Siblings in an Abusive Family

One day, my husband and I were snuggling on the couch. Something smelled awful, and I confess that I assumed it was him. Much later in the day, I discovered a dead mouse on the floor right under the couch where he’d been sitting. I’d attributed the stench of mouse corpse to my husband, and he had every reason to assume that it was actually me causing the stench.

This stench-blaming is similar to what can happen among siblings who grow up together in an abusive household. The abuser is like a person who has been carrying around a stinking dead corpse because his or her parent(s) handed it to them, because their parents handed it to them, and so on. It’s just what’s been done for generations. Now the person with the corpse hands it down to their children. It stinks. At first, the children might know that the parent brought the stink, but any child who confronts an abusive parent is going to get smacked down, have the blame turned on them, or meet up with complete denial that there is anything but the most lovely of fragrances in the room.

The problem of the stink remains, so now the choices are: blame yourself or blame someone else other than the abusive parent. Some children blame themselves, some blame their siblings. Now where there could have been a supportive relationship, there is animosity. There are countless combinations that can occur and here is a sampling: one child who blames him or herself and tries to fix the problem might have one or more siblings who also blame him or her. Any number of siblings might blame each other. Sometimes the abuser picks a sibling to side with in blaming another sibling; sometimes that same parent switches sides. Everyone has their own theory about what is causing the stink and everyone has their own idea of how to deal with it. Meanwhile the person who brought the stink gets none of the blame, and is likely to exploit the conflicts among the family members, to throw everyone off from the source of the scent and to keep the siblings from forming any sort of coalition.

The abuse continues, the stink remains, the infighting solves nothing but makes everyone feel like they are doing something.  Everyone takes a role in the family dynamic.  Each child leaves the household and enters adulthood with a template for relationships based on the relationship dynamics they had not only with their parents but also with their siblings.  (There are templates from beyond the family, too, but today I am focusing on siblings). Your relationships with friends, roommates, coworkers, lovers are all shaped by the sibling template. And whenever something arises in your relationships that resembles the stink, you follow the template, especially if there is a power dynamic involved.  Maybe you work in an inequitable workplace with a boss who is not compensating people fairly. If you have your sibling template in place, you might feel hostility festering in the direction of a coworker rather than toward the unfair boss.  Perhaps you are vying with another for your own lover’s attention.  Your sibling template will have you put your focus on the competition while not seeing your lover exploiting the conflict between you and the person vying for your lover.  Maybe you have a best friend who keeps letting you down, but who you keep trusting.  Perhaps you are involved in a hazing ritual with “brothers” or “sisters” who violate you.  Whatever the form, a sibling template will drive relationships until it can be brought to the light of your consciousness, and many of these relationships, since they resemble family, feel like relationships you cannot leave no matter what.

Once you focus beyond the fact that you were on the receiving end of abuse from your parent, and you start to also examine your sibling relationships, things gets murkier. Your sibling(s) might have done some awful things to you, but it is also possible that you did some awful things to them.  This can be hard to admit.  It is also likely that you survived your abusive household by nurturing the belief that you were the victim and your sibling was on the side of the perpetrator; you might have grown to believe that you were the good child and another sibling was the bad one; it’s possible you expressed all the rage of the household while another sibling demonstrated all the emotional control. It can be difficult to admit that your sibling(s) were also being abused, and that what they did to you was not the source of the stink, but the result of the stink. This doesn’t mean your sibling is not accountable for their actions, or you for yours.  It does open up a more complex conversation that moves beyond the binary one where one side holds all the blame and the other all the victimhood.   Once you get to this understanding, you can start doing some good work in your relationships whether with your sibling or with anyone whose relationship with you was formed by the sibling template.

While I would like to end this post by wrapping it up in a neat package of suggestions as to how to start the healing work, I am instead leaving it open-ended, with questions to consider for yourself or discuss in the comments section.  If you had sibling(s) and trauma or abuse in your family, what is your relationship with your sibling(s) like today?  Do you have a sibling template that forms and informs your relationships?  What does it look like? In what arena do you have the most trouble with your sibling template?  Is it at work?  Team sports?  Friends of the same gender or different gender?  People in your cultural group? People in another cultural group? If you have children, how do you react when they are in conflict with friends and/or siblings or even with you?  Feel free to explore and share your answers here!

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