Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
I have not spoken to my brother Earl or his wife Naomi in 12 years. Then, a few days ago, Naomi contacted me asking me to contact Earl. She said that Earl has been diagnosed with early-stage cancer. A bible study group he attends at his fundamentalist church is urging him “to make peace with everyone he’s had a falling out with.”
Here are the details of our falling out. Sixteen years ago, after my father died, my husband and I invited my mother, whom we called Grandma, to come live with us. We added a bedroom and bath for her. At the time I asked Earl and Naomi if they would help with the expenses of the addition. Even though they had the means, they said no. In the last year of our mother’s life, she needed care during the day while our three kids were in school and my husband and I worked. Again, they wouldn’t contribute.
Grandma made her end-of-life wishes known in writing, which I shared with Earl. She was not religious and specified that she wanted to be cremated with no service; she wanted just a small luncheon at her favorite restaurant to celebrate her life. Earl tried to persuade her to have a funeral in his church, but she said no.
After she died, Earl showed up at the luncheon she had requested with a few people from his church, saying that our mother was doomed to hell and that they were there to pray for her. They persisted and it turned into an ugly scene. I finally had the manager remove them.
I have not missed having Earl and his wife in my life. Quite frankly, they were never particularly nice people, and if he weren’t my brother, I wouldn’t have had much to do with them.
Now I am all stressed out at the thought of having to deal with him and his wife again. My husband and one of my three kids say that because I am a good person and nothing is more important than family, I should reconnect. My other two kids say I should tell them to pound sand.
I really could use your opinion on this! Thank you.
Dr. Gramma Karen Responds
I will begin with an observation: It is interesting that your brother wants to reconnect, yet it is his wife who is appealing to you to reach out to him. It seems he is expecting others to do his fence mending for him, a behavior that does not suggest he is taking responsibility for his past actions.
That said, the first thing I am going to suggest is that you write out your responses to two questions:
- Reasons to reconnect with my brother.
- Reasons not to reconnect with my brother.
I suspect that one of your reasons to reconnect will be that you want to be a good person. Yes, a laudable goal, but I want to remind you that you cannot be considered a good person by everyone in your life. Therefore, you need to focus on those whose opinion of your goodness matters to you, e.g., certain family members, close friends. (I suspect that your mother would give you very high grades for being a good person!)
To your point about the importance of family in one’s life …. Yes, sibling relationships are unique and special: they are built on a shared history from early years; they can enhance love and joy during happy times; they can provide support and closeness during challenging times. But even though they are commonly treated as sacrosanct — that is, many think that they must be preserved at all costs — I need to say that there are times when sibling estrangement is warranted, and there is no need to feel guilty about not wanting siblings in one’s life.
For example, Cornell University professor, Karl Pillemer, who has published a book on sibling relationships, points out that the number of Americans who are completely estranged from a sibling is relatively small — probably less than 5 percent. However, and this is important, only 26 percent of 18- to 65-year-olds in his survey reported having a highly supportive sibling relationship; 19 percent had an apathetic relationship, and 16 percent had a hostile one. His research suggests that only about a quarter of sibling relationships are experienced as satisfying.
I suggest that you have three options.
#1: Do nothing.
You mention that you do not miss having your brother and his wife in your life, so reconnecting is not going to fill some void for you. You do not need to feel obligated to respond.
#2: Respond by saying that you will not be reconnecting, and that you wish him well.
If not responding at all feels too harsh to you, this option might be more comfortable for you. It acknowledges a very clear decision on your part.
#3: Reconnect, making your expectations clear.
If you decide to reconnect, I suggest you do it in writing initially and not via a phone call. An email allows you to think about what you want to say; also, ask that your brother respond in kind, that is, in writing. You should put the ball in his court: “I was surprised to learn from Naomi that you want to communicate with me after all these years. Please explain what your intentions are, and after I’ve had a chance to think about them, I will let you know my intentions.”
Options 1 & 2 will work best for you if you are sure that you do not want any kind of a reconciliation, at least not at this time. You always have the option of reaching out to your brother in the future, should you decide to do so.
If you are open to exploring the possibility of some kind of reconciliation with your brother, then #3 is your preferred response. If, down the road, attempts at reconciliation are not working for you, you always can curtail or end communications.
Whatever decisions you make, I want to emphasize that you need to make decisions that are in your best interest.
Yes, sibling reconciliation often works out, and in some instances, it creates a strong and supportive relationship. However, as is the case with all relationships, those people with whom interactions are too problematic, taxing, and/or toxic need to be avoided. This kind of relationship management does not make anyone a bad person. Rather, being selective by participating in and nurturing healthy relationships is critical in taking good care of one’s emotional well-being.
You get to decide who you want in your life and how close you want them to be.
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