Siblings are often our first playmates, companions, and closest confidants. In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of sibling relationships and how they shape our lives.
Warm sibling relationships in later life are associated with less loneliness and greater well-being, according to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology. They may even help you live longer, notes the American Sociological Association. Bottom Line Health spoke with Fern Schumer Chapman, the author of two books on sibling relationships, to learn more.
When things are chilly
Not all sibling relationships are warm. In fact, sibling estrangement is more common than one might think, with approximately one in three people experiencing apathetic, strained, or estranged relationships with their siblings. Several factors can contribute to sibling estrangement:
- Family trauma: Shared experiences of family trauma, such as the death of a parent, can strain a relationship.
- Parental favoritism: When parents show favoritism towards one child, it can lead to resentment and jealousy among siblings.
- Poor communication skills: Inadequate communication within the family can hinder the ability to navigate conflicts and misunderstandings.
- Differing values and choices: Siblings may have divergent values, beliefs, and life choices,
- Lifestyle, cultural, and financial differences: Differences in lifestyle, income, social class, and cultural backgrounds can create barriers within sibling relationships.
- Political differences: Ideological disparities can strain sibling bonds, especially in polarized times.
- Addiction and mental health: Siblings grappling with addiction or mental health issues may face challenges in maintaining relationships.
In some cases, you may want to try to save a relationship, while in others, there may be factors that make it unwise to do so.
Healing a broken relationship
If you’d like to reconnect with an estranged sibling, it can be a difficult—but worthwhile—journey.
Examine your reasons for wanting to reconcile. Has something changed that leads you to think that relations will be better now and in the future? Is it your choice or are others pressuring you? How do you really feel about reconciling? Why is the relationship important to you—not to your family or to anyone else, but to you?
Establish your expectations. What kind of relationship are you seeking? Do you want a limited connection that will allow you to spend special occasions together comfortably? Are you hoping to communicate easily whenever you want to? Are you looking for support from your estranged relative? Can you offer support to them? Do you and your sibling have enough in common, including a desire to make this effort worthwhile? Can you set aside the anger, pain, and/or resentment that led to the break in order to change the pattern of relating? Do you want to resume the relationship if you discover that neither of you has changed? Do you have the resources (time, energy, emotional resilience, support of other loved ones) to reconcile and rebuild the relationship? Will you compromise too much of yourself if you try to sustain a relationship?
Make a plan. Plan to meet in a local, quiet, neutral place, and set a time frame, around one to three hours, for the discussion. Set aside specific times for talking, and then have some fun together. Do not have friends or other relatives present. Decide in advance what topics to discuss, starting with those that aren’t too highly charged, as well as any topics you will avoid. You may need to agree that you have different values, and neither of you will raise those issues.
How to approach the discussion. Start softly, and don’t try to cover too many topics in one sitting. Try to focus on the present and future, including accepting your sibling as they are now. Seek common ground, and don’t try to prove that you are right. Give your sibling the benefit of the doubt, and consider that past injustices may be the result of the way you were both parented, rather than something your sibling intended to be hurtful. Avoid your sibling’s triggers. Research shows that siblings are most competitive about appearance, achievement, and intellect.
After each of you speak, repeat what the other person said to make sure you are listening to each other. Use non-confrontational “I” messages, such as, “I feel so much less accomplished than you,” rather than provocative “you” statements, “You always looked down on me,” which can make a sibling feel defensive.
Remember that a single meeting won’t solve everything. Celebrate small successes and be patient. We can’t control our sibling’s behavior, but we can control how we see ourselves in relation to them and how we approach them. Achieving reconciliation and changing the relationship into one that’s functional will, first and foremost, require you to change.
When to limit or let go
In some cases, a relationship may be too toxic to reconcile. If you find yourself in such a situation, it’s essential to prioritize your well-being.
Limited relationships, where interactions with a difficult sibling are kept superficial—such as seeing each other only at holiday gatherings—can be a workable solution for maintaining peace within the larger family. This approach involves disengaging from conflict and avoiding confrontation.
But in some cases, you may choose to end contact completely, such as in the case of lifelong abuse or neglect, mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, criminal behavior, reckless or dangerous behavior, or narcissistic behavior.
On the positive side, going no-contact may provide a sense of peace, stability, and freedom. You may respect yourself more and feel you are living authentically. Your self-esteem and self-confidence may improve. You may feel a sense of self-control, self-reliance, and agency.
But there are negatives as well. You may find that you grieve for the sibling you wish you had or have feelings of guilt and remorse, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. You will likely experience backlash and pressure from your family.
Sibling relationships are complex and evolve over time, influenced by various factors. They can be a source of love, support, and companionship, but they can also be fraught with challenges. Recognizing the importance of sibling bonds and making efforts to strengthen or reconcile them can lead to more fulfilling family dynamics and personal growth. Whether close or distant, these relationships play a significant role in shaping our identities and experiences throughout life.
Siblings teach us how to relate
Sibling relationships evolve over the course of a lifetime, following a somewhat predictable pattern, often described as an “hourglass shape.” Here’s a breakdown of the stages:
Early childhood: In the formative years, siblings tend to be close. They share experiences, secrets, and often serve as each other’s companions in exploring the world.
Adolescence: As siblings begin to individuate, seeking independence and forming their own friendships, distance enters the relationship. This is often a period of reduced closeness.
Early adulthood: In their 20s and 30s, siblings may remain somewhat distant as they establish their own families and lives.
Parenthood: The birth of children often acts as a catalyst, bringing siblings closer together as families want the new generation to know their cousins.
Later life: As parents age and require caregiving or when estates need to be divided, the challenges that might have arisen during childhood resurface. Conflicts may intensify when parents fall ill or pass away, and issues related to inheritance and power struggles often come to the forefront.
Old age: In old age, siblings often become closer again, as they are the only people who have known each other since their youth, and parents are no longer in the picture. These are the individuals who share a deeply rooted history with us, forming a crucial part of our identity.