At a birthday celebration, it was amazing to see adult siblings hugging, laughing and even crying over sentimental musing from days gone by. These siblings managed to maintain, over a span of at least sixty years, the type of family unity that would inspire a Norman Rockwell painting. How did these siblings get it right? Why is it that some siblings have good, positive long lasting relationships and others have bonds that were broken long ago or perhaps, never really formed at all?
Most would agree that love is the essential ingredient in creating family bonds. However, what happens when love is not enough? Many adults who love their siblings can’t put their finger on why their relationship is still sour. In a quest for reasonable answers, siblings representing both good and bad relationships have agreed to talk about what is necessary or missing in their family interactions
Great Sibling Bonds
Keith, who is the oldest of four siblings, knows how busy the lives of adults can be, yet these siblings rarely let more than a few days pass without talking to each other. They have very strong family bonds for which Keith credits his single mother.
“She always told us ‘we were all we had’ and she never allowed disagreements to fester.” That didn’t mean that they didn’t have their share of arguments, but Keith recalls that their mother always immediately addressed their problems. His mother also adamantly insisted that the siblings learn how to give back to the family.
Keith recalls an incident when he was about fifteen years old and was getting a tax refund from his part time job.
“It was only about fifteen dollars but my mother wanted me to use it to buy my sister a pair of shoes. I didn’t want to and she explained to me, I don’t remember the exact words, but it just made sense that I should use the money to help out rather than for something that I didn’t need.”
A vigilant parent was instrumental in managing their positive sibling relationships while growing up and now Keith believes that communication is what keeps their bond strong. They each take the initiative to reach out to each other and stay connected. Clearly love is a bond in these adult sibling’s relationships, but so is complete trust, honesty, and open communication which was started by the positive, heavy influence of a watchful parent.
Good Siblings Bonds
Meghan* the middle child of three has practiced the fine art of compromise in order to get along with her two siblings. However, she has had to exert little effort to get along with her younger brother simply because of their compatible personalities, but she admits the relationship with her older sister is lacking. Although the age differences between her and her older sister (four years) match that of her and her younger brother, she never felt as close to her sister. She always believed it was just the difference in personalities but unfortunately there was something more. Her older sister had a different biological father than Meghan and her younger brother. Meghan never thought it impacted their relationship, but she was wrong. Her older sibling was harboring feelings of jealousy and inadequacy since it was her sibling’s father who was present in their lives while her biological father was not. Unbeknownst to Meghan, this was a major issue in their sibling relationship.
However, Meghan believes their relationship will get better, now that she has identified the origin of their problems. She reaches out to her older sister by asking for sisterly advice (even if she doesn’t really need it) and making the extra effort to include her in social activities (dinners, movies).
The older sister is also making an effort. Childhood lessons on the importance of family makes them both want to have a good sisterly relationship. They are hopeful for the future.
Broken Sibling Bonds
Karen* has a similar situation with an older sister who resents the fact that her father was not in her life. However, parental influence did not temper the jealousy and negative feelings which ruled their relationship, it inflamed it. Their mother was so focused on the feelings of her first born, (who was being raised in a household where she did not share the same father with her other children), that she became overly protective. Feelings of favoritism surfaced and her sister became accustomed to having the advantage in sibling disagreements. While their mother encouraged strong sibling relationships, it was usually for the benefit of the older child. So, as the older sister gained a sense of entitlement (which complicated her adult relationships), Karen gained a sense of family loyalty.
Every effort was made to maintain a good, functioning adult sibling relationship, but Karen soon realized she couldn’t do it alone. While Karen did not back away from her sister, she found it too stressful to keep putting herself second for the benefit of a relationship. Over the years they have “cleared the air” multiple times but they still only moved forward because Karen reached out. One day she just didn’t make the customary call to keep in contact and noticed that she didn’t receive one either. They haven’t spoken in over a year.
Karen is not angry with her sister. If the mood struck her, she would gladly pick up the phone and call her tomorrow. She just found a certain peace with not having to walk on eggshells or jump through hoops to keep her sister happy and, by extension, their sibling relationship workable. She admits love is important but she also admits that love alone is not nearly enough to sustain every relationship.
Although parental influence has a part in creating childhood sibling bonds, it’s still up to each sibling to work on their relationship as adults. One sided relationships rarely satisfy both parties and unfortunately, many adult siblings in problematic relationships believe their efforts go unappreciated.