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Adult Sibling Relationships

Many times when we think of sibling rivalry, we think of young children squabbling over real and imagined wrongs. Routinely this behavior is classified as normal, and it is assumed that it will somehow dissipate as the siblings mature. While in many cases this is undoubtedly true, it is also true that damage to relationships when siblings are young can have long lasting effects throughout their adulthood. No matter how sure you are that you have put “childish” behavior behind you, feelings of anger, inadequacy and resentment tend to bubble to the surface whenever the family gets together.

Like pieces to a puzzle, with each family member in place, the picture remains the same for you. How mature do you need to be to escape feeling like a bullied six year old when big brother or sister is around? How old do you have to be to not feel insufficient in the eyes of your parents when compared to your siblings? How many times do you have to be hurt after realizing your sibling has taken advantage of your relationship?

Some siblings believe they can never heal the rivalry that festers and grows along with them into adulthood. However, what can be more difficult to accept is that even if you can heal the rivalry, you may not end up with the type of sibling relationship you want or need.

An example is Michael*, the middle brother and the “odd man out” within his sibling relationship with his older and younger brother. Personalities shape up with Michael being the only one believing that family should be loyal to each other above all else. Within a series of business dealings, personal promises and family decisions, Michael found that over and over again, he had been misled and lied to by the gang of two. However, he kept coming back with trust, family loyalty and an inability to understand that even your siblings can be more self serving than you imagined.

Recently, he came to the painful realization that he would never have the close brotherly relationship that he craved unless there were fundamental changes made. Believing that his brothers didn’t want change and knowing that he couldn’t force change, he had no choice but to accept them for who they were. He had to do an honest assessment of his siblings and he didn’t like the results. Simply put, he would always have to be the giver and never the receiver. The relationship would be a hard fought, one-way street and maybe, in the end, it just wasn’t in his best interest to continue to pursue such a relationship. It took several years to get to this final stage of acceptance, but at long last he has a better sibling relationship since he learned to keep them at arms length.

Are there ways siblings can avoid ending up in such tattered relationships? Are there things parents can do in the early years to change the course of sibling relationships? The answer is yes and yes. Parents can avoid the perception of favoritism, (a common cause of rivalry), which research has shown children as young as fifteen months can discern. Parents can also make sure they spend equal, quality, one-on-one time with each child; giving them their complete attention and making them feel they are special enough to be the center of somebody’s universe. Parents can also teach siblings how to work together as a family to solve problems, including lessons of compromise. However, sibling problems cannot be laid completely at the feet of parents. Research has also shown that there are other influences such as gender, genetics and outside life events which can also factor into the strength of the sibling bond.

As adults, the influences effecting sibling relationships can take an even bigger role. Lifestyle choices, friends, spirituality, spouses and a lack of communication can all run interference in the relationship of siblings. However, it is important to understand that adult siblings can work through old rivalries, but only when all parties involved are aiming for the same positive result. For Michael, that was not the case.

He raised the question, “If they were not my brothers, would I choose them as my friends?” The answer was absolutely not. Michael made the difficult choice to distance himself, and gave himself permission to release the guilt and ignore the family pressure that came along with his decision. His coming to terms with a new sibling relationship meant realizing he could still love his brothers without liking them very much. It also meant he would never have the close, loyal sibling ties that he always wanted. Michael could accept this and he believes it’s for the best.


*name changed

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