Sibling relationships have great influence and importance in many people’s lives. In the classic text Sibling Abuse Trauma, John Caffaro points out:
Relationships with siblings last the longest, in terms of time, of any relationship in most people’s lives. Many sibling relationships last from a person’s first memory until death.
Children tend to spend more time with their siblings than any other individual, including their parents.
Sibling relationships are the main place where children learn how to navigate peer social relationships and power dynamics.
Siblings are the only people in the world who truly know what it’s like to be raised by their parents, even if that feels quite different for each sibling.
Siblings share a wealth of memories with each other, many of these only with each other. Most of the time that is a good or at least a neutral thing.
These factors make sibling sexual trauma all the more devastating, all the more violating, all the more confusing. But the same factors make a case for seriously considering sibling reconciliation, if and when possible.
Without reconciliation, siblings may both miss out on a potential source of lifelong support. When siblings are estranged, it complicates relationships with parents and other siblings. The siblings involved, as well as the rest of the family, will encounter anything from awkwardness to grief when navigating future life events and celebrations.
On the other hand, parents, grandparents, other siblings, or professionals should not pressure siblings into contact and reconciliation unless they are both ready. Full reconciliation requires deep truth-telling, healing, apology and forgiveness. These all take time. True reconciliation is voluntary. Everyone will have to learn and practice new boundaries, new habits, new ways of relating. Too often, mental health systems do not have the capacity to support therapy for as long as it takes to reach this point. Parents and other siblings often have to wait longer for family reunification than they would like.
When a child has been sexually abused by an adult, the risks and power dynamics usually prevent safe contact going forward. In sibling sexual trauma, there is a broader spectrum of possibilities. If both siblings are still children, contact may or may not allow them to continue to live in the same household after treatment. If they do not live together, it may be appropriate to find other safe ways to mend and continue the relationship.
Youth who cause sexual harm have a much lower risk of re-offending than adults, especially after treatment. As both siblings mature, and especially if both receive treatment, they have a much greater capacity to learn and abide by appropriate boundaries. Still, adults caring for children who have been sexually traumatized should never become complacent or overconfident.
Sibling sexual trauma affects the whole family, including other siblings, parents, even grandparents and cousins. Relationships between parents and children, relationships between spouses, even relationships with siblings who were not directly involved in the trauma can be strained to the breaking point by the stress of dealing with sibling sexual trauma and its aftermath. So there may be a need or wish for reconciliation in multiple family relationships.
Laura Davis’ book I Thought We’d Never Speak Again was inspired by her own journey of reconciliation, as an adult, in the aftermath of incest. She points out that reconciliation is not all-or-nothing, and it is not once-and-done.
Reconciliation offers a whole continuum of possibilities. Some people choose to maintain a distant but cordial connection even if trust or healing is not present. At the other end, some are devoted to radical reconciliation and find that their mended relationship is stronger than the first.
Reconciliation is a process, not a fixed target. Reconciliation is based on relationships, and relationships play out over time. Even with sincere efforts and skilled guidance, the process is seldom smooth. There will be setbacks, corrections, disruptions, delays. Life changes such as having children, new life partners, facing serious illness, or caring for aging parents can be catalysts for new approaches to family relationships. They may bring greater understanding and desire for reconciliation; they may also reopen wounds, add new trauma to the mix, expose the limitations of the relationship.
There is no promise that reconciliation will, or should take place. You may have to learn to live the best life you can within what your family actually is, even if it is not what you want or what you think would be best. Still, as long as family members are still alive, some form of reconciliation is possible.
Laura Davis and Ellen Bass: The Courage to Heal has chapters and stories exploring the issue of reconciliation in the context of child sexual abuse
How Processing Childhood Sexual Trauma Helped Me Through My Chronic Pain Maria Socolof tells her story of surviving, remembering, and healing from sibling sexual abuse, which includes healing in her relationship with her brother
Rosie McMahan: Fortunate Daughter: A Memoir of Reconciliation after intrafamilial child sexual abuse