How do I cope with being the estranged one?
September 22, 2015 1:43 AM   Subscribe

Today my sibling has decided to cut ties with me. I am devastated and at an utter loss on how to handle some of the finer social details.

We are children of immigrants, so our childhood was somewhat culturally different. There were anger issues and maybe some religious ones too. And honestly, I was a jerk when we were kids. As an adult, I have profusely apologized several times and tried to make up for it. I understand why my sibling would consider their childhood toxic and abusive and would want nothing to do with all of us.

Am I supposed to keep this a secret from our parents and relatives? I am fairly sure Sibling has not directly cut ties with them, and is likely doing the bare minimum - birthdays, holidays, little else. (They live in the same area, I am out of the country.) If I tell them, it's likely they would try to interfere which is probably not good for everybody. If I mention it to my relatives, it will also probably eventually get back to my folks.

It's like a death in the family I can't reveal. And I am terrible at hiding my emotions, especially of this magnitude. There's a wedding next month where I'll be seeing some childhood friends and I don't know how to answer the inevitable catching up answers. If I say, "Good, they're super busy, but good!" enough times, will it stop hurting? Do I practice in the mirror? Does fake it until you make it work?

How do I live in this alternate timeline where it's just me now?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
That's really rough. I think you have to do what feels right to you. There will probably be some people here who will have very strong opinions about what you must or must not do, but those people aren't part of your family. Nobody knows your family as well as the people in it.

If it happened to me, I would tell my parents but I would try to do it in a non-dramatic way doing all I could not to demonize the sibling. Something like, "Well, we've always struggled, and (sibling) is still hurt from how I mistreated them when we were kids. Right now (sibling) doesn't want to talk to me, and I'm trying to respect that. I'm hoping we can work this out someday."

I'm not good at hiding my emotions either. (Or, more precisely, I apparently seem like a big moody mess to people about some issues and on some other issues I can walk around in agony for years and then I finally tell people and they're like, "What?! I never had a clue!" Emotions are weird.) Maybe you should try to strike a middle ground, being honest about the situation and acknowledging that it hurts without getting into all the details or having a meltdown. Maybe you should tell your parents what's happening, but insist they don't interfere. That's your call to make.

I hope you and your sibling can reconcile soon.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:06 AM on September 22, 2015 [8 favorites]

I'm so sorry. I know exactly how painful this is and you have my absolute empathy in spades.

My family was very toxic as well, including damaged war vet dad, alcoholic housewife mom, heritable depression and bipolar in mother, and tons of physical abuse.

I just have one sister and about 13 years ago she decided she hated me. I'm older, I don't know why, except I moved away for grad school and, though in university herself, she felt abandoned and that festered for a long time. I never heard why. I tried about four times to write emails, call, leave letters...nothing.

So I can tell you that you just kind of get used to it. It doesn't even twinge anymore for me (all that much) and it was her decision, just like it is your sibling's decision and all you can do is say I'll always be for you.

I'm not sure how to handle your parents...will they feel betrayed if you know and don't tell them? Will immediate drama ensue if you tell? I usually try to mind my own business when people make their own decisions. If your parents ask, can you say, "I don't know what's going on with sib; I tried to call. Why don't you guys call?" And skedaddle. Be there for them when they are sad but it isn't your responsibility what sib decides. It also isn't your responsibility to bring them back to the fold.

Best of luck to you, my friend in pain. It hurts. Maybe your sibling will come around. I hope so.
posted by Punctual at 2:47 AM on September 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm struggling to see why I you need to involve your parents and relatives in something which is essentially an issue between two grown-ups (you and your sibling). If asked about your sibling, you can tell the truth - "oh we don't talk much at the moment" - but you don't owe anybody anything beyond that. You live in a different country, you lead different lives and you are both grown ups - there is no rule that families have to be tight-knit and your family situation is one of those where you have ended up leading separate lives for whatever reason.

Families drifting apart is one of the strangest aspects of growing up - it doesn't happen to everyone, but it happens to a lot of people. You are not "just me now" - you still have your parents and other relatives. You may also have friends who are close. Sometimes family is who you choose to be your family (personally I have two people who I choose to think of as a sister and a brother despite no blood ties).

