Our primary motivation is to feel a sense of connection to others (Fairbairn, 1952). The root of all connectedness begins with mother-infant, yet siblings soon become a key source of emotional connection (Winnicott, 1971). When children lack nurturing relationships in their home, they search for that connection throughout their life. Families set a precedent for how its members understand closeness with another person; how they think about connectedness; and how they experience intimacy. Because victims of sibling abuse do not have a model for a “healthy” and satisfying connection, there is a tendency in adulthood to seek out relationships that repeat aspects of their previous experiences.
Survivors of sibling abuse endure feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and inferiority that erodes self-esteem. This ultimately influences the nature and quality of relationships to others. When one’s most trusted peer—the sibling—betrays the sanctity of that relationship, the idea of closeness—and of intimacy—becomes fraught with danger. As a result, survivors develop defenses against and within intimate relationships as an attempt to self-protect from re-traumatization.
Survivors of sibling abuse poignantly define “closeness,” in terms that demonstrates both their struggle to achieve intimacy and a desire to attain it (Meyers, 2011):
Naked honesty bare-naked emotionally; unconditional acceptance but I’m not sure if that is possible; staying present to one’s own feelings and to another’s. (Sarah)
A lot of caring --a lot of ‘unconditionality’. It’s about having similar values and beliefs that if I ever needed anybody, all I needed to do was pick up the phone and they would be there for me. There’s a lot of mutuality and a lot of openness. If they do something that makes me angry or vice versa, we talk about it. You know, and I never question that I care deeply about them or they care deeply about me. (Sonia)
Intimacy is when I feel most vulnerable—when I share something about myself that I wouldn’t necessarily share with anyone. There is always a part of me that thinks ‘I wonder what that person thinks about me now that they know that. Or I’m like ‘oh no, what are they going to think now’? That’s what intimacy is to me- to trust someone with my feelings, my most delicate feelings and they will be like ‘I get you and I love you’. (Talia)
To be able to talk with someone and express how you feel emotionally—to be able to talk freely without any advice or condemnation or ridicule but with acceptance and listening. And still at the end of it all be held. I don’t know because I can’t think of any person that I have gotten that from. (Paula)
It means understanding somebody and showing that you care about them. Or someone identifying how I feel; knowing when that person feels bad and being able to reach them and finding a way to help that person through; providing comfort to each other. (Beth)
Although desirous of closeness, survivors fear they would be hurt if they expose their feelings or appear vulnerable. This mirrors earlier incidents when they relied and trusted that their families were capable of providing support, but were severely disappointed. Survivors of sibling abuse are violated not only by a sibling but by the caregiver who failed to protect. Not only was abuse present, but neglect by the caregiver is also implied. The betrayal and violation inherent within a sibling abusive relationship forms survivors’ perceptions of how the world at large will relate to them and engenders the expectation of rejection. We are conditioned to take in our life experiences, make them our own, and project them onto subsequent relationships. This is called the internalization and externalization (or projection) of experience. And as a result, we expect others to relate to us as did our primary (familial) relationships.
Survivors describe “closeness” as unconditional acceptance and a sense of unyielding support: something they did not experience with their families of origin. As adults, they fear pain if they expose their feelings or appear vulnerable. The betrayal and violation inherent within a sibling abusive relationship forms expectations of the world at large—a world where intimacy is to be feared.
Intimacy requires trust. Trust requires risking that the world is not necessarily going to respond to survivors as did the family of origin. Humans are conditioned to perceive others through the lens from which we saw the world growing up. That lens can change.
Amy Meyers, PhD, LCSW is Chair of the Social Work department at The College of New Rochelle in Westchester, New York. She has lectured nationally on sibling abuse and has provided trainings on sibling abuse assessment and intervention to staff at Departments of Social Services/Child Protection and to practitioners at mental health and social service agencies in several of counties of New York. She also maintains a private practice in New York City. Learn more at www.psychotherapynyc-healing.com
Fairbairn, W.R.D. (1952). An object relations theory of the personality. New York: Basic Books.
Meyers, A. (2011). Sibling abuse: Understanding developmental consequences through object relations, family systems, and resiliency theories. Dissertations in print.
Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock Publications.