- Rosy memories and unrealistic hopes can keep a sibling in a toxic relationship.
- Know the words and tactics toxic siblings use and don't be blinded by enabling relatives who say things like, "Be the bigger person."
- Self-deceptive tactics may cause us to excuse bad behavior and to persuade ourselves to stay in the relationship.
Estrangement from a sibling can evoke deep, lasting mourning, not only for a relationship but also for the fantasy of the idealized family. Even siblings who are on good terms may recall a happier rapport in childhood, yearning to return to that simple, comfortable relationship. Adult brothers and sisters may be deeply disappointed, never having imagined they might become contentious, distant, or even estranged.
Rosy memories and unrealistic hopes can keep a sibling in a toxic relationship. Destructive thought patterns, such as euphoric recall, future-faking, and self-gaslighting, help us avoid facing the injuries a toxic sibling inflicts. These self-sabotaging beliefs can be the invisible glue that binds a sibling to a destructive relationship.
Cultural norms that present sibling relations as constant and enduring only add to the burden. Siblings who can’t meet this expectation may feel coerced, judged, and stigmatized, both within and outside of the family. Papering over a toxic relationship comes with insidious remarks like these:
- “Nobody’s perfect.”
- “You’re too sensitive.”
- “He didn’t mean it that way.”
- “You only have one brother/sister."
- “Can’t you take a joke?”
- “You need to learn to let things go.”
- “There are two sides to every story.”
- “Why can’t we all just get along?”
- “You shouldn’t have made him angry.”
- “Be the bigger person.”
What Toxic Siblings Say and Do
Despite these pressures to keep up the connection, the reality is that some sibling relationships are dangerous, emotionally and even physically. When abuse and/or violence occur, the relationship can’t and shouldn't be sustained.
More typically, though, malice isn’t so flagrant—and, don’t forget, toxic people often thrive on maintaining ambiguity. So, it's important to recognize red flags.
First, beware of a brother or sister telling you how to feel: This can indicate narcissism. Second, be alert to what they say, as toxic siblings often sprinkle their conversations with statements that subtly reinforce their control. You may recognize some examples:
- "We don’t have secrets."
- "Look what you’ve done—gotten me into trouble with Mom/Dad."
- "I don’t love you when you do that."
- "How can you think that? All I did was…"
- "And then he/she did this. I’ve got to do something about it—this is war."
- "How could you be so stupid?"
- "That didn’t happen. You’re making things up as usual."
- "You need to hear this."
- "You did this purposely."
- "You're trying to stir up trouble."
- "You’ll regret that when I’m dead."
- "That’s God’s way of paying you back."
- "What would your friends think if they saw you now?"
- "These things only happen when you’re around."
Toxic siblings also use various manipulative tactics:
- Being disrespectful
- Ignoring boundaries
- Imposing the silent treatment
- Moving the goal posts
- Changing the subject
- Using fear to control another person
- Lying and denial
- Playing on a person’s insecurities
Self-Deceptive Tactics That Keep Siblings in a Toxic Relationship
Even when siblings recognize manipulative statements and tactics, they're often reluctant to act, out of commitment to the family and the bonds of shared history. Some siblings find ways to excuse bad behavior, persuading themselves to stay in the relationship and rationalizing that choice.
Here are three self-deceptive tactics people may unwittingly employ:
- Euphoric recall: This is a psychological process wherein people exaggerate happy memories and positive feelings while blocking out bad memories and the associated negative emotions. “This is a term that’s often used in substance abuse,” explains Canadian psychotherapist Ali-John Chaudhary, who specializes in sibling estrangement and conducts online sibling estrangement support groups. “I use the term ‘fake nostalgia’ to denote euphoric recall. Interestingly, this is a feeling that we can have when we’re in the midst of thinking of our sibling relationship.” Looking back through rose-colored glasses distorts past realities to prop up present-day optimism.
- Future-faking: The playbook for future-faking is to promise that things will be better—or, at least, that things will change. It's a manipulative strategy a toxic sibling uses to get what they want right now, pressuring their sibling to excuse and overlook abuse. Typically, the toxic sibling claims that everything will be different when their life circumstances change and they're less stressed. Unfortunately, it’s a lie. Think of the old bar sign that promises “Free Beer Tomorrow.” Tomorrow, of course, never comes.
- Self-gaslighting: This is an especially dangerous tactic because it is a self-inflicted form of emotional abuse. We dismiss our own valid emotions, instead accepting what a toxic sibling has said. Internalizing the toxic sibling’s claims, we convince ourselves that we are "over-reacting" or "too sensitive” or “making a big a deal out of nothing.” Minimization, invalidation, and self-doubt characterize self-gaslighting.
Recognizing these behaviors requires cultivating a "third eye"—that mystical, invisible eye, usually located on the forehead—that provides perception beyond ordinary eyesight. Siblings in toxic relationships must watch themselves from outside themselves to identify and defeat self-sabotaging behaviors.
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