· Illustrations by James Yang
How to navigate a rocky relationship with an adult sibling.
Expert Source: Jeanne Safer, PhD, psychotherapist and author of Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings From a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret.
Parents have a huge effect on the people their children become. But there’s another family dynamic that can influence us just as much, if not more: the one with our siblings. Relationships with brothers and sisters usually continue long after our parents are gone, and they affect us at every stage of life.
Never is this more evident than when we struggle with an adult sibling. It is normal for brothers and sisters to compete with each other as kids, and even fight; parents often assume we’ll grow out of it, and many of us do. Yet simmering resentments about family roles or parental favoritism can persist over time and cause real pain and rivalry.
We may also find ourselves at odds with a sibling over core values — like political or religious views, or how to best raise our kids — and these differences can intensify routine disagreements.
As intractable as sibling conflicts can seem, they don’t need to be permanent, says psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, PhD. Adjusting our perceptions and taking a few simple actions can help build the best possible bonds with our challenging brothers and sisters, even if the relationships might never be perfect.
Challenges to Overcome
- Idealizing sibling relationships. “We have this idea that these relationships are, or should be, wholly positive,” says Safer, “and we use them as metaphors for very high ideals: Sisterhood is powerful. All men are brothers. It can be hard to live up to the idealizations.”
- Parental favoritism. Safer says parental favoritism plays a prominent role in nearly all sibling conflicts — and it has its roots in a parent’s experience with his or her own siblings. “If a parent is the youngest of three children, and has three children, she is probably going to favor the youngest child, seeing herself there unconsciously,” she explains.
- Denial. Believing you’ve outgrown any childhood rivalry with your sibling, or that you should have, makes it hard to address underlying resentments.
- Differing destinies. If one sibling has a more successful career, is luckier in love, or has an easier time having or raising children, this can sustain resentments developed in childhood, Safer says. She cites the case of a physician who was a failed musician. The doctor envied her less-affluent sister, who played the piano beautifully.
- Opposing values. You may be a lifelong Democrat and your sister a staunch Republican, or you may let your kids roam free while your brother keeps his on a short leash. If these differences create tension, Safer believes it indicates historical factors are at play. “These differences in values can usually be handled if the underlying issues are addressed,” she says.
- Divergent memories. We might be angry at siblings who don’t share our views of the family system, but Safer believes that our memories and experiences are inevitably different. “You and your siblings have the same biological parents but live in different ‘psychological families’ because of the different roles you play,” she says.
- Parental interference. When conflict erupts between siblings, parents often push for immediate reconciliation, Safer notes. “This very often means that the higher-functioning sibling is supposed to suck it up and tolerate anything that the lower-functioning one does.”
Strategies for Success
- Take the initiative. “If you’re waiting for your sibling to address the issues between you, you may have to wait a very long time,” says Safer. “Get the ball rolling by reaching out yourself.”
- Remember the good things. If you’re preparing to address a conflict with your sibling, Safer suggests a positive focus. Recall times when he or she was kind to you, stood up for you, helped you with something. “In your conversation, bring it up and thank him or her.”
- Ask your sibling about his or her experience. Ask how he or she felt in your family — and be open to the explanation. Don’t expect it to match your own. Safer suggests this type of approach: “I really want to make things better between us, and I think that starts with our childhood. What was your experience of our parents?”
- Address difficulties directly. Don’t let a casual “Mom likes you best” or “I always have to take care of everything” pass without a sincere response, Safer says. Ask if the two of you can talk about it. Explain that you want to connect and get beyond your roles.
- Listen nondefensively. “You need to do a lot of listening,” says Safer. “And you need to listen particularly carefully to what the sibling has to say about the person you least want to hear about — yourself.”
- Offer your services. Your sibling may respond better to what you do than what you say, especially if he or she is less inclined to ask for help, Safer notes. Offer to watch the kids, do some cooking, run errands. This allows you to show your implicit regard for him or her, which can help build trust.
- Settle for modest improvements. Sibling struggles are deeply rooted, and they don’t always change for the better immediately — or completely. Your sibling might disagree that your issues stem from early family life, and he or she may not be ready for change. “But trying counts,” says Safer. “If you can go from being so estranged that you can’t stand to be together to being able to be decent to each other, that’s big progress.”
This originally appeared as “Oh, Brother” in the December 2016 issue of Experience Life.
Illustrations by James Yang