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Sibling Strife in Later Life

Our relationship with a sibling is among the longestlasting—and most important—relationship in our lives. Why do so many of us have a troubled relationship with a sister or brother, especially as we get older? Unhealed childhood wounds, money, success, envy—all are problems, often hidden beneath the surface, which we’re reluctant to discuss openly. This session  will explore the roots of sibling conflicts, how to come to terms with them—and, when it is possible, how to repair the relationship. It is important to overcome the pain connected to sibling strife whether or not it can be resolved.

Parking: A free parking voucher will be available for pickup at the registration table the afternoon of the event. This is for parking in the Sibley Medical Building parking garage only.

Registration: The seminar is open to all. Registration is required and will be closed when the limited capacity of the room is reached, so reserve early. Call 202-364-7602 to register.

Book Signing: If you own one of Dr. Safer’s books, please bring it and she will sign it for you.
Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., the seminar speaker, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 40 years. She has made taboo topics her specialty and is the only therapist in the United States who specializes in treating the "normal" siblings of the disabled and dysfunctional. An author and lecturer, Dr. Safer has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and O Magazine, among other publications. The seminar will be based on research from her most recent book, Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret. Her other books include The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling; Forgiving and Not Forgiving; and Why Sometimes It’s Better Not to Forgive. She spoke with Sibley Senior about topics she’ll explain more fully in the seminar.

Your latest book, Cain’s Legacy, focuses on sibling strife. Just how prevalent are negative relationships between siblings?

Far more prevalent than you would think. Statistics reveal that at least one-third of sibling relationships are troubled, and this rises to 45 percent when clinicians ask for more detailed information on surveys. It’s particularly true in older adulthood. Our sibling relationships last 50 to 80 years, the relationships with our parents only 30 to 50 years. So our siblings are all we have left. I’ve discovered that most people have no idea what to do about a bad relationship. Trying to repair it is at the end of their to-do list—below cleaning the closet.

What’s the most common reason for a bad sibling relationship?

It has to do with the perception of the parents’ favoritism—"Mommy loved you best." The reasons on the surface aren’t always the real reasons. They’ll say, "I can’t stand her husband" or "we’re very different people." But the difference is the spice of life, so these superficial reasons don’t hold. The reasons go back to the childhood with the parents. What my book offers is a look at the origins of
what was going on and advice on how to fix it, if possible.

Is this kind of serious strife different from sibling rivalry?

Yes. Sibling rivals can also be friends. Every relationship has its ups and downs—that’s human nature. With sibling strife you never feel like friends. That’s the big difference. We’re talking about when the relationship tips over into discomfort or worse, when bitterness and conflict mar almost any interaction, when we don’t want to pick up the phone when they call. It’s something people feel
embarrassed to talk about.

Can some of these negative relationships be repaired?

It’s possible with hard work and mutuality, but it’s not easy. What you can do is understand the problems and their origins. With insight, you can change your relationship to the relationship. I offer tangible steps to take, though not everything is fixable. Sometimes a biological connection is all you can have, but you can find true psychological siblings in your life elsewhere.

How would you define a healthy relationship between siblings?

No matter what, you prize each other—and will go to each other’s aid. Your sibling is your friend.

Does your relationship with your sibling affect outside relationships?

It’s the template for all other peer relationships in your life—from bedroom to boardroom. It affects how you compete at work, how you deal with envy—it’s all there.

What new research are you working on now?

I’m exploring how to address life’s most difficult crises. I call my approach emotional activism. You make an active choice to do something—deal with illness, for example. That’s my general philosophy of life.

What’s the most important idea you want the Sibley audience to take away from your lecture?

I want consciousness to be raised about the importance of siblings in our lives, particularly problematic sibling relationships, because they have much more influence than we imagine. It’s an under-examined area, and it can make a huge difference.

Registration at 1:30 p.m., speaker starts at 2 p.m.


Saturday, September 14, 2013 1:30 PM - 4:00 PM


Sibley Medical Building, Conference Room 2, Sibley Hospital
5255 Loughboro Road, NW
Washington, DC

If registration for this event is closed, please give us a call if you would like to be placed on the waiting list.  We will give you a call if a space becomes available. 202.364.7602. Thank you.
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