Psychologist Allison Keating answers your queries about life and relationships.
I’ve been reading a lot about people cutting off family and I have to say it makes me envious. I have a very difficult family member who is not dependent on me financially but emotionally. I fantasise about cutting them off but if I did, they would have no one else.
This person, a sibling, can go from nice to nasty with no warning. They are bossy and controlling in conversation — there is no such thing as an easy breezy conversation. We have twice weekly phone calls that leave me diminished and exhausted and I worry about the next one. In the past, they have caused incredible hurt to my children and theirs but we are elderly now and the younger people have lost all contact with the person I’m talking about. I don’t blame them. Is there a compromise between cutting someone off — which may give me more internal grief and guilt than it would be worth — and allowing them to consume your thoughts like I am doing?
Have you tips on how to manage these awful conversations? I have tried to cut down the frequency of calls but any time I do, I get a barrage of abuse. Please help me to find some peace with this.
Allison replies: I want to let you know that you aren’t alone. “How does that help?” someone might ask. Well, knowing it isn’t just you, can take the harshness out of that sense of isolation that can feel deeply personal.
Depersonalising is a helpful skill to employ as it can give you the space you may need to think this through from a wider perspective.
Adult sibling relationships can be immensely destructive and to add to the pain, kept as a shameful personal and family secret if they are not the way you think they ‘should’ be. The adage of ‘blood is thicker than water’ has silenced generations who needed to have difficult and important conversations with their siblings and family. Shame generated from the gap of how you think a sibling relationship ‘should’ be as opposed to how it is in reality can be so painful.
The chapter on adult siblings in my book surprised even me on the influence of sibling relationships; here’s a top line recap, sibling relationships are the longest and one of the most influential in your life. If they are negative, they can be linked with a higher occurrence of depression, the intense dynamic in childhood can still be present over the lifespan as is occurring here.
If your sibling was a friend, would you stay in that friendship? I’m pretty sure we both know the answer to this question so let’s look at why even the idea of cutting her out is causing you so much internal guilt. As a society we are family focused, which is a good thing when it is healthy, but what about when it isn’t healthy? Where is the conversation around that?
The sense of duty and being bound to ‘family’ can leave people feeling like they are stuck and that you don’t have options. Adult problems that are systemically rooted in your childhood and continue to be present, such as a sibling relationship with all the complexities that surround it, don’t get enough airtime. Many Irish families experience private painful estrangement. Why? Because of this internalised societal and cultural narrative that sibling relationships are natural and therefore you ‘should’ automatically get on. Easy to see where we get the same incorrect idea on romantic relationships. All relationships require work, few relationships go smoothly through your life as you both go through different developmental and lifespan experiences.
‘Your birth position in the family has a big impact on the relationship between you both’
The misconstrued idea that you ‘should’ get on with your siblings leaves many feel a sense of shame if they don’t have a good relationship with their sibling. Your birth position in the family has a big impact on the relationship between you both. If there was any preferential treatment, real or perceived, from your parents along with many other contributing factors, such as personality differences, it can leave people wondering why they allow their sibling to speak or treat them as they do when they wouldn’t put up with it in any other relationship. But the answers come down to where you are positioned in the family.
Another question to ask yourself with curiosity rather than with judgmental is ‘who am I around my sibling?’ Sounds like a peculiar question but do you find you both play a role together and what type of relational dynamic has evolved or devolved from this? How would you like the relationship to be? Is this possible? That might be the hardest question I’ve asked so far.
Long-term mental health problems can cast a long-lasting shadow and again deepen shame as people don’t talk about the reality of this within families and the sibling relationship.
If your sibling has a pattern of communicating with you that is not only familiar and consistent and you know what situations (birthdays, weddings, Christmas, times of good fortune in your life, birth of children etc) will trigger a ‘barrage of abuse’, your response has been conditioned by previous upsetting interactions that will impact and impede how your phone calls and interactions go in the present. These outbursts will be inhibitory to allow healthy and much-needed conversations. The sad truth is healthy relationships need two willing people.
Before having a difficult conversation, it is wise and helpful to ask yourself the question if you will be heard and or listened to, or if you will be annihilated? Reflect upon this for a moment. If a friend told you this, what would you advise them? Without over-simplifying this, you most probably have a good idea of what they would say but all of this is ‘easier said than done’ and here’s why. Friendship is often mutual, and it doesn’t carry the heavy weight of a sense of duty or obligation that family does.
You feel enmeshed with your sister — you carry your own guilt and if she has said others have abandoned her, she may have guilted you into not leaving too. Creating healthy boundaries allows you to set limits of where you begin and she ends. Boundaries about how and what you will accept in conversations. I have 10 tips to creating healthier boundaries on my Instagram page that will help you work through the guilt part.
Well done on limiting the time. You can explicitly say you will not continue with the conversation if she starts being abusive. There is a lot to unpack for you. Sibling relationships and the surrounding emotions are complex and the cutting people out of your life that is being offered as a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t going to sit well with you. Getting support to talk this through with an impartial person in therapy can give you the space to work through how you feel whilst creating and maintaining healthier boundaries.
Allison regrets that she cannot enter into correspondence. If you have a query you would like addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org