Why We Break Up With Our Siblings

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    Yet even for siblings who wish to reconcile, breaking the ice is hard. "The difficulty most of us have is how do you pick up the telephone after so many years?" says Stewart. "People get into a pattern, and even though they're not comfortable in it, they can't imagine an alternative. Or the amount of courage and energy it would take to try to change may be beyond what they're capable of doing right now."

    The ability to overlook imperfections for the sake of a relationship is one hallmark of maturity. Siblings may decide to forgive one another once they have their own children. For Mark Horton, 44, a recent falling-out he had with his eldest sister still baffles him. He's not sure what happened or why. Now that they are back in tentative contact, they still haven't talked about it. "It was kind of a Twilight Zone episode," he says. But he does hope things heal. Horton (whose sister declined to be interviewed) says she has done remarkable things for him--sending him money when he was a poor college student and then being the only one to show up at his Harvard graduation. And he wants his four children to know their aunt. "It places them in the world," he says. "They're not comets flying through space randomly; they're part of a solar system."

    Reconciliation, experts say, is almost always worth an attempt. But about 40% of the families in Hargrave's clinical practice fail at reconciliation, mostly because when difficult issues get stirred up, no one is willing to take responsibility for what happened. Says Hargrave: "The person who has left just seals off again."

    For Douglas Matthews, 49, a human-resources consultant, finally breaking off from his parents and three brothers three years ago brought immense relief--and not just to him. "I see it as the best thing he could have ever done for himself," says his wife Teri-Ann, "and for me and the kids."

    Matthews has always been reluctant to discuss his family situation because he felt that well-meaning people just wouldn't get it that his parents and siblings were harmful to his happiness. "I learned early on that very few people understand the positive aspects of estrangement," he says. For decades, Matthews waffled between trying to be part of the family and retreating. He would try to initiate changes but says no one was willing to join in. Over time, and with therapy, he discovered that the yearning he felt was based on an unrealizable ideal of what his three brothers might have been to him. "A real brother would be there no matter what," Matthews says, "and not have an agenda for you--just accept where you are and listen. But it would be unconditional--nothing could break it. And also do the stupid things, you know. Go to a ball game together." But what Matthews has with his wife and two sons is no fantasy. "I have a home," he says, "and that's what I didn't have before. And I cherish it."

    Cutting off can be beneficial in some cases, says psychology professor Stewart, if what you're getting is nothing but negativity or grief. But it's "escape learning," he says, and if the other people involved are ever willing to work on the problem, "you won't know it because they're gone."

    For 15 years Keith Bearden, 33, had given up on his family, including his elder brother Dean, 38. Their parents' divorce cleaved the family into separate camps, and Keith wanted no part of either one. "I was really angry," he says. He also felt that he, a self-described "meek intellectual," had nothing in common with his tattooed, motorcycle-riding, machinist brother. Then Dean started telephoning a couple of years ago, just to see how Keith was doing. Keith, to his surprise, was happy to get the calls. Dean says he had no particular plan, that he had never even thought about the years when they were out of contact. "If you were never close," he says, "you never miss it."

    But becoming a parent got Dean thinking about family, and as Keith says, Dean was never judgmental or bitter about what had happened in childhood. Now the brothers talk regularly. They visit each other every few months and have realized they have the same sense of humor, the same taste for adventure, and they notice the same things--someone's weird shoes on the subway or a cute woman in a bar.

    Keith says he's much happier accepting rather than resenting the differences in his family, that it's helped him with all his relationships and that Dean deserves the credit for helping him reconnect. "Dean kept the door open, and I eventually walked back in," he says.

    Jonda Cynecki hasn't closed the door on her sister but is at a loss as to how anyone can pass through it. Since the death of their parents, Jonda has felt an increasingly acute sense of the irreplaceable nature of family. "There's that line that connects you," she says of her missing twin, "and I don't know if it'll ever be broken. Certainly when one of us passes away--and she could be gone now--I don't know if I'll ever know that." Cynecki pauses, wipes away tears, and collects herself. "Someday, I really need to find her. But just not today. Not today."

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