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Why some adult siblings seek out joint therapy


Most Americans grow up with siblings, which means our siblings often know us longer than anyone else, longer than a spouse, longer than old friends. That does not mean sibling relationships don't ever run into trouble. Here's Mel talking about her younger sister after a huge falling out.

MEL: And I just didn't know how to have a relationship with her moving forward because I was so hurt.

KELLY: And here's Liz, the younger sister.

LIZ: We couldn't spend holidays together just because things were so awkward and things were so strained.

KELLY: As part of our series on siblings, NPR's Carrie Feibel explores what's going on when adult siblings come into conflict and what it takes to work through it.

CARRIE FEIBEL, BYLINE: Mel and Liz grew up in Northern California. We're only using their first names in this story so they can speak freely about their childhood issues. They still live in driving distance of each other, but until recently, wouldn't describe their relationship as especially close. Mel is 51, married and works as a paralegal, and she's got a lot going on at home.

MEL: I have two wonderful, brilliant, autistic, ADHD sons.

FEIBEL: During the pandemic, the shutdowns and isolation were really hard on the boys, on everyone. Mel's younger sister, Liz, is 45, and she's an occupational therapist. Liz had always helped her nephews. During the lockdowns, she felt obligated to do even more.

LIZ: I need to help with this. I need to deal with this. This is my problem. This is my issue. Even though she never asked for it, that's what I put on myself.

FEIBEL: But Liz was getting burned out. She felt this tremendous pressure from their parents to keep providing support to keep her sister's family going.

LIZ: And it felt heavy. And it felt sort of claustrophobic.

FEIBEL: One day, it just became too much.

LIZ: I just kind of shorted out. And I wasn't able to sort of play the role that I always played. I just wanted distance.

FEIBEL: So she just stopped and withdrew. To Mel, it felt like Liz was abandoning her and her boys.

MEL: And I just didn't know who she really was.

FEIBEL: The sisters didn't speak for months. Liz says, when they tried to talk, they got stuck.

LIZ: At a certain point, I think we both had things that we wanted to say to each other and be heard.

FEIBEL: Finally, the sisters decided it would be best to find a therapist. They found Karen Gail Lewis, who literally wrote the book on this called "Sibling Therapy." In the book, Lewis describes how, when siblings are young, they can end up slotted into these family roles.

KAREN GAIL LEWIS: The roles of the troublemaker, the funny one, the responsible one, the irresponsible one.

FEIBEL: There are a lot of possible roles.

LEWIS: In some ways, there's nothing wrong with roles. The problem comes if it doesn't fit and if it gets crystallized.

FEIBEL: In therapy, Lewis helped the sisters put a name to their childhood roles. Mel says...

MEL: I was the black sheep of the family.

FEIBEL: As a child, she says, she just couldn't get things right. And they say their mom was physically and emotionally abusive. Mel says she took the brunt of it, and she tried to protect her little sister. And Liz's role? She was the golden child.

LIZ: The happy one, the giving one, the together one, person who always helped in a time of need, self-sacrificial type of person.

FEIBEL: For Liz and Mel, identifying their family roles in therapy was the easy part. They made sense. Liz says the hard part was getting at the feelings behind the roles, and Karen Lewis pushed them on that.

LIZ: That's one of the things that Karen insisted on. Like, do you understand how ridiculous that is, that you were saying that there is no feelings about that? Like, the fact that there was this golden child and the scapegoat, and the golden child repeatedly through, you know, through the - of course there are feelings there. Let's explore those. Let's not be so rigid in that.

FEIBEL: Slowly, in their weekly sessions, the two sisters released not just the roles, but the feelings that clung to them. They say they found new ways to be with each other as adults. They started communicating directly with each other instead of trying to send messages through their parents.

MEL: And I love the fact that, now, if there's a family holiday or a dynamic or something, you know, we will call each other and talk to each other about it first before even approaching it with them.

LIZ: She and I are absolutely on the same team now. You know, we have this shared history, this shared experience. We understand each other on this really deep level that no other human being can.

FEIBEL: It's unclear if sibling therapy is becoming more common. Kelly Scott is a therapist at Tribeca Therapy in New York. Scott says she does see more adults coming in for family therapy than she used to, but she thinks many people just don't see why they would work on their relationship with a sibling. It's not like your sibling can divorce you.

KELLY SCOTT: Relating to our siblings is like, you're stuck with me. Like, you're always going to be here. We're always going to be family. You can't ever actually leave me. And I think that can sometimes lead to, like, a lack of care, like a lack of taking care of those relationships and a lack of tenderness and maybe a taking for granted.

FEIBEL: And that's kind of where brother and sister Brett and Mandie found themselves after getting into a fight at a family Christmas. Brett says what started it isn't even that interesting or unusual. It's the fact that they didn't talk afterwards for almost a year.

BRETT: There was a disagreement, but it was much deeper than that. There was things that were - had been smoldering from a family perspective for a while.

LEWIS: Brett's 51 and in business. Mandie's 49. She's an emergency medicine doctor. We're only using their first names so they can speak openly about the therapeutic process. The two live far apart and are pretty busy with their jobs and families. But as the months went by and they still weren't talking, Brett kept pushing Mandie to reconcile.

BRETT: You know, it just wasn't right. Like, we had to fix it. And maybe that's the typical male solution to a problem is must fix it, right?

LEWIS: Brett and Mandie agree their family was really close when they were little, and their mom was pretty terrific. But therapy taught them that doesn't mean they experienced their childhood the same way. Just like Mel and Liz, they had to slow down and really focus on understanding how their upbringing felt different for each of them. Here's Mandie.

MANDIE: I felt that my mom, my parents, you know, treated him differently than me. I felt like they were harder on me than they are on him.

LEWIS: Brett didn't necessarily experience it that way growing up, but in therapy, he learned that wasn't the point.

BRETT: It doesn't matter whether it was right or wrong. It's the way she felt about it. So it's real. And I had to deal with that.

LEWIS: They did therapy just five or six times and say, yeah, things got better. Their families went on vacation together, and it went well. In retrospect, they're so glad they did that work when they did.

MANDIE: I get this text from my mom saying, I think I have cancer. I was like, what are you talking about? She's like, I just read my CT scan for my cough.

LEWIS: Mandie's a doctor, so she read the scan herself. She called Brett right away. Their mom had pancreatic cancer. They had a lot to manage. But despite the challenges and the different ways they handle sadness, Brett and Mandie kept working as a team.

MANDIE: If we hadn't gone through the therapy we went through, we would never have given her the love and the wonderful last four months that she had with us. I think she died happy knowing that her baby birds were happy in a nest together again. I don't know. It was really important.

FEIBEL: Carrie Feibel, NPR News.

KELLY: Next week in our series, The Science of Siblings will explore the lasting influence that animal siblings can have on each other before they're even born. That's Monday right here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Feibel is a senior editor on NPR's Science Desk, focusing on health care. She runs the NPR side of a joint reporting partnership with Kaiser Health News, which includes 30 journalists based at public radio stations across the country.