Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Disappointing Siblings

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 27, 2013

Zoe, fifty-seven, does not know how to handle her anger towards her sister Berkeley, fifty-nine. They are the youngest of six children, with four older sisters and an older brother. They have never gotten along, through good times and bad, they have looked at each other with contempt, or rather Berkeley has looked down on Zoe, making Zoe feel little and ineffective, although at the same time, Zoe understands that Berkeley feels little and ineffective. With never-ending, perhaps naïve optimism, Zoe extended kindness to Berkeley, looking both consciously and unconsciously for appreciation and love, knowing that the most likely outcome is anger, resentment and a deep sense of ingratitude. Sure enough, when Berkeley was visiting from out-of-town, Zoe invited Berkeley to join her for home yoga. Actually, Berkeley was staying with Zoe for a spring break, which was startling given that the last time Zoe stayed with Berkeley, twenty-five years ago, Zoe was so profoundly miserable and felt so deeply unwanted that she swore, and until now, kept her promise never to share a residence with Berkeley ever again. With all those years gone by, and with Berkeley sweet talking her way with Zoe, Zoe began, on a deep level, to hope that maybe their relationship could pivot. So, part of sharing Zoe’s home, was sharing Zoe’s experience of home yoga. This, Zoe  thought, was a special treat, given that Berkeley is a big yogi, and that the two of them doing it together, could be a memorable and unique experience. True to character, however, Berkeley, without telling Zoe ahead of time, scheduled someone to come to Zoe’s house at the time of Shavasana, the time in yoga, which requires deep quiet and concentration as one transitions from a meditative, internal stance,  to a stance of being open to the external world. As this time came, the doorbell rang. Berkeley was leaving to visit relatives, and she had their niece pick her up at the house, such that when the niece arrived, she said “oh, am I interrupting your yoga,” suggesting that Berkeley was aware of how things would play out. The yoga session closed, as Berkeley hurriedly, left, without much appreciation or gratitude for the experience, and with a deep sense left in Zoe that the effort to please Berkeley was not only wasted, but assaulted. The relationship is strained even more. I listened to this sibling tale with sadness for Zoe and Berkeley. They are not caring for one another. They do not watch each other’s back. They hurt each other or they are estranged from one another. There is occasional hope followed by deep disappointment. Acceptance of this cycle of pain and coldness is hard for Zoe. I can understand that. Downloading the tale was helpful to Zoe, but the pain was still there. Zoe knows she needs to find support from folks who are capable of giving it to her. Still, harsh reminders hurt.

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20 Responses to “Disappointing Siblings”

  1. Ashana M said

    There is a hurt that comes from having a sibling who is deeply and unfixably damaged (as Berkeley seems to be) that is similar to the hurt of having a sibling die, but remains in a much more ongoing way because the sibling continues to be there to remind you of the loss. It’s even more difficult because there is often little outside acknowledgement that the sibling cannot be fixed and therefore the relationship cannot be fixed. I don’t feel sorry for Berkeley. Berkeley is fine. Acts like deliberately interrupting a time Zoe chose to share with her prop up her fragile ego so that she really never needs to feel distress for too long. She needs to feel superior, and she does. Zoe, on the other, doesn’t have as many cheap tricks to use to cope, and she’s left hurting for longer periods of time.

    • Shirah Vollmer said

      Yes, I agree with your observations. I would add on to say that although Zoe is left hurting, she uses the pain from that hurt to remind herself of how relationships can both damage and build self-esteem. Berkeley, on the other hand, is fine in the moment, in that she is not in acute pain, but at the same time she struggles with finding meaning in her life.I realize this did not come through in this post, but I might continue with the Zoe/Berkeley dynamic in future entries.

  2. Jon said

    While it does appear that Berkeley is currently fine, it is far from obvious that she is struggling to find meaning in her life any more than the rest of us. On the other hand, it is much more obvious that Zoe has set herself up for a disappointment. Given the sad dynamics of the sisters over the years, might one counsel Zoe to a more cautious course of action in Berkeley? Perhaps she should only allow just a minimum (whatever that might be) of vulnerability to be exposed in this stage of the relationship.

  3. Shirah Vollmer said

    I think it is fair to say, Jon, that sadistic behavior suggests a larger effort to grab hold of some meaning in life. Generally speaking, when one finds meaning in relationships, one has less of a need to hurt others. Yes, Zoe has set herself up for disappointment, while wishing that things could be different. Hope is a thin line from wish. Yes, in retrospect, and maybe in prospect, Zoe should not have enabled such a wide target to hit. It is my experience as a therapist that sometimes people have to put themselves through repeated disappointments before they can learn that there is no water in that stone. This repetitive path to pain frustrates those around Zoe who see things more clearly, but patience with Zoe allows her to discover the difficult truths on her own time scale. Thanks.