My sympathies because I can tell you are hurting a lot.
posted by kariebookish at 2:52 AM on September 22, 2015 [11 favorites]

It's not your responsibility to keep it a secret unless you want to. In your position, I would probably tell people about it if they asked or if it otherwise came up, because acting like everything was normal would be painful for me. If it's easier for you not to talk about it at all, that's fine too, but I think you'll have a hard time keeping it from your parents long-term.
posted by metasarah at 3:07 AM on September 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

Hey, I have two old and dear friends who are siblings who this happened with. Younger was repeatedly quite mean to Older, so Older cut Younger off. In retrospect, this was as much to do with other stressful aspects of Older's life (and a lot of self-doubt and anxiety going on at the time) than it was the ill-treatment. And they certainly both said awful things to each other.

Having watched this unfold, I'd disagree with the other folks here about not telling your parents. It can be a valuable source of support to have them to talk to about this thing which nearly no-one else will really understand. But be really careful how you tell them, and how much. Do not, whatever you do, say anything that might cause them to take sides, whoever's it may be. Gently reassure them that "I very much hope this will blow over, we just need to give it time", and try to believe it yourself.

I say this because with my friends, they told their parents independently, in a dramatic way with a lot of anger and violent speech, and this has caused the parents to oscillate madly between sides over the years, and repeatedly try and force them to reconcile before they are ready.

Truth be told, I think they ARE ready. But Older feels so pushed into reconciliation by their parents, I think that pride is now in the way as much as anything else.

I hope this helps, and please feel free to memail me if you want. I've hated seeing the pain on both sides with my friends, and if I can help with yours at all I would be glad to.
posted by greenish at 3:09 AM on September 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't really understand who your sibling is cutting off?

If your sibling is mad at everyone, but only cutting you off, I think you say NOTHING. At that point, it's just like gossip and you are setting up a situation that is toxic drama where everyone gangs up on your sibling... Kinda like old times, right?

Talk to a therapist a few times, process this privately.

If it is any consolation, you should know that your sibling must be in exhorbitant amounts of pain and discomfort. I don't know what kind of self-work or apologizing you've done thus far, but if your sibling sees you as a toxic presence... You might want to examine that up close.

It sounds like you were your sibling's main tormentor, and the older family members let you get away with it because there was a dysfunctional family dynamic anyway? Do I have that right?

From the way you tell the story here, your sibling had a generally bad time of it, but they only feel strong enough to confront you, a relative peer, about the abuse they suffered? Or perhaps you were spoiled and favored over your sibling, and you failed to stick up for your sibling?

It's hard to unpack what happened in the past and who is to blame. Your sibling could maybe be singling you out unfairly, I guess. Or maybe you are still repeating the abuse in ways you are not aware of, hence the estrangement.

If your family is that dysfunctional, I kinda doubt your sibling will remain in contact with the rest for much longer. Soon the lot of you may be cut off, then everyone will know. FWIW.

I share the choice of estrangement from my abusive biological family with your sibling. My life is harder sometimes, but it is soooooo much easier now. It's really nice having room to heal and not willingly subjecting yourself to poor treatment. Really really nice. And peaceful. Self-loving. Feels like Justice, it's the gift of Justice.

It super sucks being hurt by those closest to you. If you have the dysfunctional belief that it is "normal" to hurt those closest to you, your underlying operating system is largely at fault and you may want to explore such destructive underlying beliefs in therapy. Your sibling is rejecting this destructive belief, and if you subconsciously hold this belief, that's at least part of why your sibling is rejecting you.

I guess what I'm saying is that instead of worrying about any estrangement, you should start working on yourself. You probably are holding on to a lot of behaviors and beliefs from your family and childhood that are not serving your best interests.

This is kinda a gift, if you think about it. Your sibling has done you a tremendous kindness by standing up for themself. Make the most of this and work on yourself.

