Key points

  • Siblings and new partners may feel jealous or threatened by each other.
  • In some abusive situations, a partner may exert pressure on a sibling to cut family ties.
  • A family may refuse to tolerate new partners who defy the family identity; they may reject someone on the basis of race, religion, or politics.
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Sisters and brothers face one of the most perilous moments in their relationship when one of them chooses a life partner.

I didn’t recognize the prevalence of this stress point until I conducted an informal survey for my book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation. Many respondents blamed a spouse or partner for fracturing a sibling relationship. Some of their comments are bitter and painful:

  • My brother’s wife has tons of drama and hate in her life, I am 100 percent positive she is the precipitating factor.
  • She met her boyfriend and he slowly started cutting out everyone until he had manipulated her into interacting with him only. I pray I never run into him because I may pulverize him.
  • My brother’s wife values status, money, and connections above all else. I have none of these things, so I am not useful.

Any new relationship presents challenging questions: How will this person fit into our family? Is she or he anything like other family members? Can I cultivate warm relations with the new addition?

“Our brothers and sisters were our first ‘marriage’ partners. We have a lot of emotional stock invested in them and in the spouses they choose,” says Karen Gail Lewis, author of Siblings: The Ghosts of Childhood That Haunt Your Love and Work and a counseling psychologist in Maryland who organizes guided retreats for siblings.

Partners may feel possessive

A new partner may feel threatened by, or jealous of, closeness between brothers and sisters. Siblings, especially those close in age, may find themselves experiencing the same emotions, particularly if they’re not in a relationship. The “left behind” sibling may feel shut out and resentful. To assuage these feelings, the new partner – or the sibling — would do well to identify and cultivate a shared interest that can pave the way for connection.

But some cases are impossible. The partner, always in the sibling’s ear, can wield a powerful influence and may use it against the family. A new spouse may initiate a crusade against their in‐laws immediately after the wedding. If the couple doesn’t strive for even-handed treatment – electing, for example, to attend one family’s holiday celebration over the other’s – a rift can develop quickly. When perceived as a snub, favoritism can lead to deep resentments.

Over time, even a subtle campaign can erode once-strong sibling relationships. In extreme cases, a partner may irrationally begrudge his or her partner’s childhood experiences, friends, and family – everything before he or she appeared on the scene. Such a partner may force an uncomfortable choice: “Your family or me.”

“If it comes down to my wife or my sister,” said one brother who has endured these pressures, “I’m going to choose my wife, since that’s who I’m living with every day.”

Is this abuse?

Exerting pressure to sever family ties can be a dangerous sign of partner or spousal abuse. A controlling partner typically establishes dominance through demands: requiring frequent check-ins, insisting that the couple do everything together, etc. Gradually, the controlling partner weakens the other and, ultimately, even when someone comes to recognizes what’s happening to them, they may already feel isolated and unable to confide in anyone; he or she has been left lacking a support system at a time of urgent need.

One man described how his first marriage led to an emotional estrangement from his sister and widowed mother: “My first wife seemed to feel that if I had a relationship with my mother and sister, it would diminish my relationship with her,” he says. “It was difficult to visit my mom and sister, especially with my wife. It seemed we were all looking at the clock, waiting for the visit to end.”

Some families reject new members

On the other hand, a new partner may encounter a hostile reception from their in-laws. If the family finds a newcomer to be demanding or difficult – or just doesn’t like him or her — they may shun the couple entirely. A strong-willed family may refuse to tolerate traits that diverge from or defy the family identity, such as race, sexual orientation, religious differences, political beliefs, or unconventional career choices. Psychologist Mark Sichel, director of the Addiction Recovery Unit at Hebrew Union College in New York and the author of Healing from Family Rifts, explains that, to keep a family identity intact, members often assert shared values and discourage individual differences. They may go so far as to cast out anyone challenging the family identity through their lifestyle choices.

Knowingly or not, some people choose a partner willing to take on the dirty work of cutting off the family. Prince Harry of England, who married far outside his family identity, may have found in American actress Meghan Markle a partner to help him establish distance – even a near-total break — from his family. As he has said, until he met Markle, “I was trapped, but I didn’t know it.”

Who’s to blame?

Convenient as it may be to blame the new partner for disrupting family relationships, it’s important to recognize that they rarely are solely responsible for the estrangement.

“My brother’s wife is a very manipulative individual,” says one woman who is estranged from her only brother. “I put up with a lot for a long time, for the sake of a relationship with my brother. But my mental health was deteriorating, and I finally confronted him. He did not respond. I quit blaming her for his behaviors because he is an adult.” She has had to accept that her brother’s tolerance of his partner’s manipulative behavior tacitly supports their estrangement.

It’s a cruel irony: The selection of a life partner — with whom an individual shares the greatest intimacy — can result in profound hurts and deep divisions in their family of origin.


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