    • Ashana M said

      I think it can be really hard to understand that sadistic behavior is, in fact, the meaning of life for some people. It’s much easier to understand harmful behavior as the result of a frustrated desire to do something else rather than as an end in itself. But the superiority that results from hurting others can be deeply satisfying. Whether or not that’s true of Berkeley is impossible to say. However, being unable to accept that it can be true, however, increases the suffering of those who can’t fathom thinking of the world in that way. We assume people think like us, but they don’t always.

      It is probably adding to Zoe’s suffering. It can be very hard for someone like Zoe to see that Berkeley is fine, but Zoe is not. And usually those around Zoes have even more trouble seeing it.

      • Yes, I can see that sadism is satisfying for some. The point is not whether Zoe needs Berkeley to suffer, but for Zoe to rise above the suffering and transform her hurt into compassion for herself and others. Thanks.

  4. Marty Rodriguez said

    I’m a new reader, and I’m enjoying your blog. However, this blog post does not make sense to me. Zoe seems to be overreacting big time. Shavassana usually lasts five to ten minutes at the end of yoga, right? So Berkeley slightly miscalculated the time. While it was a little inconsiderate to interrupt Shavassana, Zoe’s reaction seems totally out of proportion. Most people would be able to deal with the disappointment of having their Shavassana cut short without making it into a big deal. It seems like Zoe really wants a reason to hold a grudge.

    And, also, how was Berkeley supposed to know how significant the yoga session was to Zoe. It seems like Zoe had a fantasy of how she thought the yoga session was going to go, and when reality didn’t meet the fantasy, Zoe couldn’t deal with it. But people rarely play out their roles in other people’s fantasies in exactly the right way. I feel like Zoe set Berkeley up. If it wasn’t the yoga session, it seems like something else was not going to go exactly as Zoe had hoped, which would then feed into Zoe’s grudge against Berkeley. Berkeley is probably baffled by this whole circumstance. It would be interesting to hear her point of view.

    I hope it is okay to post these kinds of comments.


    • Hello Marty!
      Welcome to my blog. Your comments are most welcome. I understand your perspective that Zoe is “overreacting” but the point is that this is how Zoe experienced the interaction, and as such, I try to listen to her point of view to see how I can help her with her subjective experience of pain. As a guest, Berkeley could have been more respectful and thoughtful of the situation and made more clarifications about her plans after yoga such that there were no major surprises. Thanks again for your comments.

  5. Shelly said

    This blog was very painful for me to read, for some reason. My sister and I have always had a loving, sharing and giving relationship, but this blog has stricken a cord in me and brought me great sadness in that for some, there are desires in some relationships that simply can’t be fixed no matter how much one party wishes it to be so. In all families, there are those personalities who are oblivious to the pain and hurt they inflict on others; and then there are others who can see outside themselves and constantly reach out and try to fix damaged relationships. No matter how much Zoe tried to please Berkeley, nothing would ever make her happy. My heart breaks for her.

    • Shirah Vollmer said

      Thanks, Shelly. What interests me about Zoe and Berkeley is that a shared developmental history does not create a bond, but rather the bond is formed through caring and concern for one another, which for some fortunate siblings, such as yourself, can be an everlasting source of comfort through good times and bad.

      • Ashana M said

        It sounds to me that there is a bond, but the bond is complex and doesn’t necessarily involve care for one another. Zoe seems a bit of a dumping ground for Berkeley. She is a locus for Berkeley’s contempt. That is the role Berkeley would prefer she remain in. It’s like keeping a dog around so that you can kick it. I can’t guess what Zoe’s bond is to Berkeley, but it sounds like there is one.

        When something is unfixably wrong with a sibling, and it turns out she is just not a good person or not sane enough to have a safe relationship, it can feel like you have a relationship with a ghost, because it wasn’t always clear to you at 7 or whatever that she would turn out this way. You sat around and played checkers on rainy days with this child and you loved her, but she is no longer there. Like everyone, she grew up.

        But the person you thought she was going to turn out to be as an adult never appeared, and the child she was died without letting anyone know who would appear in her place. Worse, for some people there can be a sense of responsibility–the sibling you had as a child died and you couldn’t save her. Your parents didn’t save her. The child you loved is gone forever and no one did anything effective to prevent that. Even if your sibling was always that way, there is usually a point before you had the maturity to understand that she was and as well as a point after you gained that understanding, and it’s a very painful loss.

        I remember when it became clear to me that my sister was a dangerous person for me to be around. She always had been, but it hadn’t been so very clear before a certain age. There is a sense about it of watching someone possessed or overtaken by disease–this process was going on in her mind and no one seemed to be able to prevent or have any control over it. And it was irreversable.

