By Carlin Flora, published on March 1, 2007 - last reviewed on November 21, 2014
Growing up, Lois Braverman was the star of her family. The elder of two, she was a straight-A student—hyper-responsible, and, she admits, quite humorless around the house. Her less-ambitious brother embraced a fun-loving but unreliable role. "We didn't have an appreciation for our differences," she says.
"We saw each other primarily as an annoyance."
It wasn't until they were both in their forties that they finally broke out of those childhood molds—and even then, it took a health crisis to shake things up. Braverman's brother got brain cancer, and suddenly everything changed. During his six months of treatment, their conversations became more honest and more serious. "He didn't respond to me as a bossy sister and I didn't respond to him as the irresponsible brother," says Braverman. Now she regularly turns to her brother for advice, while he appreciates how light-hearted and witty she can be.
Many of us long for better relationships with our siblings—people whom we often love and hate at the same time. Adults from rigid or conflict-ridden families tend to have a harder time changing their perceptions of their siblings, says Braverman, who's now a therapist and director of the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City. But it can be done.
First, says family therapist Karen Gail Lewis, you need to consider whether the underlying childhood dynamics are still in play. A typical rupture occurs, Lewis says, when an older sibling reaches adolescence and naturally turns away from the family and toward the larger world. Her younger sibling feels abandoned and interprets the change to mean, "She doesn't want me anymore." Because the older sibling doesn't realize the pain she inadvertently caused, she is confused and ultimately resentful toward her younger sibling, who seems unreasonably angry. Figuring out each sibling's impact on one another can increase our empathy and alter deeply etched ways of relating.
Sibling conflicts can also erupt over discrepant accounts of a shared childhood, says Terri Apter, who conducted in-depth interviews with 96 sibling pairs and trios for her book, The Sister Knot. "I discovered that there was no consensus among sisters about their shared family history," she says.
Multiple renderings of family episodes could all be legitimate, Braverman says. "Each sibling has his own version that he actually experienced." A 6-year-old will process a divorce or a cross-country move very differently from his 16-year-old brother. Changing economic circumstances also make each family member's perspective different, as does his or her unique temperament.
In fact, the effect of a child's age and personality is so great, says Lewis, that every child in a family essentially has a different set of parents. Not only do mothers and fathers respond variably to each child, but, since they themselves are usually siblings, they may perpetuate their own past conflicts, say, by favoring a fellow middle child with whom they identify.
The best way to deal with such knotty circumstances, says Braverman, is to approach them with curiosity. Ask your sister how she remembers that fateful Thanksgiving of 1980, and, rather than clinging to your version of events, say, "That's so interesting! This is how it was for me... "
We consciously work to improve friendships and romantic relationships. But we take siblings—people whom we didn't choose to be around, after all—for granted, says Scott Myers, a professor of communication studies at West Virginia University. In fact, his research shows that people are much more verbally aggressive with their siblings than with anyone else. A simple awareness of this tendency can smooth out family dynamics. Actively offering affectionate support is another way to strengthen sibling ties, Myers says.
It takes only one person to improve a relationship, Lewis notes. "If I'm belligerent every time I see you, you will get defensive. But if I stop being belligerent, you can't be defensive." So instead of sulking when your brother makes a crack at you, which just confirms his belief that you are hypersensitive, counter with a self-deprecating joke to break the pattern.
Braverman tells of one patient who had a storybook notion of how life with her siblings should be, disappointed that they didn't confide in her or get together as often as she wanted. She enlisted Braverman to help convince the sisters to come in for family therapy. "What I had to do instead was change her expectations of the relationships," says Braverman. "It made a big difference, because she began to enjoy them when they were together instead of resenting the times they hadn't come to visit."
It's never too late to learn how to get along better, especially if family obligations force you to interact more than usual. Years ago, Braverman counseled three sisters, the eldest of whom was 72. They had become executors of a large farm in Iowa and were suddenly forced to make tough decisions as a team. "This went way beyond making Thanksgiving dinner together," Braverman says. "It forced them to see each other in a multidimensional way."