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Family Dynamics

5 Key Issues in Difficult Adult Sibling Relationships

This is what therapists should focus on when working with sibling issues.

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The time I've spent working with adults who have difficult relationships with their siblings has convinced me that therapists should be aware of 5 key issues.

1. Sibling relationships are life-long relationships.

A sibling relationship, given the typical course of a life time, lasts longer than any other relationship an individual will have—longer than relationships with parents, partners, children, and, most likely, friends. Thus, clarifying or resolving a sibling relationship is extremely important to one’s well-being because cooperation between siblings is often needed when taking care of aging parents, as well as potentially taking care of each other.

2. Therapists are often not trained to think about adult sibling relationships, and do not inquire about them in treatment.

As Michael Woolley and I wrote in the most recent issue of the journal Social Work, adults struggling with a substance use issue may also affect, and be affected by, complicated relationships with their siblings. Unless clinicians think about this relationship, opportunities to help the family system (which includes siblings) will be missed. Siblings should be included when drawing an adult’s eco-map or genogram.

3. These are often messy relationships.

While two-thirds of the 262 people interviewed for our book, Adult Sibling Relationships, describe some or all of their 700 siblings with affection, others are described more ambivalently. In fact, the literature talks about the ambivalence inherent in many adult sibling relationships. (See Victoria Bedford’s great work.) Yes, there is enormous societal pressure to get along with one’s family members, but that trope ignores the reality of the normal ups and downs that siblings experience across the lifespan.

4. Sibling relationships are ambivalent and ambiguous.

Siblings often feel they do not understand the behavior of another sibling. In turn, they do not feel understood by a sibling. “She treats me like I was still 16 and does not understand the person I have become,” is a common refrain. Feeling confused by another sibling’s behavior or feeling misunderstood can lead to more ambivalence.

5. Family therapy theories can help inform how to deal with sibling issues.

Murray Bowen’s work encourages us to look inter-generationally at sibling relationships. In fact, we found that if a father is perceived as being close with his siblings, his children are more likely to be close with each other. (Take note, dads, and work on your sibling relationships!) A different example illustrating learning from one’s elders involves a mother who dropped out of touch with her own sibling after they moved away from the home they shared. A few years later, two of the mother’s children fell out of contact with each other. Hypothetically, they had learned that this was acceptable behavior from their mother.

Structural family therapy (SFT) encourages therapists to pay attention to a sibling’s boundaries. Are parents triangulated into the adult children’s relationship? Are parents interfering cross-generationally and not allowing siblings to work through their issues? Are warring siblings drawing in aging parents? If so, parents can be blocked from this type of intrusion and siblings can be encouraged to work things with each other. When a parent is ill or dying, this becomes particularly important.

By bringing siblings into the therapy room, therapists can help clients navigate some of the more difficult issues that may trouble them across the lifespan.

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