Siblings for Life or Friends Forever? Adult Sibling Rivalry

What happens when sibling rivalry continues into adulthood?

Posted Sep 04, 2015

Sibling relationships are perhaps the most unique relationship that humans may experience—they begin early and will endure. While we often joke that “you can’t choose your family,” it remains true that we can choose how to handle our inherited relationships. Unfortunately, where siblings are concerned, there is often a parental edict that siblings should get along, yet the day-after-day closeness of the relationship can create a powder keg ready to ignite. Children are relegated to specific steps on the family hierarchy at birth, and older siblings are often committed to making sure that this chronologically defined pecking order is maintained. The energy and intensity of some children’s sibling interaction is surprising in its ferocity. A great deal of learning about power, compassion, tolerance, and loyalty in relationships can occur as children grow into adults.

No matter how old we get, we will never lose our place in the family hierarchy. The ‘baby brother’ or the ‘big brother’ are typically measured against a set of unspoken expectations that are based on cultural prototypes. Most of us have also probably uttered or heard the words, “She’s the oldest, but she acts more like the youngest…” Carried into adulthood, these expectations may continue to influence the role that a person plays in their chosen relationships, both platonic and romantic. Much of the relational learning that takes place between siblings is based on the desire to get a fair share of whatever resources are available and this seemingly inborn rivalry can negatively influence relationships for a lifetime. And this means relationships with your siblings and your friends and your romantic partners and your own children.

Researchers (Ross & Milgram, 1982) noted that there are basically three patterns of closeness among siblings across the lifespan: 1) they’ve always been close; 2) closeness has changed over time; and 3) they’ve never been close. Ideally, this relationship would be open to change as siblings grew up and matured, if it was distant in childhood. However, early rivalry can create a bitterness in the family system that can take its toll on any future efforts to become close.

Origins of Rivalry

Most of us with siblings have experienced rivalry at some point in our lives, and although it typically begins in childhood, it can definitely endure into adulthood. Unfortunately, parents generally play a significant role in the development of rivalry and they seldom realize just how damaging their observations or early comparisons of their children can be. Whether they are aware of what they are doing or not, they can create a family dynamic that endures far longer than the moment in which the initial comparison is set in motion.

Parents may create the sense of competition through either overt or covert comparisons. Anytime a parent suggests that “this child is the smart one” or “he’s the youngest, but the most responsible,” or makes any type of comment that suggests a win/lose or best/worst type of labeling can lead the “short straw child” into a place in which “measuring up” or “besting the sibling” becomes a major motivating factor or a reason to quit trying, depending on his individual personal proclivities.

Siblings also seem adept at pulling out all the stops in terms of passive aggressiveness. They downplay your successes or hand out backhanded compliments when required. Trying to defend yourself or your accomplishments can be fruitless as the passive aggressive sibling knows how to keep you in your place. 

Dealing with Rivalry in Adulthood

Adulthood brings Equality

  1. Remember that once you are an adult, you do not need to allow the childhood pecking order to control your entry into (or exit) from sibling discussions or bickering. You do not have to be drawn into the same old games or predictable arguments.
  2. You know the drill by now – where your irritating sibling is going to take the digs or the jokes. When you know the playbook, you can already be planning your winning moves. As children, we are all reminded that our siblings tease us because it gets a reaction. This is often true, so just don’t give your sib the reaction she’s going for. Just smile and remain totally disengaged from her attempts to get you riled up over nothing.
  3. If one of your parents really does “love you best” or “loves my brother best,” recognize that you cannot likely change the playbook that the family’s been using as long as you’ve been alive. Sometimes parents keep playing by the old rules, because it is easier than learning new ones. You can let your parents know that you don’t enjoy their comparisons, they may apologize and refute that they are even creating comparisons, but recognize that it’s unlikely that even a heartfelt apology and outright acknowledgement of their mistakes is going to lead to an end to the old behaviors. Age has a way of making folks a little stubborn and more than a little set in their ways. If you know your parents love you and that they appreciate your uniqueness, then don’t keep bringing up your dissatisfaction or childhood resentments. Some battles are just not worth fighting in this life.
  4. While you cannot choose your family, remind yourself that you can choose how much time you spend with them as an adult. Don’t let guilt put you in a box regarding “family time.” When sitting in a room together after a holiday meal begins to feel more like being in a “cage fight” than a “family dinner,” take a walk and get some air, find something good to watch on the television or pick out a favorite movie, focus on any kids in the room, or if there is no more room to breathe, say your goodbyes and head out the door. You’re an adult now and can make the decisions that work best for you and your family.
  5. Don’t sweat the small stuff, as a rule, unless it’s getting in the way of your peace of mind or someone’s safety. No smoking in your house means no smoking – that’s fine to enforce. No overindulgence in alcohol means you can enforce the “last call” whenever you decide it’s time when in your house. Draw the battle lines wisely and don’t waste energy on disagreements or old arguments that cause no real harm or that are not worth your time.

Siblings for Life as Friends Forever?

Many of us have awesome stories of how much pleasure our siblings brought to our lives as kids and into adulthood. I know of many “sibships” that are also “best friendships” and this is a very healthy development. It appears that having strong sibling relationships in older adulthood provides protection in terms of emotional and physical well-being. So if your adult sibships are less satisfying than you might like, perhaps it is worth the effort to begin working to kind a friendship with your sibling. We cut our friends a lot of slack in life, and perhaps taking an attitude of accepting someone “faults and all” to our sibling relationships might be an excellent long-term investment.

Reference

Ross, H. G., & Milgram, J. I. (1982). Important variables in adult sibling relationships: A qualitative study. In M. E. Lamb & B. Sutton-Smith (Eds.), Sibling relationships: Their significance across the lifespan (pp. 225-249). Hillsdale, NJ: Eribaum

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