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The anxiety of not knowing why a sibling cuts you off

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For the shunned brother and sisterdistance is often the bearer of deep sad. This pain is even worse when the avoided sibling has no idea why the relationship ended. Not knowing the reasons for the cut can be its own form of torture.

The human mind is a natural problem solver. We seek answers and try to derive meaning from all experience. A sibling cut off without any explanation may succumb to rumination. Stuck in a loop, they endlessly revolve around the same unanswered questions: Why did things come to this? What did I do? How can I fix this?

Susanna Garth, 35, from the Pacific Islands who grew up in a loving lower-middle-class family, says she now lives in this biased misery with her only older sister, and she is frustrated that she does not have the opportunity to talk about their romantic relationship. She has no idea if the estrangement is temporary or permanent, and it’s her own agony.

I always thought I had a great relationship with my sister. I am full of happiness childhood memories with her. I was the only bridesmaid at her wedding five years ago. I spent a lot of time with her and her daughter. I was there for the birth of her son. I always assumed she would be a very important part of my life.

The remoteness felt very sudden. Not only did I lose my relationship with my sister, but I also lost contact with my four-year-old niece and five-year-old nephew. My sister said she loves me, but she just needs to go for now. I do not know why.

Grieving is overwhelming – suddenly having someone you thought was there forever completely ripped out of your life, unable to do anything about it and not knowing if it will be for a few months or forever.

Without any discussion, Garth speculates that the estrangement could be attributed to one of several factors. “She might feel uncomfortable about our different political beliefs,” she says. Or she may feel threatened because the family has worried about the treatment of her daughter. Or maybe she’s mad at me because I couldn’t help her much when I was in grad school and she was overwhelmed with the needs of her little girl. But, ultimately, Garth says his head is spinning in confusion.

The rejected are rendered speechless


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When there is no discussion of the cut, the excluded feel they have no recourse or self-defense. Many would like the opportunity to work out a problem, hoping to reduce tension and maintain the relationship. But siblings who don’t have a chance to speak can’t present their side of the story, can’t ask questions, and can’t even apologize whatever their faults. They feel completely excluded, their reality and their emotions invalidated as they are rendered speechless.

The choice to cut a sibling exerts a weight of control, denying the very existence of a sibling and generating feelings of anxiety, rejection, futility and helplessness. Over time, this tactic breaks trust between siblings, and rejected people may feel like silence is being used with a deliberate intent to hurt—its own form of betrayal and abuse.

“Excluding and ignoring people, like giving the cold shoulder or the silent treatment,” says Kipling Williams, a Purdue University psychology professor who has studied ostracism for 20 years, “is used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realize the emotional or physical harm that is being done.”

This tactic is often employed by siblings narcissistic features. They don’t seek to create a connection; they use this tactic to meet their own needs. Tactics, which is a form of emotional abuseusually elicits some reaction from the target, as they often feel a desperate need to restore the relationship and return to a state of balance.

Essential readings on family dynamics

The silent treatment is designed to:

  • Assume control of the target.
  • Silence the sibling’s attempts to assert themselves.
  • Avoid conflict resolution, personal responsibility and/or compromise.
  • Punishing the target for a perceived insult or other injury.

Rejection seems personal, but maybe it’s not.

Without input or feedback, each brother constructs a narrative of what happened and why it happened. Desperate to reach some kind of understanding, siblings often come to their own conclusions based on misperceptions, miscommunications, and their own defensiveness.

A cut seems undeniably personal, but in truth, it may not be at all. Some siblings have deep feelings jealousy, contest contest, and resentment that they are reluctant to discuss openly. Some cut because they hide something shameful, like substance abuse or symptoms of mental illness. Some cut to set boundaries to protect against further injury from an abusive brother.

When the reasons eventually emerge, rejected people may realize that they wasted days, months, or even years personalizing and analyzing the cut, only to discover that it had nothing to do with what They did.

This was my experience with my horny brother. He cut me off because he wanted nothing to do with his original family. He couldn’t completely cut off our mother, but my mannerisms and presence reminded him of our difficult father, from whom he’s been estranged most of his life.

For decades, not knowing why my brother interrupted me, I personalized his rejection. I was thinking I was what he couldn’t bear. But when we finally reconciled, and I learned the real reason for the cut, I recognized that it was our father, not me, that he was trying to excise from his life. There was absolutely nothing I could have done about his warped perceptions of me; nor was there anything I could have done to distinguish myself and my presence from those of our father. And – probably most important of all – until my brother was ready to reconcile, there was nothing I could have done to achieve that.