Sibling Political Anger

I just spent a Saturday with my brother – after years of unspoken anger, political divisions, and very little contact. Three years my junior, he lives just twenty minutes away, Yet, we see each other perhaps once or twice a year. Michael and I seem like opposites to the casual observer.

  1. A Republican and a “far left” Democrat
  2. An “evangelical” and a “spiritual progressive” (equal parts Episcopalian, Universalist, Buddhist, Hindu) feminist
  3. A bow hunter and a (mostly) vegetarian

But we only look incompatible on the surface. At a deeper level, we share so much.

  • a particular oddball humor that makes us laugh really hard
  • a history that makes us understand certain situations deeply
  • a love for specific places like Magnolia, Arkansas
  • deep empathy for each other

In fact, when we were eight and eleven, somebody said I looked like Michael with a wig.

The Saturday we spent together, I re-discovered that these complicated, frustrating, but sturdy sibling bonds last, even when we want to yell at each other. They continue, despite being laden with the barnacles of our family stress and trauma. For an interesting review on the subject, Shawn Whiteman and colleagues look at the literature on sibling relationships.

Michael and I talked for five hours, nonstop: about work, our beautiful children, our complicated marriages, and the emotional residue of what we experienced as kids. We even talked about our anger and our very divergent politics. And I realized . . . we stay away from each other not just because we might argue about Trump, but because we each feel unimportant or invisible to the other, as grown up children.

In fact, I think Michael and I took opposite ends of the pole for emotional reasons. We each experienced condemned isolation with regard to each other and the family at large.

My brother and I became politically polarized in reaction to our childhood trauma.

Sibling political anger springs from a deep well of trauma. Lots of us put our sibling bonds on a back burner. Listening to families navigate the many crises of 2020, I hear stories of 45-year-old siblings who can’t be in the same room with each other. Their views about the sitting president, the pandemic, the environment differ so much (they believe) that it’s hard to relate. How does the sibling relationship turn into such a political battleground? How could we grow up in the same nuclear family system and turn into antagonists who think each other so misguided?

I address these questions of family and political division more deeply in my next piece on the sibling bond. For now, consider this idea.

The division we experience in our politics has something to do with the divisions we face in our families of origin.

You may want to check out Milburn and Conrad on how political anger is used in and against families. Then, try this exercise to explore your sibling relationships and the anger that may live there.

Homework: With whom of your siblings do you have most difficulty? Why? Get a pen and paper: write about this relationship for ten minutes without stopping.

 

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