Elizabeth Dorrance Hall Ph.D.

Conscious Communication

Family Dynamics

Can a Close Sibling Relationship Strain Other Sibling Bonds?

New research suggests that one strong sibling bond may leave other siblings out.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Elle Hughes/Pexels
Source: Elle Hughes/Pexels

Sibling relationships are unique among all relationship types. People tend to know their siblings from birth to death, making them “cradle to grave” relationships like no other.

This means our siblings often know the best ways to push our buttons and have a trove of embarrassing moments to remind us about. It also means our siblings can be some of the most supportive and meaningful relationships in our lives. Recent research discovers how one supportive sibling bond is linked to less satisfaction in other sibling relationships.  

Sibling support takes many forms. Drs. Scott Myers and Leah Bryant asked emerging adults how they show commitment to their siblings and found that offering social support was a large part of showing commitment to the sibling relationship (Myers & Bryant, 2008). Siblings showed tangible support by taking one another to dinner, offering rides, loaning money, giving one another gifts, and taking care of one another. Siblings show emotional support by giving each other positive feedback (like saying “good job” or “I’m proud of you”) and helping one another reframe bad situations in a more positive light. Siblings provide one another informational support by giving advice and helping each other with various tasks. Siblings give esteem support by giving compliments and encouragement (for example, “I know you’ll do well in the job interview because you are so smart!”). Finally, siblings show network support by introducing one another to contacts and friends. 

How siblings support one another is one part of the picture. I was interested in finding out how our perceptions of sibling support in one sibling relationship differs from the support we perceive in our other sibling relationships. For example, if you have a sister who is incredibly supportive, do your other sibling relationships suffer because they don’t live up to the sister relationship? Or is getting support from the other siblings less important because you are well supported already?  

In a recent study, Dr. Samantha Shebib and I set out to understand how our relationship with one sibling might affect our relationship with other siblings. The study looked at how supported people felt their siblings are and how satisfied people are with their sibling relationships. We surveyed 377 people in the United States who had at least two siblings, so that I could compare perceptions of their sibling relationships. 

First, we asked people about the support they perceive from their (emotionally) “closest” and “least close” sibling. Across all types of support, people reported their closest sibling gave them more support than their least close sibling. Relationship satisfaction was linked to amount of support. The more support people felt from their closest sibling, the more satisfied they were with the relationship. The same thing was true for least close siblings: the more support, the more satisfying the relationship.  

The most interesting finding of the study happened when we looked at support in one sibling relationship and how it was connected to satisfaction in the other sibling relationship. More support from a person’s closest sibling was associated with feeling less satisfied with their least close sibling relationship. 

In other words, one close, supportive sibling relationship may have negative consequences for other family relationships such as less close relationships with other siblings. Why might this be? It is possible that a stellar sibling might “raise the bar” for expectations of what a sibling relationship could be, thereby lowering satisfaction in the other sibling relationships that don’t live up to the closest sibling bond. Alternatively, one supportive sibling might be all a person really needs, so they seek less support and companionship from their other siblings.  

References

Dorrance Hall, E., & Shebib, S. J. (2020). Interdependent Siblings: Associations between Closest and Least Close Sibling Social Support and Sibling Relationship Satisfaction. Communication Studies, 1-21. https://doi.org/10.1080/10510974.2020.1749862

Myers, S. A., & Bryant, L. E. (2008). The use of behavioral indicators of sibling commitment among emerging adults. Journal of Family Communication, 8(2), 101-125.