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The Sibling Trap

Staten Island Advance


Staten Island Advance


One fight can set off a full-blown war between relatives when tensions have been building for years

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- "I love him like a brother."

"She's just like a sister to me."

These are the kinds of sentiments people express when describing a close relationship.

Yet, many blood brothers and sisters, whether openly or secretly, detest each other, often breaking off communication and swearing never to see or speak to that sibling again.

Take the Newman siblings.

"After 40 years of her being very opinionated and nasty to other family members," Brian J. Newman said, he, his younger brother and sister stopped speaking to their eldest sister, Susan, four years ago.

Newman, a certified public accountant from Milford, Conn., describes his older sister as "uncooperative, troublesome, annoying; always taking the fun out of everything by starting arguments," even when they were children. But it was a fight over a bowl of candy decades later that led to the current estrangement.

Susan put a bowl of candy on the children's table during a holiday dinner in her home in 2004 and absolutely forbid them from eating it until after dinner.

"If you don't want children to take candy until after dinner, then don't put candy on the table until after dinner," Newman complained.

The final break came moments later when Newman's wife asked Susan if she needed any help. Her reply? "Now you ask me, after all the work is done?"

Newman stormed out of Susan's home, followed by his younger brother and sister, and they haven't spoken to her since.

"That was the last straw," he said.


"The heart of the difficulty between siblings can also be due to different night-and-day personalities," commented Ward Hill resident Diane DiResta, who knows Newman through the Manhattan-based Gotham City Networking group of which they both are members.

"It can cause discord if they have different interests and personalities," added Ms. DiResta, a communications specialist and president of DiResta Communications in Manhattan.

According to Nashville-based psychologist Dr. Alan Godwin, the explosive way the Newman case ended is typical in a feuding siblings scenario.

"Often at the root of the conflict are lingering resentments from childhood that are like a buried land mine -- smooth on the surface, but that will go off when stepped on, even 40 years later," said Godwin, author of the new book, "How to Solve Your People Problems: Dealing with your Difficult Relationships" (Harvest House Publishers, 2008).

Sometimes, sibling resentments occur when it appears a parent favors one child over another based on personal preferences, noted Westerleigh-based psychologist Dr. Larry Arann.

Consider the case of two brothers: One's a star athlete, the other, a bookworm interested in school work.

Their father may inadvertently favor his athletic son because he himself was a star football player in high school, and because he's always admired athleticism, Arann said.

"It's not that he favors one child over the other, but his behavior suggests he isn't neutral, and that he prefers his athletic son over his academic son."

The slighted son's resentment may fester and 25 years later lead to a heated argument between the brothers, over seemingly minor issues, Arann said.

The bitter feelings may even last into old age.

Dr. Marion Somers, author of "Elder Care Made Easier: Dr. Marion's 10 Steps to Help You Care for an Aging Loved One," tells how she once worked with feuding brothers, 11 months apart, ages 92 and 93.

"They had heavy-duty long-standing issues," said Dr. Somers, noting they would say things like "'I was 5, and he did this;' and the other complained, 'I was 7 and he did that.'

"Their childhood resentments followed them into adulthood and years later, it was, 'Mom gave him this, but I should have inherited that,'" said Dr. Somers, who has a doctorate in human development, with a specialty in gerontology and retirement.

She dissipated their long-standing resentments with a dose of cold reality, pointing out they were both in their 90s, widowers and had nobody else left in the world.

"I asked them, 'How many years do you have in your future? Maybe 10 or 15 years, but it may be a matter of months. Do you want to heal (or overlook) whatever the problems are?'"

According to Dr. Somers, they did, indeed, set aside their grievances after only two sessions.

Dr. Somers also recommends that feuding siblings "Close your eyes for a minute. Ask yourself, if this brother or sister has passed on, how would you feel then, if these issues are not resolved?"

Another option, she said, is for each sibling to write out their grievances, then put away the list. This sometimes can defuse much of the anger, the Brooklyn resident said.

If that doesn't work, Dr. Somers suggests the siblings air their grievances face to face and if bitter fighting breaks out again and they feel they want to be finished with each other, so be it.

"But it is worth a try," she said.

Perhaps the most comfortable solution between feuding siblings is to have a limited, "surface" relationship -- polite and distant, but more satisfying than complete estrangement, psychologist Godwin suggests.

Commenting on the Newman family, Godwin said a relationship is possible with their eldest sister if it remains a distant, civil one in which neither side brings up subjects that surely will lead to an argument.

But Newman says he and his siblings refuse to accept a relationship with Susan "unless she drastically changes her ways of interaction with the family and is sincerely sorry for past interaction with the family."

If the sister is willing to talk over their differences and reach a reasonable solution, a conversation might be worth having, Godwin said. However, "if she remains characteristically unreasonable," he continued, "then conversations won't produce a solution."

Oddly enough, while her husband and his siblings haven't seen Susan in years, Mrs. Newman regularly has lunch with her.

In doing so, she explains, she is following the advice of her father, who wrote a letter to his children before he died telling them, among other things, to accept their siblings' flaws and always be a strong family unit.

Mrs. Newman firmly believes her dad's philosophy.

"You may not agree with each other," she said, "but it's still family, and family should be together."

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