Adult Brother-sister Abuse: The Taboo Topic - Rivalry Forged Less Important
08 May 2015
By Karin Friedemann
There is a lot written about how childhood sibling rivalry can scar a person
for life. Nationwide, sibling violence occurs four to five times as
frequently as spousal or parental child abuse.
Author of ''Sibling Abuse Trauma,'' Dr. John V. Caffaro writes about patients
who sabotaged themselves in their careers because of emotional issues
associated with the repeated humiliation they experienced at the hands of a
brother or sister.
''It can erode their sense of identity and their self-esteem.''
Even though parental abuse of children generally tapers off when the child
grows up, and spousal abuse often ends in divorce, sibling abuse sometimes
continues to escalate after adulthood, or can suddenly erupt even long after
the parents have died. In some cases, it appears that the sibling takes over
where the parent left off, in a lifelong effort to crush the spirit.
Katerina Peters, 45, told TMO that when she was 16, she had a spiritual
experience, which enabled her to forgive her mother for years of crippling
emotional abuse. Around the same time, her brother, who had been her
inseparable companion, suddenly stopped acknowledging her existence, even
though they lived in the same house. He started referring to a female friend
as his ''sister.'' The brother also started a campaign of backstabbing at
their high school, which was so intense that to be seen talking to Katerina
became social suicide and even her best friend stopped making eye contact. It
took Katerina decades to figure out how her life was destroyed.
''My mother was the one who told my brother not to talk to me anymore, who
told him that I was crazy. I had forgiven her and was no longer fighting with
her. She could no longer control me emotionally, so she employed my brother
to take over her role as abuser. … My theory is that he is seeking my
mother's affection because he perceived me as the favorite when we were
Psychologists refer to this type of use of a third person as a weapon as
''triangulation,'' ''in which one person plays the third family member
against one that he or she is upset about. This is playing the two people
against each other, but usually the person doing the splitting, will also
engage in character assassination,'' writes Violet in the Narcissist's Child
What I found truly astonishing was the deep intensity of grief of the
siblings that hoped their love would be returned. Katerina cried herself to
sleep for four months and then went into a deep depression that lasted for
five years after she realized profoundly that her brother was not her friend.
Sabrina Alii, 60, likewise describes the traumatic breakup with her sibling:
''My brother big time turned against me. He destroyed my relationship with my
half sister … and tried to have all of my friends think I was crazy…enough to
be institutionalized. I never in my life had someone turn against me like he
did … I became the receptacle for his demons, as only a little sister who no
one will ever take seriously could do. I really loved my brother. And this
was a devastating shock. I am now as good as dead to him. He does not care
about me. That is the horror of it now. He's no longer angry. He just does
not acknowledge me as existing.''
I spoke with yet a third woman, aged 65, whose older brother suddenly
disowned her due to his Zionist politics. Carrying her brother's break up
letter in her purse at all times, Sasha Rosenberg's sorrow has completely
engulfed her life as she goes through the process of grieving his loss.
''He will be 79 in May. Not that much time left and he has killed part of me
and my love for him. I can deal with it … Sort of deal with it. Some good
days but most not so good – awful.''
The experience of being shunned by family members is very complex because due
to cultural taboos, we cannot just shake our heads and walk on without
feeling intense feelings of guilt and familial obligation. We would never
accept anyone openly mistreating us in normal society but with family, there
is a sense that we have to crawl back and accept more humiliation.
I can only imagine the abuse potential and the risk of abandonment in
societies where brothers assert legal guardianship over their unmarried
sisters, who sometimes cannot even travel alone.
''One girl, her family didn't allow her to get married because no one takes
care of her old father who couldn't go to restroom or take shower (by
himself) so she stayed with him until he passed away. She was 41 years old
and when she wanted to get married after that her brother refused unless she
goes with him to the court and puts their father's house under his name
instead of his late father and don't take any of the furniture that she
bought from her own money,'' Iraqi immigrant Jabril Shamim told TMO.
Jane Mersky Leder in Psychology Today describes how a woman she interviewed
came to terms with her brother's nastiness towards her by looking at the
dysfunctional family as a whole, when they spent some time together after her
''I ceased to exist,'' Karen said. ''I became wallpaper. No one talked to me.
And, for once, I didn't feel any pain. It was like, ‘Ah, so this is how it
was with us.' I saw things the way they were and are, not the way I wished
they were or could have been.''
''While few adult siblings have severed their ties completely, approximately
one-third of them describe their relationship as rivalrous or distant,''
''We have no rituals that make, break, or celebrate the sibling bond. And
family experts have underemphasized the sibling relationship, instead
concentrating on parents and children and husbands and wives.''
Nevertheless, studies show that at least 80 percent of siblings over age 60
enjoy close ties with one another. Rivalry forged in childhood or even
adulthood becomes less important with time.