It’s common for siblings to not get along. Research shows that in about half of families, a brother or sister does not get along with one or more of his or her siblings. On the farm, if they do decide to work together — and many don’t — it can, at best, be an uncomfortable arrangement. And at worst, a disaster.
But it’s also something that’s years in the making.
Actually, brothers and sisters aren’t all that different from brothers and brothers. The really serious conflicts and even the much less serious ones tend to start the same way, and they need to have the same kinds of resolutions.
The trouble always starts when kids are young, says work psychologist, speaker and coach Pierrette Desrosiers, who specializes in farm family businesses and is also married to a farmer.
“It’s what we call unresolved conflict that they bring into the adult relationships,” she says.
Often, the root cause is a parent’s favouritism — whether perceived or real — towards one or other of their children.
“Almost every time I deal with a conflict between two brothers or a brother and sister, they are quick to tell me about how, when they were young, their father or mother always forgave their sibling, and that he or she was spoiled,” says Desrosiers. “If those conflicts are not resolved, they will reappear over and over again.”
Also common is when younger siblings feel they are living in an older sibling’s shadow. They will often perceive that the eldest was bigger and stronger, had some advantage or was treated with more respect.
Competing for acceptance
Farming is unique. In the general population, siblings usually pursue their own career paths. But on the farm, there’s a good chance they will end up working together. In fact, they might even feel pushed into working together, with the shove either coming from the parents, a mutual love of farming, or, sometimes, from a sense of entitlement.
Outside of farming, if one sibling becomes a teacher and the other one is an accountant, even if there has been conflict when they were younger, they have both gone off and had success and proven themselves in their own fields, so it’s more likely that the Christmas dinner conversations won’t turn into a war.
“It’s not the same… they aren’t in competition for the admiration of their parents or in competition with each other,” says Desrosiers. “But on the farm, you are in the same business and often, because people will split their responsibilities and their roles, they can feel that their role or responsibility isn’t recognized as important as that of a sibling. It becomes a constant competition of resources, decisions, recognition and who will be the most important in their parents’ eyes.”
The conflict can also be intensified by the parents.
The children may want to bring their own personalities and their own visions into the farm, says Desrosiers. But that may not go down so well with the parents, especially with Dad, says Desrosiers. “He’s scared he will lose the power, authority and recognition of others. There is a lot of conflict between generations caused when the father cannot let go.”
This not only causes resentment but competition, she adds. “The more the father resists, the more likely it is that the son (or daughter) will not look at him as a mentor, he will look at him as a competitor preventing him from being able to prove himself … It’s always about personality, image and recognition.”
Learn to call it what it is
Hard as it is to speak about these issues, it’s vital, says Desrosiers. And the first step is to talk. You have to identify the problem.
“We have to talk about those unresolved issues,” Desrosiers says. “We cannot say it doesn’t exist or that we can’t speak about it. We have to name those issues because those unresolved conflicts are always at the bottom of every decision, and if we are not able to find a way to get past them, they will always be there.”
Often, once she sits down farm families and others in business together, Desrosiers finds, the slights they feel are more about perception than any actual ill intent. “Sometimes the way someone feels is not based on reality, but it’s the perception that they have,” she says. “We have to work with that and say, what will make you feel more worthy, more important, more respected by your brother or your father. Are there things we can change in the organization that will make things different? We have to try different things, but at least we have to understand the other’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it.”
Once the process of relationship rebuilding has begun, the next thing is constant communication, and Desrosiers suggests regular meetings and establishing a structure to define roles and allow open discussions so that everyone has input into important decisions and day-to-day operations of the farm.
“Establish roles and responsibilities and a policy about how to make decisions, and how to manage differences,” says Desrosiers. “We need structure.”
Also institute a practice of having regular meetings. A meeting is a vehicle to plan ahead, communicate and share all the information that everyone needs to know in order to understand the business and help with decisions.
“The meeting is the foundation to share, present, organize, plan and if there’s something wrong put it on the table, so as not to accumulate frustration,” Desrosiers says.
Yes, it’s potentially going to be uncomfortable at first. But, she insists, “It’s important that people learn to manage their own emotions. Those regular meetings will be the foundation for a lot of those things.”
Desrosiers admits she has seen cases where the relationship is just too damaged to repair. Even then, though, it needs to be recognized and come to terms with. “If the relationship has destroyed someone for years,” she says, “sometimes it’s a process of forgiveness and letting go of the relationship and the business.”