New York, has been estranged from her older brother for more than 15 years. (She asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons.) The two were close as kids, but their relationship had “an edge” to it and became competitive, she said. Tensions grew as they became teens and adults.
“There were many things that were good with us, but more things that were bad,” Laura, 56, told TODAY. “There were very hurtful, damaging things said, primarily towards me and I tried and tried to get over it but it's been hard.”
After they stopped talking, there have been sporadic communications over the years that haven't gone anywhere. Laura reached out to her brother on birthdays a few times — sometimes receiving a response, sometimes not hearing back for years. The last straw came five years ago when he sent her a hurtful and profane message, she said.
“Would I like to reconcile? There is always that hope deep in the back of my mind, deep in my heart, but I have long since let go and feel it's the best thing for my own emotional well-being,” she said.
“I know in my heart that I have made mature efforts to try and reconnect with him — it just never worked out.”
Sibling therapy can help families heal
Laura doesn’t believe any type of counseling would help. But there are now experts who specifically offer adult sibling therapy, with a mission to repair problems, restore ties and resolve old grievances. The sessions can help families heal, said Karen Gail Lewis, a therapist based in Silver Spring, Maryland, who counsels adult siblings and offers sibling retreats.
Her patients grapple with issues such as lingering resentments from childhood, including parental favoritism, arguments over how to care for elderly parents and squabbles over the family business and estate.
Lewis tells clients that if they had a good relationship with their siblings as kids, chances are she can help them now, no matter how bad things are.
“Then we have something we can build on that’s already inside,” she said. “I get them to talk and remember what it was like before, when they were younger. Then we can take a look at: How did they lose that?”
Psychologists and researchers in general are giving sibling relationships more attention, said Geoffrey Greif, therapist, co-author of “Adult Sibling Relationships” and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Sibling therapy can also be done one-on-one, with therapists now taking a closer look at sibling interactions — not just parent and spouse relationships — in their sessions with clients, he noted.
“Some people believe the intimacy of a sibling relationship is a blueprint for your future intimate relationships, too,” Greif said. “How you learn to share the bathroom, possibly a bedroom, and the kitchen table with somebody and how you get along with people is learned pretty early under an involuntary situation.”
You have millions of interactions with your siblings over a lifetime, which means lots of opportunity for miscommunication and hurt feelings, he added. When Greif and his co-author interviewed hundreds of adult siblings, they found most had positive relationships. But many also had very mixed feelings towards their brothers and sisters. Some were bullied or suffered sexual abuse. About 10 percent were estranged, like Laura, which can have a profound effect.
“If you are cut-off from that person, that sibling is a shadow on your life,” Greif said. “I can drop my friends, I can even drop my wife, but I can’t drop a sibling.”
How to start repairing the relationship
Be willing to forgive and try to hit the “reset button,” Greif said. Look for opportunities to get close again. Focus on moving forward and having loving and healthy connections with your family.
Try to understand your sibling’s perspective: “It can be incredibly powerful when brothers and sisters hear each other's different memories of their childhood,” Lewis writes in her book “Siblings: The Ghosts of Childhood That Haunt Your Love and Work.”
If you are estranged and you want to reconnect, start by writing a letter telling your sibling you miss her and that you’d like to hear her perspective of the problem, Lewis suggests in her book. End by asking her to write you back.
If your sibling is not responsive, decide how much you are willing to continue to pursue a relationship, Greif advised.
Ask yourself: Do you feel better if you still send your sister a birthday card every year and keep reaching out? Or does it feel more in-sync with your values to say to yourself: Look, I tried and I’m not going to try anymore. I’m finished.
“There’s no answer that works for everybody,” Greif said.