        It is hard to understand that some people just turn out badly and there is nothing you or anyone could have done to prevent that. And it is also something you escaped.

        • I agree that Berkeley needs Zoe to “kick around,” while I would add that Zoe needs Berkeley to maintain the hope that this dynamic could change with maturity.
          Zoe would tell you that the “checkers” at seven was not much fun either, as the wounds of childhood started early, from her perspective.
          Yes, the parents put Berkeley in harm’s way and for that, Zoe understands, and feels unspeakably bad for Berkeley, while at the same time, having to dodge Berkeley because she does not want to get kicked. The bind, as you point out, is that Zoe can feel for Berkeley, while at the same time, feel hurt by her, creating a stew of emotions which does not give Zoe any satisfaction that she dodged the bullet that Berkeley got growing up in a family which was unsafe and uncontained. Yes, Berkeley is not going to “get fixed” and for that Zoe deeply feels despair.

          • Ashana M said

            There are a lot of possible dynamics. If there were no checkers at 7, then that’s not at issue here. But there are usually good times with any person in your life–no matter how nasty they are the rest of the time. And that can make matters confusing later. You keep wondering what happened to the checkers. It’s hard to understand that everyone has good qualities and there are always good times.

            I do tend to differ in thinking that anyone “needs” to maintain harmful relationships, but sometimes it’s hard to get clear in one’s mind that there are other choices, or that the other choices can be made manageable. My experience has been that people make more healthy choices when they have the tools to do so. They don’t need to remain sick, but they don’t know how to get well. Very few people are willing to teach the necessary skills and so few people learn them. It is so much easier and more comfortable for people who might help to continue to believe that people are where they are because they prefer it. Saying Zoe “needs” to keep doing this with Berkeley may be like saying someone “needs” to remain on a deserted island. But what they really need is a boat. There isn’t a boat, so the survivor is making the best of things.

            In mentioning the dodged bullet, I wasn’t suggesting any satisfaction in it. I doubt there ever is. It seems more logical to expect grief, disbelief, confusion, and guilt. How did I survive and she didn’t? I am not a better person. I didn’t deserve better. But life so often does not give anyone what they deserve, and it is that lack of a just world that is so painful to come to grips with. Because giving it up means anything can happen to us at any time for no reason at all. It’s possible to come to terms with that, but it’s difficult. Maintaining a sense of a just world is sometimes what is at stake.

            • Shirah Vollmer said

              By Zoe’s report, there were no good times with Berkeley, so whether that is a distortion, or whether the damage in the family was so intense, that the siblings could not relax into having fun, is up for debate. I think the word “need” has to do with understanding that relationships continue, despite obvious harm, for reasons which are deeper than we can understand at face value. Understanding motivation, or unconscious processes, helps us to see why things do make sense, if you understand the wishes or fantasies surrounding the relationship. Yes, I agree that the dodged bullet creates painful confusion, or survivor guilt, and as such, there is a painful sense of vulnerability which persists, despite not getting “harmed”. Being around trauma, in this case, the trauma of poor parenting, is always upsetting, no matter whether you are at the center or the periphery. We can all agree, on the surface, that the world is not fair, but how this unfairness manifests is what is hard to accept. Thanks.

            • Ashana M said

              I think our understanding of “need” is simply based on a very different worldview. I don’t think many of the unconscious processes we presume to exist at all. The unconscious process at work is our desire to maintain a more comfortable world view–namely one that is more just and less inescapably evil than what is.

              We don’t want to think about why people are on deserted islands, why they don’t have boats, or why we can’t give them boats either. It is of terrible importance to me because it took me 2 decades to get a boat, and as long as we continue to not acknowledge the need for boats, people like me will continue to not have them.

              But that is just me and I may be wrong. I’m wrong about a lot of things.

            • Ashana M said

              I should add that there is a difference between justice and fairness. Fairness implies equality and the rules being the same for everyone–that we all have an equal chance at success and the same right to try for it. Justice has to do with right and wrong and specifically with wrong being punished. Most of us accept the world is not fair. I have run across very few people who accept that the world is unjust. I don’t think I know anyone personally who does.

      • Shelly said

        You don’t mention if Zoe and Berkeley are only siblings or if they have other siblings? Does Berkeley treat Zoe this badly exclusively? Does Berkeley not have the capacity to love at all, i.e. is she married with children?

        • Yes, Shelly, I agree that the dynamics of siblings are very related to how many siblings there are. In the case of Zoe, she has a brother, in addition to Berkeley. I think you would agree that being married with children does not speak to the ability to love. Moreover, assessing the ability to love is quite challenging, particularly since I am hearing about Berkeley through the perspective of Zoe. Thanks.

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