Why We Break Up With Our Siblings

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    In the early '70s, Michael says, Steven became temperamental and less reliable, no longer resembling the person Michael had admired. Steven wasn't crazy, Michael says, just increasingly moody and self-centered. About six years ago, their father was hospitalized, and the brothers went to Florida to see him. They stayed with their stepmother, with whom Steven had a quarrel. Steven told Michael he was going to the hospital to tell their father about it. "It was ridiculous," Michael says. "My father was at death's door, and my brother wanted to complain to him about my stepmother! I had to physically restrain him from going."

    Their father died that night, and Michael hasn't seen his brother since the funeral. "I wouldn't be surprised if I never see him again," Michael says. "If I saw him on the street I would talk to him, but I wouldn't let him back in my life. I don't know who he is."

    Money issues are a common source of strife between brothers and sisters: Why wasn't that loan repaid? Who can afford the bigger house? How should the family business be run? Behavior outside the family's value system can also trip the switch: coming out of the closet, marrying interracially or converting to a new religion. Then there are cutoffs linked to extreme emotional states, the reasons for which--such as untreated mental illness, substance abuse, incest and violence--may never be brought out into the open.

    Wanda's older brother Charles Bucklew has only a few clues as to what might have caused his sister's self-banishment, including her drinking in the midst of their nearly teetotaling Lutheran family. Wanda, who no doubt has her own analysis of the split, never explained; her siblings never asked. And she could not be located by TIME reporters in Key West and New York. "There may be some reason out there that if you knew, it'd bring you to your knees, and you'd say, 'Oh, my God!'" says Bucklew. "But I don't know."

    The drive to create sibling bonds or something like them is to some experts primordial--even for an only child. Parents always have a disproportionate power over offspring, but siblings teach peer-level tolerance, loyalty and constancy--qualities that later apply to colleagues, friends and lovers. In moderation, sibling discord is useful, says psychologist Bank. "If the frustration is too great, it cripples you. But we all need a level of frustration in our lives in order to move ahead."

    In a 1996 study of people ages 18 to 86, 33% of those surveyed described their sibling relationships as "supportive," and only 11% were "hostile," with the rest falling somewhere in between. "I understand that there is sibling rivalry because I have two brothers and a sister," says Robert Stewart, chairman of the psychology department at Michigan's Oakland University. "But if something came up, and I needed to be on the other side of the country because one of them called, I'd go. There's not a whole lot of people in the world I'd do that for." Most people think of "rivalry" and "siblings" as synonymous and negative, he says, "but I think of it as a close affectional relationship where affection is not necessarily shown in a Hallmark card kind of way."

    The sibling relationship of D.B. (who asked that her name not be used) won't ever be confused with a greeting card. As a child, she looked up to her brother, 3 1/2 years older. After his marriage broke up, though, D.B. didn't like the way he treated his ex-wife. Well after the two divorced, he abandoned their original settlement agreement, demanding half the house and full custody of their daughter. D.B. saw his demands as unfair--and didn't think much of his parenting skills. "I just felt he was such a pig," she says. So she stopped talking to him--for seven years. "I come from a long line of grudge holders," she says. "They like their grudges. They air them and walk them and make jokes about them--embellish them."

    The silence ended, though, when an aunt died, and D.B. and her brother were the only relatives left to arrange her burial. "I remember thinking, Damn, now I have to see my brother." But the two reconciled somewhat and now talk occasionally on the phone. D.B., now 54, says if she ever needed money, she wouldn't hesitate to ask him for it. She has no money to offer him if the situation were reversed but says, "I would give him lots of time."

    Often, estranged siblings are struck by a sudden yearning to reconnect. Says Bank: "Your children leave home, your friends are sick, the leaves fall off the trees, and you say, 'Well, what do I have from my past?' And for better or worse, you've got this sibling who might have been a pain in the neck but who probably knows more about what it was like to live in your childhood home than anybody else."

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