Full disclosure alert: my younger brother and I don’t talk. We haven’t spoken for four years and counting. How ironic that in the first edition of this book (Brothers&Sisters: How They Shape Our Lives) and in this revised edition, I wrote a chapter about reconnecting with siblings and offered strategies for mending a frayed sibling relationship and touted the advantages of making amends.
At the time, my younger brother and I were still negotiating how, as adults, we might acknowledge our past “stuff” and find a balance in what had been a complicated connection since childhood. I thought I had the clarity that comes with age to settle old scores and move forward.
I was wrong.
For my brother and me, it was a dispute over my parents’ inheritance and his ill will toward them that put the proverbial nail in the coffin. As hard as I tried to acknowledge that his experiences with my parents were different from mine¾as much as I tried to understand his rush to finalize the estate, get his money and run¾my anger trumped forgiveness and wisdom.
Our frozen misunderstanding is one reason I decided to revisit the sibling relationship. Another is a question I first explored in Brothers&Sisters. It’s difficult to find anyone today who can’t rattle off issues with their parents—how their parents raised them, what they did right, what they did wrong, and the effect all this parenting (or lack of it) had on them.
But talking about how brothers and sisters may have shaped our lives is, for many, new and sometimes unsettling territory. Yet we spend more time with our siblings under the same roof than we do with our parents. In 2014, 92.8 percent of all fathers with children under age eighteen and 70.2 percent of mothers worked outside the home. Still, the majority of research has focused on the influence of parents in our lives, while the significance of siblings has been strangely neglected.
When the topic of siblings is raised, the operative response is “sibling rivalry.” A slew of books have been published on the subject, including Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s bestseller, Siblings Without Rivalry. In the authors’ introduction, they discuss the focus groups they ran and the questionnaires they compiled. They discovered that sibling rivalry was the number-one leading concern of parents. Mothers and fathers were often overwhelmed and at a loss at how to “help their children live together so they could live too.”
But the sibling relationship is deep and layered. It is potentially life’s longest-lasting family relationship and rarely static. It changes over time. Siblings outlive their parents on average by twenty to thirty years. What may be a contentious, competitive relationship with our siblings in childhood can become a close, important one later in life.
Our siblings can be the only intimate connection that seems to last. Friends and neighbors may move away, former coworkers are often forgotten, marriages end in divorce, but our brothers and sisters remain our brothers and sisters.
As Stephen Bank writes in the foreword to the first edition of this book, “As adults we are continually trying to understand why we are, how we are, and the way we are. Our siblings are important mirrors for identity . . . an important mirror for anyone who wants to connect with personal experience.”
So, grab your mirror and have a look.
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