My husband comes from a large family. There appears to be a hierarchy that exists within the family, where the older brother and sister, who seem to be pulling most of the strings and making all the key family decisions with no discussion or input from the younger siblings. They are both in their mid 40s and seem really angry about everything.
My husband’s parents often discuss matters with these older children, who all still live at home, but not with the younger children. The older siblings are all single and either unemployed or in dead-end jobs. The younger siblings, on the other hand, have all carved out successful careers and are in stable and happy relationships.
Recently it came out that the parents had transferred the entire family estate to the older three siblings and had not mentioned anything to the younger children about this. Once this was questioned, one sibling who did used to have a loose relationship with us, stopped visiting, and the older ones stopped talking to their younger siblings altogether, to the point where one of them became quite ill but kept it secret.
My husband and one of his sisters has tried numerous times to reach out to the other half of the family, but they do not seem interested in having a relationship. For example, they have missed our 10th anniversary party, they haven’t ever visited our children since they were born and have never been to our house. It is the same for the other two siblings.
When asked about this, they say it’s because of some petty squabbles they had in the 90s over silly things when their positions as the eldest in the family were challenged by their younger siblings, who wanted to break free and do their own thing.
Our children have never met some of their aunts and uncles. I find this really sad. The younger siblings are not allowed to visit the parents at the family home, and instead the parents come to our houses (sometimes in secret).
My husband has said to his parents that they need to try to facilitate some sort of compromise, but they have said they cannot help as everyone involved is grown up and need to resolve any issues themselves.
I find it difficult to understand how siblings can behave this way and how my husband’s parents just don’t seem to care that there is a divide in the family.
What a shame for all involved. Not so much because of whom the estate is been left to – ultimately that’s a decision for the parents, but I believe these things should be discussed openly – but because of the stratification in the family.
My first thought was about the culture behind all this. I contacted Myira Khan, a counsellor. “My immediate thought on reading your letter,” she said, “was, are you from a non-western culture, or have you married into one? This strikes me as a very traditional family. And this hierarchy will be very typical of particular cultures.”
Khan thinks your letter “raised two distinct concerns, namely the issues within the family and what impact is this having on you/your relationship? What needs are not being met, in you, by this conflict?”
When I first read your letter, I thought it sounded very unfair but Khan helped me to understand that certain cultures “are dominated not by an ‘I’ culture but a ‘we’ one, whereby a person’s sense of self is based upon being a part of a family, the relationships within the family dynamics and hierarchy and doing what is best for the family (‘we’) rather than being an independent individual (‘I’). It may be that the younger siblings wanted to break the family dynamic, wanted to move to have more independence. In so doing, they have challenged things in the family and their behaviour may have been perceived as selfish. It may be seen that the younger siblings started all this by behaving in a way that says ‘I am more important than my family’. That, in certain families, in certain cultures, is something huge; it would be perceived as very selfish. The parents may well be feeling the younger children have rejected the family – or what family means. Furthermore, the parents may want to be taken care of in old age, and now the older children have an incentive to stay.”
This isn’t to say you can’t find it odd and unfair and even dysfunctional.
There was very little of you in this letter so it’s very hard to see your place in this family. Given the number of people involved and – it’s fair to say – probably some fairly entrenched views, there is only so much you are going to be able to do. I would work out what you want to achieve. Which relationships matter the most to you and your husband?
It sounds as if you do have a relationship with your in-laws, as they visit in secret. Could you build on this but without referring to “the rift”? Make it about your current relationships, and don’t try to go on about the past, which will only make them defensive. Could you contact the aunts and uncles directly to start building a relationship with them? But you do need to be realistic about how much you can do.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 13 January 2017.