Family Dynamics

Adult Sibling Relationships: Hard to Research and to Grasp

How do researchers get their arms around complex adult sibling relationships?

Posted Mar 06, 2016

I was over there (at Len’s) [an hour drive] for dinner last week and he comes here probably once or twice a week for dinner, so we’re very close. And my sister, who lives like five miles from me, I hardly ever see.  She calls me.  I really have to work up the courage to call her back because it’s just an unpleasant relationship (59-year-old sister, middle of three)

My sister and I are polar opposites.  She is a kind and loving person.  I do not have any harsh things to say to describe her.  However, she fails to honor the boundaries that should come with adult sibling relationships.  More than I would like, we do not see eye to eye on various things that lead to patterns of harsh and disrespectful dialogues.  It is common for us not to speak to each other for months following these exchanges but we engage each other again as if nothing ever happened when there is a birthday or other family event that requires both of us to attend. (44-year-old brother, younger of two)

I have never been nearly as close with the others [step-, half-, and adopted siblings] as I was with Donald (only full brother who died in 1967). I can do the dinners and all the usual stuff but I can’t be totally honest with them. I can’t live those inner spots with any of them the way that Donald and I did. (71-year-old sister, oldest of six)

These two sisters and one brother speak about the loving as well as the distant and strained nature of sibling relationships. They describe avoiding a sister while staying close with a brother, pretending to get along at family events despite significant differences, and mourning the loss of a cherished full-sibling while maintaining pseudo-relationships with a half-, step-, and adopted siblings. It may be a cliché, but we can pick our friends but not our family of origin, the family into which we were born. With our siblings, we are forever tethered to each other, longer even than to our parents, partners, or children. We can drop or change our friends and our partners but we cannot fully discard, relationally or psychologically, our brothers and sisters.

When Michael Woolley and I began writing Adult Sibling Relationships (Columbia University Press), trying to wrap our arms around the many faces of adult sibling relationships proved to be daunting.  Victor Ciccirelli, a Purdue University professor and one of the early pioneers in sibling research, cautioned about the difficulty investigating siblings because of the variety of forms families take.  Thirty years later, families are even more complex with more unmarried partnerships, as well as inter-racial, inter-religious, and gay and lesbian marriages. In wading into the water of sibling relationships, we often felt as if the further we wandered into the marsh, the murkier the picture became.

Consider the following questions from a researcher’s perspective.  The first has to do with the comparability of families. How to account for the multiple configurations of sibling sets based on number of siblings, gender of siblings, age range between siblings, and potential presence of sibling disability? Someone with only one brother or sister, for example, is likely to have a more intense sibling experience than someone with three or four siblings will have with each of those siblings. Sisters have more emotionally expressive relationships than brothers. Will a sibling set with all sisters describe more emotionality? What if there is one brother in the family? When siblings were born many years apart, how does that affect closeness? Some believe it is as if they were raised in different families given how the parents’ economic and other life circumstances may have changed. Siblings with significant challenges may require more time from a parent and require caregiving from a sibling.  If step-, half-, or adopted siblings are included in a research frame, how many years have they lived together and under what circumstances was the new family formed? After death? A divorce? Gaining a step-sibling at six years of age is quite different than gaining one at 16 or 26. Layer on to this the racial and religious differences and cultural expectations that may come into play in the same family with parental remarriage. Finally, what if parents separated and children were raised away from each other? How can sibling relationships be studied when families are so different?

The second research question centers on how many siblings from a sibling set are to be interviewed? If only two siblings of four are available, is that sufficient? What if some wanted to be interviewed and others did not? Would a sibling be honest if a brother or sister was in the room or would an overly rosy picture be painted to avoid family discord? Family researchers have struggled with such issues for decades when interviewing families and it is the rare researcher who interviews sibling sets together or even separately.

The third research question has to do with who is interviewed.  If the decision is made to interview only one sibling, is it the oldest, youngest, or middle sibling? Birth order can affect responses.  For practical purposes and for building a sample, researchers usually take whoever they can get.

Finally, when interviewing adult siblings, much has happened since childhood causing siblings’ paths to diverge.  People gain or lose partners, have children, experience financial ups and downs and religious or political conversions that can separate them from siblings. Some siblings stay close to, or live in, the family home to take care of parents while others move far away, perhaps to escape.  While the above are demographic differences, they are only the frame used to put around the picture of variables that may be of interest to a researcher in understanding relationship dynamics. Communication between siblings, emotional closeness, concrete financial or housework assistance, competition, parental favoritism and parental interference, shared parental caregiving, and division of parental property have all been foci of research. 

Decisions about whom to interview and what to interview them about are based, of course, on the purpose of the research.  For our purposes, to write about what mental health practitioners should know when treating adult sibling issues, Michael Woolley and I elected to interview only one sibling. This was driven by two thoughts. First, individual therapy, in which issues with loved ones often arise, is the most common context for treatment.  Caregiving to aging parents and the death of a parent are frequent topics in therapy when sibling issues are raised.   The second reason for the focus on one sibling is that we believe there is no “truth” in a family.  Family events may be factual but the way siblings perceive them will differ significantly based on the systemic nature of the family as well as the number, gender, and age of the children. 

A parent who struggles with a chronic physical or mental illness may be more frightening to a younger than an older child.  The older child may protect the younger child and thus have more contact with the parent that will shape both children’s perceptions and memories of the parent and the family system.  Even in functional families, parents do not treat children exactly the same. Interviewing sibling sets and getting multiple perspectives would be beneficial in some research but it would never uncover a single truth in family history.

Drawing on in-depth interviews and questionnaire data from more than 260 siblings 40-years-old and older representing over 700 sibling relationships, we thought we would be able to classify relationships as others have done.  For example, one researcher grouped them as intimate, loyal, cordial, apathetic, and hostile. We concluded though that sibling relationships are often too messy and dynamic for easy categorization.  Drawing on a conceptualization offered by psychologist Victoria Hilkevitch Bedford that fit our experiences of wading in the marsh, we chose ambivalence, coupled with affection and ambiguity, as the best way to describe these lifelong relationships.

Ambivalence here refers to holding contradictory attitudes or feelings towards a sibling.  Given the lifelong relationship with its normal vagaries and the societal dictum that family members should be affectionate and supportive, ample opportunities exist for siblings to have mixed feelings towards one or more siblings as epitomized by the opening quotes.  Ambiguity appeared in our interviews when we heard that people often did not know why a sibling acted a certain way.  The lack of understanding, and the sibling’s not feeling understood, sometimes fed the ambivalence in a cascading cycle that led to emotional distancing.  If a seminal negative event occurred, such as a dispute over a parent’s estate, communication might end completely.

Thus, as researchers and clinicians trying to understand siblings and guide therapists, we came to accept that not all relationships, even the most enduring, are understandable in a conventional way.  This should not shy siblings away from attempting to connect, especially with National Sibling Day coming up in April. Maybe it is that we can actually better connect with another when we accept that relationships cannot be tied up into neat packages.