In adulthood, sibling relationships can be close and loving, pleasant but distant, or troubled. Adult sibling issues can take many forms, with rivalries and resentments carried from childhood forward.
My friend Lisa has been estranged for years from her older sister Dee whom she feels has always been bossy and judgmental, always making comparisons, with Lisa coming out the loser. Even though both are currently battling cancer, silence prevails. "I can't imagine us having a good conversation," Lisa insists. "Unless, of course, she changes."
A client who I'll call Denise limits contact with her two older brothers because she finds herself regressing when she gets together with her sibs. "The teasing, which started when I was little, is just relentless," she says. "I feel sucked back into my less than ideal childhood when we get together. They treat me like they always did — like a pesky little sister they'd rather not be with."
My neighbor Don hasn't seen his only brother in decades. "We tolerated each other growing up, helped by an eight-year age difference that made our daily worlds quite separate," he says. "But once we were grown up and that age difference didn't matter so much, I realized that I really didn't like him much as a human being. I suspect that he feels the same way about me."
Indeed, there are some sibling relationships that are beyond repair. Sometimes there does need to be distance — temporary or permanent — between siblings who can't agree or when one or the other is abusive and unmotivated to change.
Other sibling relationships, however, are — or could be — loving and supportive.
How do you minimize trouble and maximize love with your siblings?
Forget the old roles and patterns of childhood. That was then. This is now. Being the eldest doesn't entitle one to be bossy or judgmental or prescriptive with younger siblings. Being the youngest doesn't mean that shirking responsibility is okay. You're all adults and there are moments when you need to come together with love and commitment and maturity to handle serious family matters, such as aging parents or estates that need to be settled.
These family crises are prime fodder for fights over which sibling does what or which one doesn't step up to the plate, who is more entitled, most supportive, least responsible. In so many of these scenarios, the subtext behind the family drama remains much the same as it was in the early years: someone was loved most, someone felt left out, someone did much without praise, someone was lauded just for being.
The challenge is to find an emotional path past the old hurts to a new understanding — that we all handle crises and grief in our own ways, that people do the best they can at the time, even if it feels woefully inadequate to others, that everyone wants to feel cherished. Reaching out to siblings, in times of calm as well as crisis, with love and understanding can help to begin to heal some of those old wounds.
Be the first to reach out. This may mean being the first to apologize (even if you feel your sibling should be the one to apologize first!) It may mean being the first to say "I would like us to be closer."
We have no control over whether or when a sibling will reach out to us or change his or her behavior. So, rather than waiting until a sibling changes — as my friend Lisa hopes that her judgmental, bossy older sister will — try initiating change in your own way and your own time.
This can mean reacting to old behavior patterns in a new way, like refusing to react with outrage to teasing or revisiting and rehashing old arguments that lead to nothing but heartbreak. It can mean calling a truce, agreeing to disagree, letting go of old hurts. It can mean expressing a need for closeness and connection. Or it can mean overlooking the sibling trait that has led, in the past, to arguments and hurt feelings. It can mean speaking up for yourself or laughing along with stories of your childhood foibles or changing your way of being with your family of origin.
My husband Bob grew up in a family that was loving, but a bit distant and non-demonstrative. When he was 30 and in therapy for the first time, he realized his need to express his love in more physical ways. That Christmas, he stunned his family by greeting them with warm hugs and expressions of love. As he looked around, his entire family, even his brother — who often kept others at a distance with barbed humor — was smiling through tears. From then on, hugs and kisses added warmth to each family gathering.
So in looking to change the dynamics of a sibling relationship, be the first to speak up, reach out and express your desire to build new closeness.
Respect each other's differences. Even though you grew up in the same family, you and your siblings may be very different people.
And you may have quite different perspectives of those childhood years. Instead of arguing about which one is correct, it's important to understand that each one is correct. No one has quite the same experience — whether it's in relationships with parents and other family members, or experiences in school or in the passage of adolescence.
You and a sibling may have very different ways of viewing the world, relating to others, handling money or raising children. Instead of judging, imagine life as they have seen and experienced it and find ways to admire them whatever their challenges may have been.
Respecting each other's differences in experience and perspective can go a long way toward forging stronger sibling bonds.
Embrace the ways that you are similar. Even though you and your siblings may lead very different lives, being aware of the traits and opinions and tastes you do share can enhance your time together. It may be favorite foods or old stories or family jokes. It may be shared values or beliefs.
Celebrate this longest relationship of your life. While a strong and loving marriage is a special blessing and joy in one's life and the love for one's child is truly life-changing, the longest relationships one is likely to have in life will be with siblings.
This longest relationship can have its challenging times — when you disagree over important family decisions or get on each other's nerves or will a reluctant sibling to make changes you see as potentially life-enhancing.
These longest relationships may or may not be the happiest or most intimate ones in your life. But, with care, with love and respect, they can be uniquely wonderful.
A brother or sister knows, unlike anyone else, exactly what life was like for you in your formative years. A sibling shares a history that predates by decades the life story you have built with your spouse and own children. Though your sibling relationships may have become less intense with time and distance, there still can be that wonderful sense of picking up where you left off, a feeling of safety, a unique camaraderie when you do get together. There may be those moments, reminiscent of childhood, with emotional pinching, tussling and teasing. But the times of understanding each other's lifelong challenges and celebrating each other's triumphs are truly priceless.