The question I’m the eldest of three sisters; but my younger two sisters have fallen out, and haven’t spoken for more than 18 months. It’s a real downer at family events, because we used to enjoy all getting together, and now it’s one or other of them and their families but not both. It’s also really sad for them: they used to be close, they’d enjoy having days and evenings out together, but now they don’t even text one another.

The trigger for the fallout was, I guess inevitably, something to do with money and whether our parents had advantaged one with financial gifts more than the other; but I can’t help feeling there’s more to it than that, and this argument has its roots deep in their/our childhood. I think our parents should take the initiative and talk to them both about it, but they seem determined to distance themselves from it, saying my sisters are adults (clearly true – they’re both in their 40s) and that the row has nothing to do with them. It seems to me that it has everything to do with them – but I can’t force them to take it on board and talk to my sisters. Meanwhile, I feel slightly bereft: I have a good relationship with both of my sisters, and we used to do things together that I miss. It’s also annoying me that my parents are passing the buck, when I think they could make a real difference here.

Philippa’s answer Your parents do have a point – your siblings are adults. However, so do you, because even adults in relationship to their own parents can feel and act like children – and what children may do when parents appear to give one child more than the other is not attack the parents so much, but attack the sibling they believe to be advantaged. This sibling then counterattacks and then we have a stalemate.

Parents, being human, do make decisions which, with hindsight, one can see might set one child against another. The most common one is that when a younger child is born, rather than indulging the older one a little and letting them regress a bit in order to cope with this huge upset in their world, they expect the older one to gain maturity. Then the older child gets in the habit of blaming the younger for how the parents have made them feel. That habit often lasts into adulthood. Sometimes the older child then decides they would like to be friends but it’s too late as the younger is fixed in not fully trusting the older one. And if they do begin to trust them, it only takes one incident for things to revert.

And then there is money. It would make sense, apparently, to share out family resources to those with the greatest need. So the sibling who is, say, a single parent who has been made redundant needs more than the sibling who is financially secure, but the sibling who is financially secure thinks that their sibling is being rewarded for making poor life choices, and their sensible way of going about things is being punished by the parents. They may blame their poorer sibling for manipulating their parents. Money is often seen as a tangible form of love. Parents sensitive to this may strictly divide their fortune equally among all the children, regardless of need, which might mean that the child who married a billionaire gets the same portion as the redundant single parent, which really doesn’t seem sensible either. These things need talking through in families, otherwise there is a risk of misunderstandings.

I observe that most parents do love their children the same, but they may like one more than another, or find it easier to spend time with one more than the other and then they feel guilty about this and financially reward the one they find more difficult out of guilt, or the other one because they understand them.

When we are angry to the point of not speaking to someone, we will put ourselves in the position of the “goodie” and the other in the role of “baddie”. Along with these roles come heavily charged emotions that make it hard not to cherrypick evidence to back up our positions. Maybe your sisters are in this position. But there is rarely one evil one and one good one; it is usually a complex web of hurt feelings inflamed by misunderstandings and derogatory remarks. Such feuds are never solved by making one person right and the other wrong. Both need to recognise and understand the hurt that is on either side and where, emotionally, each person was coming from.

I’m putting all these hypothetical scenarios forward in case any of them resonate with you and might be useful in the conversations you may want to have with your siblings or parents. It may be that your sisters don’t regret their falling out as much as you do, in which case it is going to be hard to put your world back the way you liked it. If you do talk about it, remember to use “I-statements” and never “You-statements”. For example, I feel sad we don’t all get along like we used to, what can I do about it? And not anything starting with “You should…”

Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to [email protected]. Philippa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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