The longest relationships we have in our lives are typically those with our siblings, which can last 80 years or longer. I heard a radio announcer mention this one day, then he suggested Dr. Jeanne Safer’s book “Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret.” Wondering what tools Safer has for farm sibling strife, I bought the book to advise you on how to create better relationships with your siblings.
Parents’ Role in Sibling Relationships
“When people have what they need emotionally, they do not envy what others have…even brothers who have cheated them out of what by rights was theirs (Jacob and Esau story),” Safer writes. I wonder if she has ever interviewed the farm sisters who are taking each other to court over dad’s will?
Farm families are in deep angst over sibling strife, and you may be shocked at this next observation.
“Parents are responsible for parenting the sibling rivalry that leads to strife and siblings who have a legacy of grief with each other. Parents should not ignore the violence or fighting between siblings, and they should defang it. Navigate the wrath!” says Safer.
In my own words, I would say “discuss the undisscussabull.” Deal with the issues when they are small, and have the courageous conversations to deal with hostilities before they become entrenched in the family history. If one child is saying, “I am afraid that when our parents die, that you’ll take everything and not leave anything for me!” then talk about your estates, succession plans, and possession wishes.
“The most effective strategy is the most elusive: self knowledge and empathy for all combatants” says Safer. What is it that you really want? Can you evoke some empathy to try and understand what your siblings are going through?
“The best equipped siblings in strife are those who were well loved themselves (or understand why they weren’t) and have satisfying lives.” Addressing unfinished business with one’s own siblings is the best way to foster mutuality in the next generation.
What Type of Sibling Relationships Are You Modeling?
Do you have awareness of the conflict and the will to change the future relationships in your family? Many folks I coach are reenacting the past. Safer challenges us to repudiate Cain’s legacy (Cain killed his brother Abel in the Bible account). She says all we need is “consciousness and a new perspective on the past will open up for us.”
When I work with farm families, I usually ask them to tell me the stories about how the dad and mom got the farm from their parents. I am looking for clues and patterns or perspectives on fairness, and keeping the farm intact. Usually there is a rough relationship between farming brothers, the uncle, and things that the current founders want to avoid with their legacy.
Tips on Coping with Siblings
I am curious if you are courageous enough to be more aware of the internal struggle that your siblings cause in you? Anxiety about knowing and revealing unacceptable feelings (like hate) keeps you stuck, and inhibits what you say to your siblings. Likely they already know the truth about how you feel about what is happening.
Could you approach a sibling with: “Let’s work on our relationship so that we want to be together?”
Here’s some insights that might help you cope:
- Move on. This is a coaching term that helps people see that things may never change, so they need to let go and move on. This happens when you create a place of your own while maintaining a very minimal role in your farm family home. Essentially you stay connected in a very small way, and build a satisfying life beyond the farm.
- Irreconcilable differences that are beyond repair may teach you to look in the mirror and spare the next generation from the same mistakes. The desire for reconciliation needs to come from both siblings in order to be effective.
- Adopt new “family” or find a surrogate family as Safer calls it. We have found our church family to be a part of our extended family, people who chose to love and care, even when they are not true relatives. Safer feels that “brotherhood or sisterhood should be earned.”
- Grieve your losses. What struck me about Safer’s insights is that “siblings are indelible, they are written in your heart and your history. Severing your external relationships doesn’t mean that you can divest yourself of the internal relationship.” So the folks that I meet that have severed physical ties with siblings, are still deeply affected by their heart string struggles of wondering what went wrong.
- Make a choice. “Whatever decision you make about the type of relationship you will have with a problem sibling, make it a conscious choice; you will have fewer regrets later on. Avoiding the painful truth, blaming external circumstances, letting the relationship trail off, or believing it no longer matters prevents recognition, resolution and mourning. Acknowledging reality liberates emotional energy, and this will help you discover men and women who can become your authentic psychological brothers and sisters even is they are not your biological ones.” (Safer, page 211.)
Ten Tips for Moving from Strife
- Strive to see the world from the other person’s perspective.
- Empathize and appreciate what the other sibling has tried to do. Build on the positive.
- Explain the “why” or the intent behind estate decisions.
- Don’t let the parents sow the seeds of favouritism.
- Take initiative to have frequent conversations so that you are not kept apart by silence.
- Some people love money more than relationship. Let them go. Money does not buy love. Identify the roles your parents played or contributed to the conflict so you can alter the outcome.
- Embrace honest conversations. Be real. Hurt siblings need to be validated by being seen and heard before forgiveness comes. Rebuilding trust takes time and self-awareness.
- Accept “good enough.” “Sometimes you have to adjust your notion of the perfect reconciliation to the good-enough one that accepts the other person as she is,” says Safer.
- Seek common ground or common interests, rather than staying stuck in your positions. What is it that you both really want?
- Take risks to have courageous encounters that build trust. “Your willingness to hear, undefensively, how the other person sees the situation establishes trust, which is the most potent tool for reconciliation” says Safer.
Be receptive to emotional engagement to search for insights into your sibling strife history. As Dr. Jeanne Safer explains, “The only person whose involvement you can control is yourself.” I would add that you might also want to pray for wisdom and divine intervention in the process.