At age 32, I wrapped up my life in New York in two weeks and moved in with Amin, my 30-year old brother in Seattle. I knew this day would come, but no one in my family had believed me.
My longest standing gripe with my parents was that they had not enabled us to have a strong sibling relationship and that Amin and I were two strangers who grew up in the same house.
Amin was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy (a degenerative condition for which there is no cure) shortly after his second birthday, but that never stopped him from reaching the greatest heights of independence and individual success. He was our “baby genius”.
Amin graduated as salutatorian of his high school class, enrolled in the Management & Technology Program at the University of Pennsylvania (an Ivy League institution), earned two degrees in four years, interned at Google and Microsoft before accepting a full-time offer at the latter.
Many of Amin’s friends didn’t know he had a sister. Many of my friends believed I was an only child. But we knew we couldn’t stand each other for more than a few hours at a time. Amin’s traumatic injury in October 2018 suddenly brought us together. I moved in after Thanksgiving, but with strict plans to move out in six weeks.
On day four, Amin asked if I would consider living with him permanently. This must be his injury talking, I thought. It’s only a matter of time until he realizes that we can’t live in the same place. I don’t want to walk on eggshells forever and there’s no way I can fit myself into a neat little box in his life permanently. Besides, it’s not healthy for siblings to live together at our age, I silently concluded.
On day seven, Amin asked if we could sign-up for sibling therapy. I enthusiastically agreed, mistakenly believing that I already knew everything about my childhood and that there would be no surprises this time around.
But I was wrong. During the first session, we learned that Amin is the “golden child” and I am the “scapegoat.”
Our therapist confirmed this family pattern by asking Amin to share something positive he’s heard our parents say about me. His silence was deafening and pierced straight thru my heart. I had learned to cope with the inconsistent emotional support from my parents, but being reminded of that reality plunged me back into the past, and my mind replayed my parents’ messages back to me: You are deeply flawed, can do nothing right, have made nothing of your life, and are a burden on this family.
I could almost see the neurons rapidly firing in Amin’s mind. He fought hard to hold onto the belief that our parents are rational, reasonable people. He was convinced that there must be a valid reason for the all-negative picture they have painted of me. He brought up several instances to remind me of my ‘irresponsible behavior’ and reinforce our parents’ version of my life story – that I was inconsistent, unfocused, and undisciplined.
We switch gears – I’m asked to share a memory linked to deep pain and vulnerability.
I thought back to my wedding day – June 14, 2014, when our mother put her youngest sister’s preferences above mine and demonstrated that I wasn’t even second place (after Amin), but that I was last place in our family. My needs and wants didn’t matter, not even on my wedding day.
When I experienced emotional abuse in my marriage only a few weeks later, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know where to turn for support or who to trust anymore.
I was gasping for air in a chamber of inescapable pain. I made one last attempt to reach out – this time, to Amin. I asked if he would let me come to Seattle and stay with him for a few days.
But Amin wanted nothing to do with me. It was the last straw. No one was willing to take me in for a few days, to offer any comfort, to hold me for just a little while. I was abandoned with my pain, because of my pain. Less than an hour after that phone call, I attempted to end my life and relieve the world of this unwanted burden.
Amin’s knee-jerk response: Wow, I feel like an awful brother.
The therapist chimed in: Hold on a second – your sister is not sharing this to blame or attack anyone. Let’s see if we can practice empathy here. I want you to imagine what it must have felt like to be her in that situation, and just sit with it. How do you feel?
Amin: Lonely, like no one understands.
Therapist: Sabrina, would you agree that this is what you felt? I nodded my head.
Amin (turned to the therapist): Why does this happen? Why would parents do this?
The therapist explained that the golden child and scapegoat pattern isn’t a conscious decision. The parents often blame the scapegoat for all their own shortcomings and childhood issues they haven’t worked through. Once they have a story in their minds, they repeat it over and over, which causes them to believe it even more strongly (repetition bias).
They collect evidence to explain and support their distorted version of reality and ignore facts that undermine it (confirmation bias). In other words, they see what they believe – a black and white version of reality, which is inherently flawed. They convince other family members of the same distorted reality, including the scapegoat’s siblings. By controlling the narrative, they gaslight individual children to maintain power over the family as a whole.
She continued: It wasn’t just the geographic distance in adulthood that separated the two of you; it is also a starkly different childhood despite having the same set of parents.
We both sat in silence, slowly processing her words and our heavy emotions.
I never thought that one day, we would be sitting face-to-face in a therapist’s office, with the intention of sharing and understanding how different our childhoods have been. And even though I don’t need my family’s validation anymore (because I have learned to live without it), it still feels like a balm on my wounds.
