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The origins of a sibling breach often can be traced to childhood. Psychologist Stephen P. Bank, co-author of The Sibling Bond, observes that eldest children who are expected to care for younger siblings may feel overburdened and resentful. Children born too many years apart, says Bank, may never share common interests or developmental stages. For them, slender ties are sometimes easy to cut.
Nancy B. (who asked that her full name not be used) is a management consultant with a sister older by six years and a brother older by 12. She doesn't speak to either of them but for differing reasons. "The age gap was so significant," she says. As a child, she worshiped her brother, whose trips home from college were cause for celebration. A few years ago, he stopped returning her calls. She doesn't know why.
On the other hand, she was never comfortable with her sister. "There was always tension between us," Nancy, now 52, says. "I couldn't figure it out." Nancy ended contact after the sister attached herself to yet another violent man, and Nancy felt relegated to the role of caretaker--for someone who didn't want to be helped. The three siblings were last together 25 years ago at their mother's funeral. Nancy still feels the loss, she says, "but my heart isn't breaking anymore. I've figured out a way to be in the world without trying to make love happen where it isn't."
Yet in other families, psychologist Bank says, large age differences can help alleviate competition for toys, friends and parental attention. Some older siblings enjoy being caregivers, often in exchange for adoration. Studies show bonds among sisters tend to be strongest, epitomized by Bessie and Sadie Delany, co-authors of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years. And when parents are absent, neglectful or abusive, siblings often fill the void by forming tight bonds, as did the brothers in the movie Radio Flyer.
Major life changes such as marriage, divorce, birth, illness or death can trigger a separation, Netzer says, but usually only if tensions have been building for years. Consider, for example, the case of Michael Carr, 42, a money manager, and his older brother Steven, who ended contact with each other two years ago. When they were growing up, Michael saw Steven, two years older, as his best friend and guardian angel. "We were really close," Michael says. "He was the ringleader in the neighborhood. He was my hero." (Steven did not respond to requests for an interview.)
In the early '70s, Michael says, Steven became temperamental and less reliable, no longer resembling the person Michael had admired. Steven wasn't crazy, Michael says, just increasingly moody and self-centered. About six years ago, their father was hospitalized, and the brothers went to Florida to see him. They stayed with their stepmother, with whom Steven had a quarrel. Steven told Michael he was going to the hospital to tell their father about it. "It was ridiculous," Michael says. "My father was at death's door, and my brother wanted to complain to him about my stepmother! I had to physically restrain him from going."
Their father died that night, and Michael hasn't seen his brother since the funeral. "I wouldn't be surprised if I never see him again," Michael says. "If I saw him on the street I would talk to him, but I wouldn't let him back in my life. I don't know who he is."