Adult Sibling Disputes

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When I first got trained as a family mediator some 35 years ago I pictured helping couples through the divorce process and occasionally helping parents and teenagers through the challenging years of adolescence. What I didn’t consider was the number of cases that would show up at our door involving adult siblings in conflict over elder care, sharing a beloved vacation home, dividing an estate after the last parent’s death or estrangement between siblings over a number of years.

These cases are not only extremely well suited to our co-mediation model involving a team of mediators made up of one person with a background in law and one with a background in mental health.  They are also some of the most complicated dynamics we encounter.  Imagine getting thrown into a well established family dynamic which has been simmering over 50 plus years, barely held together by a now deceased parent “gate-keeper” who held sway over the family secrets, painful feelings of not getting one’s fair share, being overshadowed by “the favorite”, living up to a legacy set forth by the perfect older sibling.   I could go on about the range of sibling dynamics reignited after a parent’s death, but I don’t think I have to as these dynamics are familiar to all of us in one version or another.

What is so powerful as a mediator is to enter this family system for usually 6-8 hours, hear each siblings experience, hold their old pain to some degree and participate in helping them craft a resolution that can never resolve all the wrongs they have felt but, at best, help them move on and even perhaps maintain a future relationship even after the parent is no longer there to insist everyone come to Thanksgiving.

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As a therapist I always get a window, over time, into the old family-of-origin dynamics that have helped to form my clients walls and defenses.  As a mediator I get a “jump into the deep end and learn to swim” experience that is both exhilarating and torturous as we navigate through the real and imagined injuries.  These are some of the most difficult cases to mediate and also some of the most rewarding.  When we get to agreement and my colleague Jeff is writing it up I often get to sit with the family members, now relieved by an actual agreement (if less than perfect from their individual perspective as mediation agreements always are) and hear funny old family stories.  They laugh together and show me a picture of Mom and sweetly tease each other in the way only siblings can do.