So why did I move to Seattle? It was a combination of the scapegoat pattern playing out (due to highly empathetic nature, the family scapegoat responds and gives of herself when the birth family is in need) unknown to me at the time, and the long-held desire to have a strong relationship with my only sibling. I couldn’t be happy living in New York knowing that my brother needed me in Seattle.
I am deeply grateful that Amin signed us up for this extraordinary experience — granting us a chance to override the golden child and scapegoat patterns, overcome our individual insecurities, and forge a new relationship together.
To be shared as the story unfolds…
Over the next couple of weeks, I read everything written about the Scapegoat and Golden Child pattern. When I realized that the Golden Child qualities are almost the same as Avoidants (which I researched and wrote about here in 2016), I panicked because my ex-husband is Avoidant.
Coincidently, my parents’ didn’t call at all during my first three weeks in Seattle, but I overheard them talking to Amin every day. Solid evidence of the Scapegoat and Golden Child dynamic and incredibly hard to ignore now.
And then Amin and I had our first big fight. In response to that, Amin retreated in silence for an entire week – a typical Avoidant thing to do.
My mind raced: How could I have been so foolish to land myself in this situation? I knew my ex-husband and my brother were similar, but why didn’t I factor that in before I moved here? Why am I risking the emotional security and self-confidence that I painstakingly built after my divorce? How am I going to get out of it this time? No, no, not again, I don’t want to go through this again.
My instinct was to run, run far away, and never look back.
Sab, breathe, relax, one day at a time, I told myself.
I called my closest friends and cried, admitting that the move to Seattle might have been a big mistake. They reminded me that I am far more resilient than I think, which made me cry even more. My heart felt safe, seen, connected, and supported, which helped me grieve and heal a bit more from those past experiences.
There were tectonic shifts taking place in my understanding of life and the world around me, and I was afraid of losing my mind again. My greatest fear was that Amin and I would end up hating each other and that I would divorce my birth family forever. This is the typical ending in a Scapegoat story, so there is always a good chance of this happening.
I searched for a new therapist in Seattle, but worried that I might move again, and opted for an online therapist through Betterhelp. I also decided to not speak to my parents for the next six months to focus on my relationship with Amin. (By the way, I love both my parents very much, and I know they understand that sometimes children need time away to figure things out on their own.)
And then I worked really hard to find reasons to believe that this wouldn’t turn out to be like my broken marriage, in which there was a deep clash of needs due to our attachment styles (explained here). Even though I am more secure today than I have ever been, I still classify myself as Anxious. And Amin is the exact opposite; he’s Avoidant.
I don’t know how this story – my story – will end. There is nothing that we know for sure, but our minds trick us into believing that we can. My strong preference for certainty (or certainty bias) stems from my fear of abandonment and has pushed me to sabotage relationships in the past for a quicker outcome. In other words, I have a tendency to jump to conclusions and end relationships quickly rather than wait and see how they play out. The uncertainty during the waiting period feels unbearable.
Armed with this self-knowledge, I decided to approach the situation with Amin differently.
First, I reminded my (Anxious) self of the facts –
- I do not owe anyone and nor does anyone owe me.
- I am choosing to be here for as long as it feels right to me.
- I am here because I want a strong relationship with my brother.
- I am in no way bound to be here if it violates my personal needs.
- I know this will be difficult and that our days will vary like the weather.
- I love and honor myself and do not believe in sacrificing my needs.
- I am not alone in this and I have a strong network of friends I can rely on.
And then I intensely researched attachment styles again – not to predict what will happen – but rather to understand how our minds work differently and what we perceive to be threatening. I know that frequent activation of these triggers will become the barriers to our mutual success.
I collected and read 117 documents on attachment theory. Most of them were research papers. I also read the most important books on this topic (some I read years ago while I was married):
- Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love
- Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship
- Meet Me In Hard To Love Places
- Facing Love Addiction: Giving Yourself the Power to Change the Way You Love
- When He’s Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment
- Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love
- Leaving Home: The Art of Separating From Your Difficult Family
Here are the best online resources I’ve come across on this topic:
- Nurturance Culture
- Womb of Light (Mother Wound)
- Men’s Mother Complex – Rape of the Heart
- Ending the Anxious-Avoidant Dance
- An Anxious-Avoidant Couple That Works – Carmen Spagnola
But even after all this reading over the last five years, I still didn’t fully understand both sides of the story. I knew what caused Anxious people to feel and react the way we do, but I wasn’t as confident in my understanding of Avoidants.
