Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100% confidential, and may be edited for length.
I feel ridiculous writing to an advice column at my age but I am at my absolute wit’s end. You seem to be rather evenhanded and that’s what I need right now.
My situation is that I have four children, and the two oldest ones (I’ll call them John and Jane) are constantly in conflict. They’re close in age and I’m afraid they couldn’t be more different if you checked off every box on purpose. They have long memories and old hurts that have magnified and magnified. Nothing that happens now comes without the echo of whatever they’re still sore about from when they were twelve and ten.
It doesn’t help that they are at very different places in life. John (the eldest) is married and well-established in his career. Jane is single and unemployed. My youngest gets along all right with both of them but finds it very difficult that they’re always in conflict (as do I). The next-to-youngest lives on the other side of the world and we see him very little.
Now they each have children, and their upset has only intensified. Neither wants to be around the other or have their children around the other. This means that their grandfather and I can only take the children without any other adults and that is exhausting. It’s also just awful at family gatherings, on the infrequent occasions that they will consent to be in the same room.
My daughter has moved back home recently with her daughter, and we are overwhelmed and exhausted with trying to manage this. We love our children and grandchildren and would like them to be able to coexist peacefully. Or at least quietly. It’s too much and I don’t like to take sides but I don’t know what to do.
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
When my husband and I were discussing whether to have another child (our second co-production and third overall since he has a child from a previous relationship), we talked to a lot of people about our uncertainty. We discovered in doing so that other people’s advice very often hinged on the idea that having a sibling was a very desirable situation; that a sibling made sort of a natural ally in the world. Now I adore my brother and would absolutely be friends with him even if we weren’t related, but each of my parents has a brother and… let us just say, those are not close relationships. For certain, siblings can be a mixed bag.
The truth is that sometimes two people just have very, very different outlooks on life, and cannot spend more than the minimum of time together without activating each other’s worst qualities. The likelihood of this happening between two people seems to increase exponentially when they have to share space and cannot choose not to. There may also be old resentments, and of course those can just magnify and magnify.
What I can’t tell from your letter is quite exactly what’s going on between these two. This seems deeper than a question of just “not getting along.” My much beloved brother and I regularly pummeled and tormented each other when we were children, and once I (quite accidentally) broke his wrist. So certainly old hurts can heal, but these have not. Which begs the question: Why not?
I can think of three reasons. One: There may simply be no actual desire on the part of either sibling to be reconciled. That’s difficult, because at the moment they’ve got two other generations (one above and one below, as it were) caught in the middle. However familiar the discord has become, if that seems to be the situation I might ask them to seek the assistance of a mediator or other neutral party to make some agreements about how they will each behave and what will happen if they won’t. That way their parents (you) and their children (your grandchildren) can get about the business of basking in one another’s affections as you were meant to. It’s fine if they want to loathe each other quietly forever. But if that’s the case they should make a very strict non-disparagement agreement and simply say nothing at all to each other, or about each other, especially in front of the children.
Reason two: Something awful happened or is happening. Is it possible that somewhere in their childhood or young adulthood there was a trauma that has been kept hidden from you? Did one of them abuse or hurt the other in some way you don’t know about? Or is one of them acting abusively to or being aggressive against the other now? You may need to sit them down and have a very serious talk with them about this separately, or you may already have a gut sense of it that you are trying to avoid facing. It’s awful to think about a child of yours hurting another child of yours, but it happens. If there’s a past abuse or trauma then you will make no progress unless you deal with it head on, probably in therapy and the sooner the better. If it’s a current situation in which one sibling is aggressing and the other is trying to protect themselves or their children, it’s time to tell the sibling who’s acting out to cut it out or face the consequences. In one of these cases, you may need to rethink your neutral stance. Continuing to act as though everyone is behaving equally isn’t fair or reasonable when one person is being or has been victimized. You can love all your children equally but also require that they act right or else.
Third reason: This is how you secretly prefer it. One of my parents does not get along well with their brother because my grandmother (their mother) set them up to be in competition with each other, feeding each false information about the other, and generally driving a wedge between them so that they would each feel fiercely loyal to her. I’m not suggesting, Brave Correspondent, that you’re for sure doing the same. But I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to also take a look at your behavior here. Why are these grown people who aren’t speaking still able to find ways to be upset with each other? Are you feeding the fires here by carrying information back and forth? Maybe you could benefit from some professional help here, if so, to help you make better choices (and some for your children as well, for which you might need to think about footing the bill).
I am fairly certain that this query comes in part because we are all staring down the barrel of the Holiday Season and all that implies. I find that the pressure to congregate in family-of-origin groups really intensifies at this time of year, regardless of whether everyone (or anyone, really) actually wants to do that, because it’s What One Is Supposed To Do. So while I am doling out advice, please allow me to also encourage you to take a look at the family traditions you may have. Consider how much you are actually enjoying them and what else you might like to do (also or instead). Maybe this is the year you let go once and for all of the celebration of genocide ironically named “Thanksgiving” and participate in a day of service as a family, increasing your contributions to the world while dramatically reducing the opportunities for small talk. Maybe this is the year that you finally accept the invitation to Aunt Belle and Uncle Marvin’s Chanukah party and skip doing the thing at home where everyone glowers at each other over a platter of latkes. Maybe go for dim sum or pho on Christmas and open presents at home separately instead of spending 36 hours in constant company with the magic-and-wonder imperative hanging over your heads.
(Are we making wonderful lifelong memories? Will the children be sufficiently delighted? IS IT MAGIC YET?)
Here’s the thing, when all is said and done, though – you cannot make them like one another. You may be able to get them to behave better - which would be great – but being born in the same family never guarantees that two people will find a way to love one another, or even like one another. Release the pressure on them to get along, if you can. Let them learn to tolerate each other with chilly disregard, if necessary, so long as it doesn’t verge into disrespect. Sometimes it’s true that you can fake it until you make it, that acting like you can tolerate someone’s presence makes it real over time. But sometimes the answer is to just let it go, Brave Correspondent. Let the two people struggling to be apart take as much space as they can get. There comes a point where enough is enough, and whatever the reason your two eldest children seem to be there. It may be that there’s work you can do here, or require that they do. But it may be time to have the grace to release your need for reconciliation and let them be.