I'm sorry about your relationship with your sibling. Likely you can't really imagine how much that person is hurting, but I can pretty much promise you it is much worse than you imagine. I can't say more because your description is unclear.
posted by jbenben at 3:21 AM on September 22, 2015 [8 favorites]

Building on my previous comment, I'm already seeing some things here that make me uncomfortable. I don't think we can say, "Well, as grown ups, this is something between you and your sibling and there's no reason for your family to know and that will only lead to bad drama."

Maybe it's time for the family to have this conversation. Maybe talking about this IS the "grown up" thing to do. Maybe the OP is very close to their parents and would feel like a liar having to endlessly pretend this wasn't happening. Maybe this is the OP's family and we don't know much about what's going on or what they should do about it.

I do second the suggestion to talk to a therapist. It sounds like there are years of family issues going on, and hopefully a professional can help you figure your way through this. But if people here make you feel like you're wrong for contemplating talking to your family about this, I say again that it's your family and nobody here knows anything about them. You do.

An informed therapist can give good advice, a good friend is worth listening to, but ultimately this is your call and nobody else's.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:32 AM on September 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am in your sibling's position (and also the child of immigrants). I cut out my brother almost 2 years ago, for maybe similar issues. He has a lot of anger problems, is highly manipulative, judgmental, and just a complete jerk of brother/person. Maybe others don't agree that these issues are sufficient enough for estrangement, but after some time has passed, I am certain that it was the right one for me. I am happier and more confident than I have ever been, and more than 50lbs lighter - although the emotional weight lifted is so much more. I feel free.

Our parents have passed away, but there are 2 categories of "people" that one kind of ends up dealing with:

1) People who know about the estrangement: other siblings, a few extended family members. Initially explaining myself was difficult, but I have maintained an "I'm not in the business of convincing" position. I've promised not to unload and complain to them, or interfere in *their* relationship with my brother, and they agree not to bother me about it or try and get me to re-connect. Initially they were involved in the "drama," but right now we maintain that our relationships with each other do not have to match. I have a good relationship with my two other siblings (sisters), and thankfully respecting each others differences has worked well thus far.

2) People who do not know at all: aunts, uncles, family friends, etc. I just sort of play dumb. There's no point in explaining things. If they ask "how's brother doing?" I just respond "pretty busy lately I guess." Or they say "please give our regards to brother" I just say "ok, will do." It's been sufficient for 2 years, and re-hashing drama doesn't accomplish anything. Short, simple white lie replies work surprisingly well.

I would urge you to respect your sibling's decision. I understand you are very hurt, but you have to respect their as a sovereign adult, and the decision they need to move forward in their life. Whether you agree with the decision or not is irrelevant. Your sibling has to heal at their own pace, on their own terms. You need to find a way to do the same.
posted by raztaj at 4:43 AM on September 22, 2015 [18 favorites]

To add to my previous comment about social interactions - my brother, another sibling, and extended family all live locally, so I still see him. It's usually a mix of people who both know and don't know. I have made it very clear that I am not interested in any relationship with him, at all, going forward. I do not interact with him at these occasions. It's simply what I need to do for my own wellbeing.

He has continued to overstep my boundaries and disrespect my decision, by trying to make pointless small talk at these occasions sometimes. I don't know if he thinks he's trying to be "nice" or pretend a sense of normalcy, and look "normal" to others. But the fact that he knows I don't want to engage with him yet still pushes, only re-enforces the fact that he has long-standing issues with disrespecting my decisions. To me it's a very clear extension of the manipulative behavior I've seen from him, in a wide degree of ranges. I want nothing to do with it anymore, but it won't stop me from enjoying a birthday gathering for my nephew, or fun dinner with other family. You kind of get to a point at these gatherings where there's so many kids running round, people prepping food, people talking about events of the world, etc, that I think others don't really take notice that my brother and I don't speak. Or at least they don't mention it. Life moves on.

The perceived awkwardness may be there in the beginning, but I think the expectations are overblown. Find a way to move forward and grow as a person in your own life, but please respect your sibling's decision.
posted by raztaj at 5:10 AM on September 22, 2015

Are you and your estranged sibling the only two kids? I ask because sometimes the problem is a third party stirring up trouble.

