Neal, a 55-year-old public relations specialist, has five brothers but speaks to none of them. Born across three different decades — the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s — there was always some generational distance between them growing up. But when his oldest brother Andy died in the Vietnam War in 1967 and no one dealt with their grief, it started a chain-reaction of depression and estrangement that Neal describes as irreparable.
From there, his second oldest brother, Matthew, accused their father of physical abuse, specifically tying him to a chair and shattering his hand as a child. When the family didn’t believe him, Matthew changed his last name and disowned them all. Then his brother Chris went to prison for rape, a crime he showed no remorse for. And last Neal checked, his other brother, Richard, was homeless, living on the streets of Salt Lake City.
Neal and his twin brother Adam, however, remained fiercely close throughout all of this familial strife. The men spoke regularly, their wives were friends and their young children played together — until one day Adam stopped returning his calls, claiming he was tired of the family trying to control him. Neal gave Adam space, but when he came to town for business and Adam refused to see him, Neal was so offended he stopped trying. A year later, Adam committed suicide.
“I think a lot of estrangement revolves around mental illness,” Neal tells me. “We didn’t talk about anything. We definitely didn’t talk about our feelings or let ourselves appear weak.”
After Adam died, Neal learned that Adam had been diagnosed with severe depression and had become estranged from his wife and children, too. But at the time, Neal didn’t see his brother severing ties with him as a warning sign, because it was a family tradition. Not to mention, alienation between brothers isn’t uncommon.
Over 40 percent of people experience some level of familial estrangement, making it almost as common as divorce. While a disproportionate amount of studies on the subject focus on parent-child estrangement, data indicates that anywhere from 3 to 10 percent of people have severed ties with a sibling. Less is known about gender differences, but there are aspects of traditional masculinity that may make estrangement more common among brothers, psychologist Randy Flood explains — or at least make the rifts between them more difficult to repair.
“The traditional male socialization process can teach men to function in a hierarchy. It’s about who’s above me and who’s below me,” Flood says. In his clinical work at the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan, Flood has found that in order for brotherly relationships to be restored, it takes a mix of equity and vulnerability. “There’s a process of reciprocity, accountability and support. Unfortunately, traditional masculinity is about being in control and being right.”
Brothers learn to engage in this hierarchy at a young age via roughhousing, which child development experts regard as a mostly positive activity that helps boys bond. The thing is, when they grow up, brothers may have very different memories about the severity of the fighting.
Chad, a 50-year-old social media specialist, already had a difficult relationship with his younger brother after he emptied their parents’ bank account and ran away as a teenager, making his mom and dad financially incapable of attending Chad’s college graduation. His younger brother eventually ran out of money and returned to live with their parents, who never pressed charges or discussed the incident. Then, years later when their father remarried, the brothers reconnected and agreed to start fresh. But the night before the wedding, among friends and family, Chad’s younger brother lashed out and took a swing at him. As bystanders held his brother back, he screamed about how Chad beat him up growing up and that’s why he hates him now.
“I felt really guilty, like, ‘What could I have done to make this happen?’” Chad says. “But we were just kids being kids. I did nice things for him, too.” Thirteen years later, Chad’s brother has never called or written, no-showed Chad’s wedding and has yet to meet his sister-in-law or son.
These conflicting accounts of physical contact are pretty typical. Older brothers tend to minimize fighting and justify it as preparing younger brothers for the future. Younger brothers tend to remember the physical contact as something much worse. The truth often gets lost somewhere in the middle. “It can be challenging because it’s all about scope and severity,” Flood explains. “It can be that someone is dramatizing what could be a very normal sibling rivalry, but you can have errors on both ends.”
Still, that’s not to imply that all fights between brothers are innocent horseplay. Sibling-on-sibling abuse may actually be more common than sibling estrangement, occurring in anywhere from 42 to 90 percent families, depending on the research. Such was the case with Robert, a 52-year-old insurance broker, and his two brothers. “There was no roughhousing. Fists were flying, and it was a street fight,” Robert says. “But as a child, the fighting didn’t seem out of the ordinary. My mom would beat us kids all the time, so that was the norm.”
Interestingly, Robert doesn’t blame physical violence for why all three brothers are estranged as adults — he blames money. They always struggled in their relationships, but it wasn’t until their father died four years ago and the youngest became the executor of the will that the brothers severed ties completely. That said, Robert wasn’t kept out of the will and admits he was financially taken care of. The issue is that there was no transparency to the process, which felt more like a buyout than anything else. He was basically given a lump sum of money, and told to go away, while his youngest brother remained in charge of the estate and their elderly mother’s care. “I’m not the kind of person to be kept in the dark and fed crap to,” Robert says. “I’m not a mushroom.”
It, of course, doesn’t have to be this way. Obviously there are situations where a family member is too toxic to let in (like Neal’s unrepentant rapist brother), but in other instances, repairing the relationship is a matter of managing expectations and setting limits. “You can invite that person back into your life to honor kinship ties, but establish very clear emotional and physical boundaries about what the relationship can and won’t be, without having no contact whatsoever,” Flood says.
For instance, if Chad decides to work on his relationship with his younger brother who attacked him, a boundary might be to refuse to engage further if his brother becomes confrontational again, rather than refusing to interact at all. This allows brothers to be vulnerable without feeling like doormats. “Some men will approach this in a very black and white way: ‘I’m going to win, and you’re going to lose,’ instead of, ‘What are the ways we can compromise?’” Flood explains.
In other words, it’s entirely possible to repair ties without having an ideal relationship if both brothers are willing to view reconciliation as a spectrum.
Neal, who got divorced last year, remains close with his teenage son and several lifelong friends, including his junior high guidance counselor who he’s known throughout his family’s fragmentation. These relationships, along with grief counseling, exercise and mental health advocacy have all helped Neal cope with the trauma of his twin brother’s death. He treats his relationships differently now, especially ones with other men, and makes an effort to be less defensive in them. Still, as much as Neal credits this growth to the loss of his twin, he regrets not getting over his pride while his brother was alive.
“I thought, ‘If he’s not trying hard, why should I?’ But it was my fault, too,” he admits. “I felt disrespected because he wasn’t talking to me. If I could change anything, I would have put all that aside and worked on the relationship.”