Tensions that begin in childhood can carry on into adult years. Photo credit: photodune.
By Karin Friedemann TMO Contributing Writer
There is a lot written about how childhood sibling rivalry can scar a person for life. Nationwide, sibling violence occurs four to five times as frequently as spousal or parental child abuse.
Author of “Sibling Abuse Trauma,” Dr. John V. Caffaro writes about patients who sabotaged themselves in their careers because of emotional issues associated with the repeated humiliation they experienced at the hands of a brother or sister.
“It can erode their sense of identity and their self-esteem.”
Even though parental abuse of children generally tapers off when the child grows up, and spousal abuse often ends in divorce, sibling abuse sometimes continues to escalate after adulthood, or can suddenly erupt even long after the parents have died. In some cases, it appears that the sibling takes over where the parent left off, in a lifelong effort to crush the spirit.
Katerina Peters, 45, told TMO that when she was 16, she had a spiritual experience, which enabled her to forgive her mother for years of crippling emotional abuse. Around the same time, her brother, who had been her inseparable companion, suddenly stopped acknowledging her existence, even though they lived in the same house. He started referring to a female friend as his “sister.” The brother also started a campaign of backstabbing at their high school, which was so intense that to be seen talking to Katerina became social suicide and even her best friend stopped making eye contact. It took Katerina decades to figure out how her life was destroyed.
“My mother was the one who told my brother not to talk to me anymore, who told him that I was crazy. I had forgiven her and was no longer fighting with her. She could no longer control me emotionally, so she employed my brother to take over her role as abuser. … My theory is that he is seeking my mother’s affection because he perceived me as the favorite when we were kids.”
Psychologists refer to this type of use of a third person as a weapon as “triangulation,” “in which one person plays the third family member against one that he or she is upset about. This is playing the two people against each other, but usually the person doing the splitting, will also engage in character assassination,” writes Violet in the Narcissist’s Child blog.
What I found truly astonishing was the deep intensity of grief of the siblings that hoped their love would be returned. Katerina cried herself to sleep for four months and then went into a deep depression that lasted for five years after she realized profoundly that her brother was not her friend. Sabrina Alii, 60, likewise describes the traumatic breakup with her sibling:
“My brother big time turned against me. He destroyed my relationship with my half sister … and tried to have all of my friends think I was crazy…enough to be institutionalized. I never in my life had someone turn against me like he did … I became the receptacle for his demons, as only a little sister who no one will ever take seriously could do. I really loved my brother. And this was a devastating shock. I am now as good as dead to him. He does not care about me. That is the horror of it now. He’s no longer angry. He just does not acknowledge me as existing.”
I spoke with yet a third woman, aged 65, whose older brother suddenly disowned her due to his Zionist politics. Carrying her brother’s break up letter in her purse at all times, Sasha Rosenberg’s sorrow has completely engulfed her life as she goes through the process of grieving his loss.
“He will be 79 in May. Not that much time left and he has killed part of me and my love for him. I can deal with it … Sort of deal with it. Some good days but most not so good – awful.”
The experience of being shunned by family members is very complex because due to cultural taboos, we cannot just shake our heads and walk on without feeling intense feelings of guilt and familial obligation. We would never accept anyone openly mistreating us in normal society but with family, there is a sense that we have to crawl back and accept more humiliation.
I can only imagine the abuse potential and the risk of abandonment in societies where brothers assert legal guardianship over their unmarried sisters, who sometimes cannot even travel alone.
“One girl, her family didn’t allow her to get married because no one takes care of her old father who couldn’t go to restroom or take shower (by himself) so she stayed with him until he passed away. She was 41 years old and when she wanted to get married after that her brother refused unless she goes with him to the court and puts their father’s house under his name instead of his late father and don’t take any of the furniture that she bought from her own money,” Iraqi immigrant Jabril Shamim told TMO.
Jane Mersky Leder in Psychology Today describes how a woman she interviewed came to terms with her brother’s nastiness towards her by looking at the dysfunctional family as a whole, when they spent some time together after her father’s funeral.
“I ceased to exist,” Karen said. “I became wallpaper. No one talked to me. And, for once, I didn’t feel any pain. It was like, ‘Ah, so this is how it was with us.’ I saw things the way they were and are, not the way I wished they were or could have been.”
“While few adult siblings have severed their ties completely, approximately one-third of them describe their relationship as rivalrous or distant,” writes Leder.
“We have no rituals that make, break, or celebrate the sibling bond. And family experts have underemphasized the sibling relationship, instead concentrating on parents and children and husbands and wives.”
Nevertheless, studies show that at least 80 percent of siblings over age 60 enjoy close ties with one another. Rivalry forged in childhood or even adulthood becomes less important with time.