The rest of us knew our oldest sister liked being the 'communications center' so to speak: she liked being the one central hub we were linked to. The rest of us knew this, but we didn't realize how she used that to isolate us from each other, forcing us to keep her front and center --- we didn't realize the extent of her actively lying and blocking us from directly communicating with each other..... after Oldest Sister's death, it turned out one of the (many) things she did was not passing on contact info: "I've moved, will you pass this new address/phone number to the rest of the family?"..... then the next person moved, Oldest Sister would again purposely fail to pass around addresses etc., so we had no way to communicate directly, and all the while Oldest Sister was outright lying and saying "x doesn't want to talk to you". Charming.

So: maybe it is your sibling themselves who wishes to withdraw from you, but maybe there is someone else creating the problem.
posted by easily confused at 5:34 AM on September 22, 2015

Going to a wedding with old friends who will ask about your family will be tough. I'd encourage you to talk this through with a couple of your friends (partner, therapist, etc) so that you can talk about sibling without getting visibly upset, and so that you can get the oversharing off your chest. Even if you've carefully practiced polite words about how you realize they were hurt and you respect their choice not to be in contact, that's a conversation for family/parents in private, and for catching up with others at the wedding, bland is the best option. "How's Sibling? Oh, they're good. They're living in (country/town). We haven't talked recently. Parents are (some factoid about parents' activities, shift the topic)."
posted by aimedwander at 6:09 AM on September 22, 2015

And I am terrible at hiding my emotions, especially of this magnitude.

Get better at that. Your sibling has found a way to cope with their suffering that involves less of you, not more of you. If you can't honor that and insist on making this about you, then you're still harassing your sibling. Unintentionally I'm sure, but let it go.

If I say, "Good, they're super busy, but good!" enough times, will it stop hurting?

Whether your answers stop hurting you is not the point. Be sure your answers don't further hurt your sibling. So if it's true that they're "good, but super busy," then that's your answer.
posted by headnsouth at 6:22 AM on September 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

This isn't your secret to keep, OP. He/she was the one that initiated the estrangement, and it's their job to do the explaining if at all. All you need to say is, "My {brother/sister} is going through a hard time right now, and we're not talking. I hope she's okay, but family stuff is hard sometimes and I have to let him/her figure out adulting on their own."

It's totally okay to feel hurt. It's normal. Just feel your feelings instead of stuffing them, be honest with yourself and others, and don't dump on friends or other family. A therapist would be a great person to process this all with.
posted by juniperesque at 6:31 AM on September 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

My family was large (12 children, I was the youngest). We had two major splits among my brothers and sister, uncles and aunts, and a battalion of nephews an nieces. Although many of the aunts and uncles, and most of the nephews and nieces didn't care one way or the other, the issues were such that we evolved into a "Thanksgiving Crew" and a "Christmas Crew." In time the issues resolved themselves into scars, because in was the nature of our family to take sides. Causes became moot, and the operative mode between my brothers and sisters was evasion, and failing that, a chilled but reasonably polite interaction. The part that stings is the body of alienation that came up between the two crews, an inevitable result of choking down the interaction between them.

I don't believe it's likely that your family will be unaware of the situation between you and your sibling. I hope the situation is such that your family doesn't feel obligated to validate any of the issues between the two of you. You may be able to follow the advice above, and own your behavior, saying that you regret how you acted, and hope someday to get past this.

At this point I suppose you'll need to endure the responses, however they may be expressed, from your family. If you don't feel it necessary to further defend or explain yourself, you may get lucky and not have to watch your family takes sides. I suspect that if you and your sibling can maintain your equanimity during the expository process, you can be at the same family function without having to fan any residual fires. Since you understand that your sibling has cause for bad feelings, then a simple statement, consisting of an acknowledgement without defense, may be a productive offer of neutrality.

"I'll understand if you don't forgive me, but you are still my sibling."
posted by mule98J at 8:44 AM on September 22, 2015

I too think your family will have some awareness of it, and that it's not your burden to carry as far as explanations go.

