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Family Dynamics

7 Issues That Strain Adult Sibling Relationships

6. Too much thinking about birth order.

Key points

  • Sibling relationships can be improved by being aware of some of their key components.
  • Affection, ambivalence, and ambiguity may all be present in a sibling relationship.
  • Get insight, build boundaries when appropriate, and look toward re-writing your family narrative if there is sibling strain.

The time I've spent researching adult sibling relationships and working with adults who struggle with their siblings has convinced me that therapists should be aware of 7 key issues. Adults with siblings should also be aware of these as awareness can enhance your time together.

1. Sibling relationships are life-long. A sibling relationship, given the typical life course, lasts longer than any other relationship we have—longer than relationships with parents, partners, children, and, most likely, friends. Fixing a strained sibling relationship can be extremely important to our 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. COVID may have placed a strain on the sibling relationship. COVID may have resulted in an undue burden on the sibling relationship if taking care of parents was at one time a shared responsibility and then it shifted to one sibling. Perhaps one sibling couldn't travel for a visit or come into the parents' house as safely if they were more likely to carry the virus due to their work or their children. If there was already an imbalance in responsibilities that was resented, this could have knocked the scale over.

3. Therapists are often not trained to think about adult sibling relationships, and do not inquire about them in treatment. Most therapists are trained in parent-child relationships and partner/spouse relationships. Friendship maintenance and sibling relationships are often not covered in curricula and training but those relationships play an exceedingly important role in well-being. Unless clinicians think about sibling relationships in adulthood, opportunities to help the family system (which includes siblings) will be missed. Siblings should be included when drawing an adult’s family tree.

4. 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 describe their sibling relationships ambivalently. The literature on siblings talks about the ambivalence inherent in many adult sibling relationships, as Victoria Bedford has written. It is quite natural to have mixed feelings about one's siblings, children, and one's partner. It is important for therapists to allow this typical feeling to enter the therapy room so that people will not feel they are failures if they do not have an idyllic relationship.

5. Sibling relationships contain ambiguity. How much do we understand someone else, let alone ourselves? Siblings we researched and those I have counseled often feel they do not understand the behavior of another sibling. Why are they nice to Dad after the way he treated them? Why did they marry their spouse? Why do they still treat me like I'm 12? If another sibling's behavior is not understood, it can lead to more ambivalence and mixed communication.

6. Don't spend a lot of time on sibling position. Sure, older siblings and younger siblings can act differently and middle siblings can feel left out. But the data on that is simply not there, other than anecdotally. Too much variability exists based on gender, the number of siblings, the age gap between siblings, and the shifting circumstances of the parents.

7. 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. Parents who are close with their siblings are more likely to raise children who are close with each other. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and are influenced by them.

To unwind difficult sibling relationships, figure out where they may have come from. One example illustrating learning from one’s elders involves a mother who stopped contact with her own siblings. 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.

But we are not forced to repeat history. Structural Family Therapy 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 out with each other. When a parent is ill or dying, this becomes particularly important.

Narrative Therapy would ask us to consider what impressions of our relationship with a sibling we are privileging and what parts we are ignoring that may be keys to improving the relationship. Narrative Therapy could also ask us to consider what legacy about sibling relationships we want to push forward and leave for future generations.

Sibling relationships can improve if people are willing to work on them with the help of others or on their own. It takes insight, boundary building, and a view towards the future. When times are tough—and they have been tough—we all need all the love we can garner from those who are important to us.

Facebook image: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock


Greif, G. L. & Woolley, M.E. (2016). Adult Sibling Relationships. New York: Columbia University Press.

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