I started to put little pieces of the puzzle together by reaching out to some of my Avoidant friends who were comfortable with me asking lots of questions about childhood years, family relationships, personal and intimate relationships. They knew that my intent was not to judge, but rather, to understand more deeply and accurately. I am sincerely grateful for their genuine openness and unwavering support in helping me bring this together. I hope to continue to call on them as my understanding and my relationship with Amin evolves.
My research questions are threefold:
- What do we feel was missing in our individual lives as children, and how does that dictate what we’re looking for as adults?
- What can we do now, as individuals and siblings, to help both of us become more secure?
- How can we apply the learning from our Anxious-Avoidant relationship to help others in similar situations as siblings, close friends, parents and children, or intimate partners?
As I was contemplating question #1, this is what arose:
Anxious women are most often the offspring of an absent, Avoidant father paired with an Anxious mother. Subconsciously, they’re looking for the father they never had, to feel close, secure, and protected.
They’ve been waiting for their ‘knight in shining armor’ to validate and rescue them. Only then will they believe they are lovable and loved.
As children, they didn’t receive consistent attention and thus, convinced themselves they were abandoned because they are imperfect. As adults, they’re looking for positive attention, and willing to do nearly anything to please their partners to avoid abandonment.
Their internal motto is: “Do you really love (know/trust/want/respect) me? Can I trust you to be there for me? How do I know?”
Avoidant men are most often the offspring of an absent, Avoidant father paired with an Anxious mother, who becomes overly-attached to her son. Subconsciously, these men are looking for the childhood they never had.
They’ve been waiting to be released from ‘partner duties’ (“me-and-you-against-the-world” with the mother). Only then can they feel free to explore their individuality, without burdensome responsibilities.
As children, they filled the absent, Avoidant father’s duties and met the Anxious mother’s emotional needs. As adults, they’re looking for unconditional positive regard and freedom from expectations.
Their internal motto is: “Can I trust you to look after yourself and not burden me with additional expectations? If you love me, you’ll let me be free.”
Anxious looks at Avoidant and says: You’re lucky, at least you were loved.
Avoidant looks at Anxious and says: You’re lucky, at least you were free.
After I wrote this out and confirmed that it resonated with my Avoidant friends, I felt overwhelming compassion in my heart for Amin, my ex-husband, and my father.
I finally understand their behaviors in the context of this backstory, which unlocked my full capacity to empathize with them. This knowledge transformed me from being the Anxious, unwanted sister, ex-wife, and daughter to a more secure human being who sees and feels for both sides equally. There are three sides to every story, and one of them includes the other two.
I shared my newfound understanding with Amin after our weeklong hiatus and he also confirmed the Avoidant side of the story. During that conversation, we discussed the week of silence. I acknowledged that his process of shutting down is an instinct that is difficult to override, but also explained that we need to work together to create a safe and warm emotional environment for our relationship to exist.
After a long discussion, we agreed to always check-in before the day ends. We know that issues will not always be resolved on the day they arise and that sometimes they will require weeks to resolve. On days when we encounter conflict, we will check-in very briefly to remind each other that we will work through the issues together and to wish each other goodnight. This daily ritual, however brief, is crucial for building continuity, which translates into security for Anxious people, in any close relationship.
More to come…stay tuned.
It’s been 5 months since I published the last update.
A lot has happened.
Here’s a recap of our outward life events:
- We quit sibling therapy
- Amin fully recovered from his injury
- I delivered a TEDx talk at the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan on Attachment Theory
- I moved to Vancouver in May
- I went silent on my parents.
I initially asked for 6 months of no contact. But now we’re at 9 months and I’m still silent. I have never seen myself be this way with anyone.
I’ve always demonstrated the Anxious attachment style, which is constantly seeking and maintaining connection, or protesting when connection is threatened.
At first, I thought I was silent because they persistently asked difficult questions: What’s going on with your job search? Where is your career headed? Have you met anyone new yet? Why do you keep running away?
Then I thought perhaps I’m unconsciously retaliating for all the times in the past when they were silent towards me. I was agonized by the possibility of this being true. My heart was on fire and bleeding at the same time.
I wished they would stop calling and messaging because it was incredibly painful to watch my words and actions hurt my parents. I wish I could have protected them from the pain I was generating. I know this is not what parents expect when they bring a child into the world.
I felt guilty for putting time and distance between us. The one time I had gone silent as a child, I was quickly reprimanded for it. That’s when I learned that silence is never acceptable.
On some days, I wanted to reach out, give them what they’re seeking, be that good daughter again, but something was holding me back.
I sat with my pain and asked, “Where do you come from?”
It replied, “Shame.”