And I'm saying that as someone who cut off contact with her only sibling. In my case, he was the last contact I had with my family. He was agreeing with their drama more and more, and in a final straw, began abusing his newborn daughter. I told him that he either replied that he had started caring for his daughter properly (doctor visit for the cold she was having, rather than, um, yelling at her... she was a few months old...), or I was cutting off contact. He never wrote or called back.

I tell the story not for me, but to put your story in perspective. You're a sibling who recognizes the family dynamics and understands why your sibling would make this choice. Furthermore, you've apologized for your childhood behavior. My brother, on the other hand... has consistently said everything he did as a child was fine because, and I quote, "he was never punished for it." And yes, they (he, his wife, and our parents) justified punishing my baby niece for having a cold because if they wanted to punish her, it was because she deserved it.

That is a lack of self-awareness, basic decency and fundamental responsibility you do not have. So don't take on too much guilt, okay? In time your sibling may change their view of things and recontact you. Or they may not; maybe they cut off contact with you first as a sort of test for themselves, to see how it goes. Sometimes we react most strongly to those we trust, as opposed to those we distrust.

Take time with yourself to figure out which approach feels the best for you, as other commenters have mentioned.
posted by fraula at 10:42 AM on September 22, 2015

I have a very angry sibling who has repeatedly blown up at me. I choose to minimize contact. Sibling blows up, silence for a while, then a phone call, and some emails, and we're back on track. Except that I've learned that sibling will blow up again, so I keep it minimal. Some people are difficult, lots of people, really. Sibling will likely get over it. Be the best sibling you can be. Be kind and be patient. the cutting-off will almost certainly not last very long.
posted by theora55 at 11:48 AM on September 22, 2015

I recently stopped talking to my brother about 4 months ago. He's caused me and our family a lot of pain. I haven't come out right and say I'm not speaking to him, but I'm sure it's fairly obvious. If he went around turning it into a family drama it would only make me want to talk to him even less. Respect your sibling's wishes. Deal with this on your own. Do not involve family. Talk to a therapist instead.
posted by blackzinfandel at 3:15 PM on September 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

How to do this wrong:
try to turn your other family members into go-betweens or into your therapist. Use questions they ask as a time to blame your sibling. Mope to your relatives about how terrible this is and how everyone should feel sorry for you. Attempt to win relatives to your side or engage in scorched-earth "you're with me or against me" tactics. Bad-mouth your sibling while painting yourself as innocent.

How to do it right:
Get your own therapist. Use the therapist to process the pain you feel, and ask the therapist to help you with techniques to respond politely to questions family members ask. Become ok with being yourself. Become ok with possibly never reconciling; you can't control your sibling's actions, only your response to them.
Tell your common family members in whatever way is appropriate for your family- this may mean only responding to direct questions, it may mean gentle deflection, it may mean direct blunt response of "we aren't speaking, but I wish my sibling well" (assuming you do). It may mean expressing your sadness at the situation. Your therapist should be able to help you find strategies that fit your personal situation (might be worth searching for one with experience in your parents' culture).
Regardless of how you choose to handle it, recognize that your relationship with the rest of your family is about you and the rest of your family, not your sibling. Take steps to make that true.

I've been a bystander to estrangements a few times, and I've seen both approaches (even both by the same person at different times).. and the second one's much better for everyone (bystanders as well as the estranged).
posted by nat at 6:17 PM on September 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

My younger sister wants absolutely nothing to do with me. She wants her children to have absolutely nothing to do with me. And I have absolutely no idea why. Talked with my therapist about it recently. Turns out, I don't have to let what my sister thinks of me have any impact on me. Sister's opinion of me has no relevancy in my day-to-day life. I can let it hurt, or I can let it be her deal, and her crap to deal with.

Others above have given you wonderful advice on the whole family interactions. Here's mine on making it stop hurting. You have apologized. You have tried to make amends. You have done absolutely everything within your power to make the situation better. You can not control what other people think, or what other people do. You've come to the point where it's not your circus, and not your monkeys.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 10:13 PM on September 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

« Older I know my counselor experienced a recent loss....   |   "this is why i'll never be an adult" Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.