When cutting ties with a brother is best

Editor’s note: Subscribe to CNN’s Stress, But Less newsletter. This six-part mindfulness guide will teach and inspire you to reduce stress while learning how to harness it.


Like Prince Harry Troubled relationship accounts With his brother, Prince William, in his new memoir Spear making waves, you might be wondering if there’s any hope for a deeply fraught relationship — especially if you’ve been navigating a similar kind of feud.

Despite the strong ties between the siblings It is associated with greater health and happinessestrangement between siblings is probably more common than rifts between parents and adult children, said Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families. Coleman explained that parents are more motivated to repair those relationships because of their role and the shame and grief that can come from going out with a child.

Prince William and Prince Harry arrive for the unveiling of a statue they commissioned for their mother Diana, Princess of Wales, at Kensington Palace in London, England, on July 1, 2021.

“For siblings, there aren’t the same expectations for staying connected,” said Coleman, author ofThe estrangement rules: Why adult children break off relationships and how to handle conflict. “Sibs do not have the same kind of role violation that would result in a shame that could serve as a catalyst or impetus for reform.”

According to Coleman, distancing or ending a relationship with a sibling can still be difficult or shameful, but people who initiate the estrangement feel there are benefits.

“Assuming they have done their due diligence and the (other) sibling remains either unable or unwilling to modify or change their behaviour, then breaking up with the relationship may be better for mental health than continuing it,” Coleman said.

For cases that aren’t so obvious, Coleman has guidelines for when a relationship is worth saving and when it’s best to cut ties.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: What are the most common reasons why siblings break up?

Coleman: Typical reasons for initiating conflicts or estrangement between siblings include perceived or objective differential treatment by parents, which can cause a sibling to distance themselves because they feel less valued. A history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse by a sibling can be traumatic, especially if they are not compensated or if the injured sibling is unable to forgive. Sibling rivalries, sometimes involving jealousy or the threat of another’s success, can drive a wedge.

Sometimes a sibling may begin to distance themselves from the parents, but if the other sibling does not ally with them or criticize their alienation, a feeling of, “Well, you’re either with me or against me” may result.

CNN: What’s the first step when faced with recurring conflict?

Coleman: You have to do your due diligence in the relationship, where you have to give people the opportunity to fix and communicate your needs in a way that really invites self-reflection and empathy on the part of the other person, rather than more hurt and defensiveness.

You may feel hurt, ashamed, humiliated, criticized, or belittled by your brother’s behavior. I think it’s reasonable, then, for you to say, “I want you to change this to continue to maintain a relationship with me. I feel that my request of you is very reasonable, and I’d prefer that we change the way we communicate. There are probably things you might want me to work on as well. But I’m starting to feel that if I don’t If this isn’t something you can work on, I need to be out of touch for perhaps an extended period of time with you.”

Changing or ending a sibling relationship can have serious consequences, so consider these factors before you decide.

An abuser is definitely out of control and requires strong boundaries to address his behavior. This does not mean that they should never be given the opportunity to reform or reconcile, but only after they show their willingness to make a commitment to make amends and change.

CNN: When is a relationship worth fixing?

Coleman: When separated siblings seek reconciliation, one person usually has a greater drive to heal than the other, and thus takes a leadership role in repairing the dynamic — just some kind of showing empathy, willingness to make amends or take responsibility, etcetera.

If the other person shows genuine empathy and is willing to not get defensive, commit to change, and respect your boundaries or requirements for a healthy relationship, these are really the essential ingredients for any healthy relationship that needs to be fixed.

CNN: When is cutting ties the best thing to do?

Coleman: I really struggle with this question because I feel like our culture is very pro and quick to sever ties, so everyone has to make that decision for themselves.

When someone is thinking about something very important, it requires a degree of self-reflection. Are you hypersensitive to everyone? Are you constantly blocking people out in every aspect of your life? Do you accuse everyone of putting a spotlight on you if they don’t agree with your view of events? Are you just cutting someone else out because you can’t handle the disagreement?

Sometimes taking a break from a relationship can be helpful if you feel like you’re getting too involved with them so you can separate who you are from what they’re being triggered by. For some people, a period of distance in which they are not constantly nudged or reminded of things about themselves that they don’t like or are upset about can be helpful.

Assuming you’ve done all the other steps of due diligence, occasionally ending contact for a while can be a good wake-up call for that sibling.

CNN: How much grace period or trial period should someone be given?

Coleman: No one will be 100% perfect once new boundaries are set. The goal is to agree that the new dynamic will be worked on together, because perhaps the person engaging in the harmful behavior is not aware of it or needs to be learning in an ongoing way.

Give it at least a few months, during which you continue to engage and debrief after interactions. You might say, “I thought it went well. However, I get upset or upset when you start to stand up for Mom and Dad for me or compete with me about something.”

CNN: How should people distance or end the relationship?

Coleman: Say, “I feel like I tried to explain to you the problems I see in the relationship, and to give you a chance to respond to them or work on them. And it feels like you either weren’t up to it or you weren’t excited about it, so it makes me less interested in spending time with you. So.” “For now, I’d like to take a break from the relationship. And I can tell you if or when that changes.”

CNN: What do people tend to experience after a sibling relationship changes or breaks, and how do they cope?

Coleman: Usually, the person who ended the relationship does not experience the same pain as the person who was cut off. The person ending things may feel relieved or happy.

However, it’s not always all winning. Ending a relationship means that we not only lose touch with the parts we don’t like, but we also lose touch with the parts we do like. There can be a sense of loss or sadness about giving up or acknowledging that the person may not be willing to change.

They may also feel shame and guilt if other family members are upset with them or pressure them to return to contact.

Remind yourself of the effort you put in and that if you’re shaming yourself for your decision, you’re only adding insult to injury. You’ve given this person a reasonable period of due diligence, so this isn’t something you’ve done in a capricious or selfish way.

CNN: What if the estrangement causes problems with other family members?

Coleman: Be sympathetic to their pain while firmly saying that you worked hard to get your sibling to respond to you differently, but they were either unwilling or unable – so this isn’t a decision you made lightly. You can’t maintain a relationship with your brother just because your parents want you to.

Leave a Comment