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Family Dynamics

Sibling Rivalry: It's Not Just for Kids

Navigating adult sibling relationships in the midst of a pandemic.

Key points

  • Adult siblings fight over different issues than they did as kids, and they can draw on more effective strategies to manage conflict.
  • Given the importance of siblings in our lives, it understandable that hard times, and crises like the pandemic, can expose fault lines in our relationships.
  • Re-assessing your thoughts and feelings about your siblings and listening and reaching out differently can help you navigate pandemic-related stress.

There is no question that the Coronavirus pandemic has played havoc with our social lives. When every in-person encounter includes the possibility of transmission of a deadly virus, it becomes impossible to interact spontaneously. Instead, we stand on pieces of tape on the floor so we aren’t too close to each other in check-out lines, trying to read each other’s expressions above our masks, and debating which friends and family members to include in our “safety pods.” The media is rife with reports of loneliness among teens and young adults, the elderly, and people living alone. Adult children are struggling to stay connected to elderly parents who are at particular risk but not always willing to follow safety protocols themselves. At the other end of the spectrum, reports of domestic violence and divorce are up as the demands of social distancing, working remotely, and homeschooling children who are also getting tired of each other exacerbate existing conflicts and generate new crises.

Why the Pandemic Is Straining Adult Sibling Relationships

There is, however, one key form of relationship strain that has not yet made the popular press. In the past couple of months, I have heard an increasing number of stories about the strain the pandemic is taking on the relationships between adult siblings. Among my clients, my students, and my friends, similar issues seem to be emerging: Clashes between siblings who refuse to wear masks when visiting parents, and those who are so worried about the virus that they won’t reach out to lonely, isolated parents for fear of infections. Arguments about whether it is safe to buy your groceries in person, to send your kids to school, or to socialize with people outside of your home abound. And in the most extreme cases, virus deniers are facing off against siblings who fear that such beliefs will endanger the health of the entire family.

The advent of the vaccine has not made these clashes any less complicated. While some siblings spend hours online or on the phone, trying to get appointments for themselves or their parents, others question the safety or efficacy of vaccines, or cite unsubstantiated conspiracy claims about their intent and development. In the midst of national chaos over the distribution and delivery of vaccine doses, glaring discrepancies are also pulling families apart. In some states, people over 65, those with pre-existing conditions, and those working on the front lines of medical, educational, and supply-chain structures are already getting vaccinated, while in others, even those with the greatest need for shots are still waiting. Suddenly the term vaccine envy has entered our lexicon and siblings find themselves tentatively talking around the subject.

Given the primacy of siblings in our lives, it is not surprising that tough times are exposing fault lines in our relationships. In one sense they are the people who know us best. As kids, we often spent more time with each other than with anyone else, and for better or worse, we share both good and bad memories. But we also competed with them for resources ranging from bedrooms, bikes, and eventually cars, to attention from our parents, acclaim for our accomplishments, and even opportunities to pursue our own goals. But even though we grew up in the same environment, we are not identical: Biological siblings share only about 50% of their genetic identity. Depending on where we fall in the birth hierarchy, our experience of the family itself may differ. Consequently, the way we respond to the same events can vary greatly as a function of personality, maturity, and lived experiences. These differences may become even larger as we build lives outside of our original family structure.

In the normal course of things, adult siblings often come back into contact with each other when called upon to deal with the health issues or death of aging family members. Often the stress of such situations creates new conflicts over care and financial decisions. But the pandemic has brought such concerns into high relief, regardless of people’s ages, means, or circumstances. Suddenly we are all making what can be life or death decisions about wearing masks, socializing with others, or getting vaccinated, and our choices can impact the health of the people around us. People who haven’t yelled at each other since they were children find themselves reenacting old struggles about power, position, and pride.

Suggestions for Coping with Pandemic-Related Adult Sibling Rivalry

Are we doomed to revisit all of our dysfunctional sibling interactions against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic? Not if we take the time to focus on really understanding and responding to the situation we face. The following is a list of steps you can take to do just that.

  1. Feel: Acknowledge your own stress and concerns related to the pandemic. Be sure you aren’t projecting your feelings onto people by assuming they feel the way you do. You may have valid reasons to resent a sibling’s past behavior but be sure those grievances aren’t biasing you in the present. Likewise, make sure that your own guilt over past events isn’t skewing your current behavior. If you are navigating pandemic-related concerns, keep the focus on solving the current problem.
  2. Hear: Listen to your sibling's concerns the way you would listen to a friend's, and not as you might once have experienced your bossy older sister or bratty younger brother. Try to understand what they are thinking and feeling. Imagine what it was like to have their role in your family instead of your own. You may still disagree with them but try to view your interactions from your perspective as an adult, with your own life and resources, and not as a child trapped in the back seat with them on a cross-country trip.
  3. See: Assess the situational factors that are influencing their behavior, and your own. Don’t assume that people are doing things to thwart you deliberately. Maybe they are under pressure from a spouse, worried about financial issues, or reacting to a lack of control or support in their own lives. Sometimes parental behavior or external situations have adversely affected sibling relationships, but as adults we have more power to manage those pressures than we did when we were kids.
  4. Touch: Validate your siblings' concerns, affirm the value of your connections with each other, and articulate the type of relationship you would like to have in the present. This does not mean you have to put up with abusive or destructive behavior, but there is a difference between setting and maintaining boundaries and getting sucked back into unhealthy patterns.
  5. Think: Where do your concerns align with those of your siblings and where do they clash? Can you find ways to respect each other’s COVID-19 beliefs without sacrificing your relationship? Are you taking on their problems when you no longer need to? Have you explored creative approaches to solving mutual problems? Are the roles you played as children interfering with your connections now? If it is important to you to maintain a relationship with this person despite your differences, then you may have to let go of your own need to convince them of the value of your opinions.

This undoubtedly sounds like a lot of work but as with any worthwhile relationship, investing in communication and connection with your siblings is likely to be more rewarding than refighting the same old battles time and again.