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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - 24

It could be you.... 

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

O Brother, where art thou?

My title could just as easily be 'brother/sister, who art thou?'  For how well do we know our brothers and sisters? In later life, the people we have spent our most formative years with can all too often become strangers.

For decades I have been able to recall a childhood incident when my elder brother was beaten by my father. I adored Dad and years on we all miss his presence. My brother, who lived with and cared for both him and my mother in their old age, grieved for them when they died. But he is a quiet, private man and I have grown concerned about the possible effect that beating, so dramatic and violent in my eyes, might have had upon him.

But when I mentioned this the other day, as we were sorting through some of Dad's things, my brother laughed. 'I remember it all right!' he said, 'but I've never  given it a thought since.'  He said that at the time he had accepted that he'd deserved his punishment. After all, he and his pal had set fire to a new and carefully tended hedge in the garden, in which Dad took so much pride.

I have to accept that my brother has genuinely forgiven Dad for his anger and loss of control and virtually forgotten about it. The odd thing is that I was the one who clung on to the drama of that moment for so many years.

Perhaps it is not so odd, though. I am regularly presented with cases that show how brothers and sisters can lose sight of who they really are in this way. It is common for them to lose touch for years, only to start to wonder, as they reach the stage where they take on the mantle of the senior generation, who their siblings really are.

Even staying in touch with a brother or sister does not guarantee we know them well. We may have shared parents, home, childhood events and conditions, holidays, even schools perhaps. But once we are adults, we create our own circle of friends and we eventually choose partners who our siblings may or may not like. But we do not (in western societies at least) seek their approval. We are pleased if they get on, but if they don't, then we will probably go ahead anyway. And they will do the same.

When Pete and Marion met at university and married, they made their home in a village close to Pete's sister and her family. But although they 'kept in touch', they found visits hard-going because Pete's sister felt Marion was 'too different' and 'a highbrow who won't fit in'. Perhaps she had a point, for Marion went on to study for a higher degree. Yet, at the same time, Marion did try hard to build bridges with Pete's family and never saw herself as a threat to the ties between her husband and his sister.

As in any other sort of relationship we need to work at the basic rules that can keep communication going:
  • Accept that although we had the same parents and upbringing, we are individuals and hold different experiences in our memory.

  • We choose different types of partners and build different lives.

  • Respecting the difference in family members is vital. One may be gregarious and another shy, one ambitious, another content with their status quo.

  • Living a different way, with a partner we wouldn't have chosen, doesn't mean our brother's or sister's choice is wrong. Showing interest in their way of doing things mustn`t be dismissive and, if done well, can lead to the strengthening of family ties.

These days, we are quite likely to move away, sometimes far away, from our original home territory. This could start when we go to university, say, or job-hunting, or on marrying someone from a different place. Whatever the reason, it means that we will tend to lose the close contacts of childhood. At home with Mum and Dad, our interaction was familiar and automatic: we reacted to whatever was going on around us in our individual ways but also as a group, a family.

After years of separate life, many people cannot sustain the closeness of contact with brothers or sisters that enables them to be as unconsciously knowing about them as when they were children. Some lose touch completely, either through conflict or simply because of physical distance. Whatever the reason, it is common to find that thoughts about brothers and sisters come to mind more often in later life.

For some, to regain contact feels vitally important. For others, it is laced with fear and reservations. 'What if she looks down on me for not making as much of my life as she has?', 'what if he is still the bully he was all those years ago?', 'what if they feel I have moved too far up the career ladder to have any time for them?'

When her parents died, Sarah's emotional reunion with a long-distant brother led to great joy, and pleasure that they were at last truly supportive of each other.  As a child, Sarah remembered being bullied by her brother, and now she looked forward to a new and different relationship. But then, just as she was ready to let go of the unhappy memories she had held on to since childhood, she found find that he had re-established himself as the bully he had been. She began once again to find herself in the  involuntary position of underling.  But, with the help of supportive friends, she was able to stand up to him, accepting that it could mean he once again was less present in her life. As she found ways of resisting his demands and threats she found she became more assertive in other parts of her life as well.

What can you do if you still feel criticised by a sibling?

  • Stand by the choices you have made in your life; they are made for your individual reasons, not for any other.

  • Acknowledge your roots in the same family and tell your sibling how much you would like to build a new, balanced and more healthy relationship with him or her.

  • Calmly tell the critical sibling that although childhood was made harder because of criticism or bullying, you are no longer that child and choose not to expose yourself to that kind of treatment as an adult.

  • If necessary, remove yourself from their company, saying that you would still like to meet,  but only as adults and equals. This way you quietly demonstrate your strength and willingness to keep the door open.

Like any other adult relationship, we need to work at our communication with our brothers or sisters, respect their differences and their privacy, and accept what we see as their faults as we might any other person. That can mean hard work, even hard choices at times, but it will help you to maintain, even deepen, relationships with siblings - if you wish. It has the bonus of allowing each of you to check out and ask about areas of childhood that are a bit hazy, to find out more about yourself, and enjoy the odd reminiscence.



You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

To view previous articles in this series - see the Relationship Counselling & Advice Index



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