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Family Dynamics

Why So Many Sibling Relationships Come Apart

Estrangement is common and often not unwelcome.

Key points

  • Estrangement between brothers and sisters in adulthood is not rare.
  • Sibling estrangement can also occur in families in which parents and children have become estranged
  • Sibling estrangement is experienced in different ways, and while some long for reconnection, others choose to maintan distance.

There are two common assumptions about the relationships between brothers and sisters. The first is that these relationships are the longest of our lives. In having two or more children, parents might hope that their sons and daughters will have a companion throughout their lives, from childhood to adolescence, adulthood, and older age. The second is that these relationships are generally supportive. In referring to a friend as being “like a brother” or “like a sister” we’re suggesting that this relationship is one that is significant and supportive. But to what extent do these assumptions reflect the reality of sibling relationships?

A number of studies have examined the frequency with which brothers and sisters are in contact with one another in adulthood. For example, in a sample of approximately 4,000 adults in the Netherlands, 47 percent had face-to-face or phone contact at least once a month (1). However, the rest were in contact less frequently: In the past year, 40 percent had been in contact just a few times and 13 percent had been in contact no more than once.

But perhaps the finding that 13% of adults in that study had little or no contact with a brother or sister shouldn’t be surprising. In childhood, conflict between siblings is inevitable. Brothers and sisters who grow up together typically share toys and have to negotiate boundaries with one another. While this conflict can present children with opportunities to develop new skills and abilities, like understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings, sibling relationships can also be ones in which children learn to be aggressive. In a review of research on sibling bullying in childhood, the authors concluded that “relationships with siblings are probably the most aggressive relationships that the majority of children will ever encounter during their childhood” (2).

What we know about estrangement between siblings in adulthood

Last week, a paper was published that set out to explore the experiences of those who have little or no contact with their brothers and sisters in adulthood (3). An online survey was disseminated to the members of the Stand Alone community, a charity that aims to support those experiencing estrangement. The respondents were asked to explain their relationship with their sibling, or lack thereof, in their own words.

Most described their wider families as being characterised by estrangements, favouritism, abuse, and disputes. Estrangements between respondents and their parents were common, with most describing their sibling as having sided with their parent or having chosen to maintain the parent-child relationship over and above the sibling relationship.

As for the quality of the sibling relationship itself, this varied in different ways. Some had no contact with a sibling whatsoever, while others sent or received texts or cards on birthdays or over the holidays. Some described their relationship as “toxic," while others had a distant relationship or described their sibling as being “like a stranger." Some relationships were supportive in childhood and weakened in adulthood, while others had always been experienced as distant or negative. Some found the estrangement intensely painful, but others reported that it had little or no ongoing emotional impact.

There was another important way in which the experience of being estranged from a sibling varied. While it could be assumed that estrangement is a negative experience that people want to “fix," respondents to this online survey had different thoughts and feelings about reconciliation. Some wanted to reconnect with brothers and sisters in the future, but for others, the relationship with their brother or sister was a source of stress and disappointment from which distance was a desirable outcome.

The findings of this study have the potential to be comforting. Those who have experienced pain, disconnection, and heartache in a relationship with a brother or sister will hopefully no longer feel that they are alone. Although the media often depicts estrangements between siblings as scandalous or scarce, the truth is that the experience is far from rare, and it's one that is experienced in many different ways. Ultimately, the findings of studies like this challenge the assumptions that surround sibling relationships: While it is true that siblings might know one another over decades, it is not necessarily true that these relationships will be active, significant, or supportive.

Facebook image: Armin Staudt/Shutterstock


1. Kalmijn, M., & Leopold, T. (2019). Changing sibling relationships after parents' death: The role of solidarity and kinkeeping. Journal of Marriage and Family, 81(1), 99-114.

2. Wolke D, Tippett N, Dantchev S. Bullying in the family: Sibling bullying. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2015;2(10):917–29. S2215-0366(15)00262-X

3. Blake, L., Bland, B., & Rouncefield-Swales, A. (2022). Estrangement Between Siblings in Adulthood: A Qualitative Exploration. Journal of Family Issues, 0192513X211064876.

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