I further inquired, “What purpose do you serve?”
It replied, “Self-protection.”
Suddenly, it became clear that this was not silent treatment – an intentional emotional abuse tactic. I was not doing this to hurt my parents, but rather, I was doing this to protect myself from being constantly triggered. I felt so emotionally unsafe that I went into a silent self-protection mode.
The triggering interactions cut through my heart like a thousand knives. Every time that happened, the cup of shame deep within my heart filled to the brim. I was trying to prevent it from overflowing into the rest of my body, poisoning myself into apathy.
I felt deeply ashamed for disappointing my parents in all areas of life: career, marriage, children.
Now I had to sit with this truth.
I wanted them to see me for who I am rather than what they wanted for me. But was I ready to do that for myself? Was I ready to see myself as I am?
Can I love myself as I am, even if they choose to reject or abandon me? I guess we’ll find out.
Granting myself permission to be silent towards my parents allowed me to see that this behavior is completely innocent and doesn’t carry any intention to hurt them. This was simply a natural freeze mechanism, one of the three built-in self-protection mechanisms we have at our disposal in the face of danger.
Since I have an Anxious attachment style, I am more familiar with the other two: fight and flight. The impetus behind what I had previously called the “silent treatment” is to lay low, wait for danger to pass, hold out until it’s safe to resurface again, and preserve the relationship.
The freeze mode is typically common among individuals with an Avoidant attachment style. They often feel overwhelmed by intense emotions and need to shut down and disengage in order to make sense of the situation.
As I was experiencing the other (Avoidant) side of the story, my heart was gripped by a sense of guilt for shaming anyone who had found refuge in silence before – including my ex-husband and my brother. I had to unlearn the original lesson, reframe the past interactions in light of my new understanding, and apologize for contributing to the lack of emotional safety in these relationships.
It is common for us to shame others for qualities that were dismissed or suppressed in us during our formative years. And it is quite likely that it will be those qualities that trigger us the most.
For example, Avoidants will often shame their Anxious partners for requesting even healthy levels of support, reassurance, and validation. They will perceive them to be overly dependent and needy, because the lens that they are seeing the world through has a bias for extreme independence. This lens makes Avoidants hypersensitive to anything that is perceived to challenge their complete autonomy and independence.
The needs of an Anxious and Avoidant are seemingly in direct conflict; the Anxious seeks connection while the Avoidant seeks freedom. Most mainstream literature says that these two attachment styles cannot ever make it work, but I strongly disagree. These two types can absolutely have a healthy and happy relationship if they are conscious and set up the right rituals from the beginning to lay a strong foundation.
For the Anxious person in the relationship, this provides certainty of connection. They feel secure knowing that there is regular, dedicated time to discuss difficult topics and cultivate closeness. For the Avoidant person, this provides relief knowing that difficult issues will not be raised outside of these designated times and they won’t be put on the spot by the Anxious partner. Established rituals allow the relationship to ebb and flow while ensuring stability between two people in any relationship.
Here’s how we can visualize it – we know the Avoidant needs time and space away to exist in a committed relationship while the Anxious person prefers constant connection. Setting up a weekly ritual gives them both what they really need, which is a deeper connection. Rupture and repair are part of all close relationships, but it’s the rituals that create continuity in relationships.
I encourage parents to set up similar weekly rituals with each of their children and call it “Mommy (or Daddy) and Me time”. It enables the child to feel heard, seen, and known by each of their parents and establishes an emotionally secure base within the family.
This way, siblings don’t need to subconsciously compete for their parents’ love and attention. They know that they will each have their own independent time when the parent’s attention is fully focused on them and their needs. This is how children come to know that they are worthy of love and attention. It also sets the blueprint for a secure intimate relationship in the future.
Amin and I were much better about establishing rituals. We had our nightly chats about three times a week. Amin would get into bed by 10:30pm, and I would sit on his wheelchair next to his bed with Caesar in my lap. This was our dedicated time to talk about whatever was on our mind. Sometimes one of us would have a grievance to bring up and resolve. Sometimes we would be planning an event such as our grand Waffle Brunch.
Perhaps the most important thing we both learned is that on the outside, each of us appears to be quite strong, but on the inside, we’re very sensitive in different ways. When someone lets you in on their inner world, you naturally have power over how they feel – when the power is used correctly, it supports healing, and when it’s used incorrectly, it creates more pain.
This power comes with immense responsibility. We made plenty of mistakes in the beginning, but we eventually learned to be gentle with our words and mindful of each others’ insecurities. Together, we created a safe space – physically and emotionally – for us to start building our relationship day by day.