Why We Break Up With Our Siblings

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Jonda cynecki hasn't seen her twin sister Wanda in 13 years and doesn't hold out much hope that she ever will. Their last contact came at a family gathering in Ohio for Christmas, after which Wanda returned to her home in Key West, Fla. Then she disappeared. She didn't call, didn't write and couldn't be reached. When her parents died several years later, her siblings had to use intermediaries to get through to her. She called to borrow money about a year ago. Since then, the only sign she's still alive is that no one has heard anything to the contrary. And yet Jonda, 54, a school librarian, says wistfully of Wanda, "There isn't a day that goes by that something doesn't remind me of her."

Usually that something is doing the laundry. Whenever Jonda goes down to her basement to wash clothes, she sees, tucked under the stairs, an old tandem stroller. Her father crafted it from spare parts, painted it white and wrapped rubber around its wooden wheels. Jonda won't get rid of the stroller, even though it provokes sorrow and anger toward the sister who walked out on her family. What Jonda doesn't know--and might never know--is why.

Estrangement from siblings is a powerful ache not only for Jonda but for millions of other Americans as well--especially during the year-end holidays, when the absence of relatives is most poignant. Many of the 77 million baby boomers, now well into middle age, live farther from their brothers and sisters than did previous generations. And with each passing year, they face more of the life passages that often trigger splits with siblings, particularly arguments over the care of elderly parents or over their estates. At the same time, boomers have more divorces and fewer children and are less tethered to neighbors than were their parents and grandparents, so they are more in need of strong relationships with sisters and brothers--the most-enduring ties many of us have in our lives. Eighty-five percent of adult Americans have at least one sibling, yet an estimated 3% to 10% have completely severed contact with a brother or sister.

Such absolute estrangements may not be the norm, but experts who study family relationships believe they are on the rise. Psychologist Carol Netzer, author of Cutoffs: How Family Members Who Sever Relationships Can Reconnect, thinks that today's broader cultural freedoms have made it easier for people to say goodbye to traditions and to relatives. "The nuclear family is not as tight as it once was," she says. Some rifts reflect larger trends. The Woodstock generation, Netzer explains, was full of young people leaving their families to lose themselves in drugs or join religious groups, political movements and communes. "Often, when that ripple in the culture passes," says Netzer, "people go back to their families." Terry Hargrave, family therapist and author of Families and Forgiveness, believes that while the psychological self-help movement has been largely positive, "it teaches the individual that 'you're the most important thing; family is not.'"

The origins of a sibling breach often can be traced to childhood. Psychologist Stephen P. Bank, co-author of The Sibling Bond, observes that eldest children who are expected to care for younger siblings may feel overburdened and resentful. Children born too many years apart, says Bank, may never share common interests or developmental stages. For them, slender ties are sometimes easy to cut.

Nancy B. (who asked that her full name not be used) is a management consultant with a sister older by six years and a brother older by 12. She doesn't speak to either of them but for differing reasons. "The age gap was so significant," she says. As a child, she worshiped her brother, whose trips home from college were cause for celebration. A few years ago, he stopped returning her calls. She doesn't know why.

On the other hand, she was never comfortable with her sister. "There was always tension between us," Nancy, now 52, says. "I couldn't figure it out." Nancy ended contact after the sister attached herself to yet another violent man, and Nancy felt relegated to the role of caretaker--for someone who didn't want to be helped. The three siblings were last together 25 years ago at their mother's funeral. Nancy still feels the loss, she says, "but my heart isn't breaking anymore. I've figured out a way to be in the world without trying to make love happen where it isn't."

Yet in other families, psychologist Bank says, large age differences can help alleviate competition for toys, friends and parental attention. Some older siblings enjoy being caregivers, often in exchange for adoration. Studies show bonds among sisters tend to be strongest, epitomized by Bessie and Sadie Delany, co-authors of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years. And when parents are absent, neglectful or abusive, siblings often fill the void by forming tight bonds, as did the brothers in the movie Radio Flyer.

Major life changes such as marriage, divorce, birth, illness or death can trigger a separation, Netzer says, but usually only if tensions have been building for years. Consider, for example, the case of Michael Carr, 42, a money manager, and his older brother Steven, who ended contact with each other two years ago. When they were growing up, Michael saw Steven, two years older, as his best friend and guardian angel. "We were really close," Michael says. "He was the ringleader in the neighborhood. He was my hero." (Steven did not respond to requests for an interview.)

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