I’ve lost contact with my brother. Is it too late to reach out? | Family


The question Since our mother’s death, my brother and I have had no contact. He lives more than 100 miles away. Our relationship has been very difficult for over 40 years. When we both had young children, things were better for a time. When our dad died, Mum’s health deteriorated and she moved in with me and died 12 years later. During this time, my relationship with my brother was at its worst. Before retirement, we both worked in mental health, but neither of us understand why our family relationship has been so fractured.

There is a family history: our grandfather did not get on with his sister, he and his wife kept secrets, and our dad fell out with his twin! Our childhood was difficult as our father had mental health issues.

Friends who know the story advise me not to pursue any reparation; another friend suggested I write to you. Since Mum died, I have sent Christmas cards and occasional texts, but have received no reply. I have attempted to contact my nephews, again to no avail. Should I accept that there is too much water under the bridge and stop my attempts to contact him?

Philippa’s answer: People, including myself, are often drawn to work in mental health precisely because they have had their battles with it – just throwing that in there!

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Children do seem to carry the baggage of their ancestors. Fractures – like the ones you have a history of in your family – are often caused by the family’s style of parenting. For example, by parents not taking seriously any feelings of jealousy when a younger sibling comes along, and not intervening except punitively when that jealousy plays out. Older siblings who feel displaced need to be dealt with sensitively and if that doesn’t happen, they may resent their younger sibling. After a while, the younger sibling then grows to dislike the elder because of how they were habitually treated by them as children. This may cause them to stay away, perhaps without really understanding why that is.

Another parenting style that leads to trouble is when one child is pitted against the other, perhaps by comparing them or making them compete against each other. Overt and covert favouritism and making one child the scapegoat for any disharmony are other habits that can give rise to feelings in siblings that become so entrenched their unconscious inclination is often to stay away from their brother or sister.

Parenting styles tend to be inherited if the next generation doesn’t consciously decide to break these patterns with their own children. Siblings can have very different memories of the same events and it can often seem their brother or sister doesn’t validate their experience – and when you’re not validated by someone important in your life, it may feel almost as if they are trying to wipe you out. Now, I don’t know if any of this is a fit for your relationship with your brother, but I mention it in case it is.

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Even though your brother may have had no desire to nurse his mother in her old age, it may well have brought up a very old feeling of jealousy inside him, because you had her all to yourself, or perhaps he felt guilty about you doing all the caring. When we have these hostile tendencies towards siblings, the roots of them can be forgotten, yet the feelings can still remain. What we often do to make sense of such feelings is get into the habit of thinking about our sibling with judgment and criticism and so sometimes it just feels easier to stay away.

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We are closest to the people in whose company we feel relaxed and unselfconscious, then we feel good in ourselves when we are with them. If being around someone causes us to feel shame, it is normal to avoid them. People often feel shame that they have a sibling who isn’t a friend, because they feel they should have a close relationship with them. Lack of understanding causes shame, so if you can’t figure out why you feel as you do towards a sibling, perhaps this is a source of shame, too. And if you are feeling any shame because your brother is staying away, then you can tell your inner critic – the usual source of shame – to pipe down.

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You and your brother may be very different people, despite coming from the same family and having had similar jobs. Would you be friends if you were not siblings? Do you have different ways of looking at and reacting to the world that don’t make you particularly compatible? Or perhaps you just don’t “get” each other.

Seeking reparation may be too ambitious, but perhaps you could seek more clarity. Perhaps you could tell him that you want to further your understanding of the rift so you could stop ruminating about it (warning: tough feedback might be involved). Perhaps send this column to him. Work out why it matters to you so much, perhaps by seeing a psychoanalyst. It is common for siblings not to be close and there may be no reason why you should be.

To understand more about adult siblings, try Dorothy Rowe’s book, My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: Making and Breaking Sibling Bonds.

Philippa Perry will be appearing at the Also Festival, 12-14 July 2024 (also-festival.com)

Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to askphilippa@guardian.co.uk. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions

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