Relationships with siblings, a pretty standard source of friction from childhood onwards, often get more fraught in mid-life, and can cause enormous pain and distress. Yet while we readily seek advice about sibling rivalry among our kids, that’s much less likely with our own siblings, perhaps because it’s such a hard subject to face up to.
It’s often simply a case of the last straw: a sibling who has avoided confrontation for years reaches a stage when they’ve had enough. Or tension mounts during the illness or following the death of a parent: a sister feels resentful at shouldering too much responsibility while her brother doesn’t have a clue what she’s on about.
You’d think sibling relationships might improve when a parent dies: after all, isn’t fighting for parental attention what all the fuss is about? But while the death of a parent inevitably changes the way siblings get on, it is not always for the better. Funerals seem just as likely to trigger lasting grievances as to unite a family in grief.
Grudges can cause rifts that last decades, yet they tend to be pretty incomprehensible to outsiders. The American psychologist Peter Goldenthal says: “I think it’s a huge mistake to break contact with a sibling. It is as damaging to the person who is cutting off as it is to the person being cut off.”
It’s easy to blame sibling tension on the way we can’t help pushing the same old buttons whenever families get together. But Dr Goldenthal, who explores ways of healing adult sibling relationships in Why Can’t We Get Along?, believes that is only one ingredient. Difficulties more often arise when one sibling gets stuck with the assumption that childhood patterns haven’t changed, so they can’t stop themselves automatically interpreting a sibling’s behaviour as controlling big sis/self-obsessed baby brother. Even when one sibling has changed, the other continues to react as if they haven’t.
How to get on better
- Dr Goldenthal says that simply becoming aware of your own habitual responses can make a huge difference. Gradually your own behaviour will change as you become less reactive. In turn your sibling will start to act differently and both sides will feel less tense. Relationships always go better if people don’t feel anxious.
- If you’re angry, it’s fine avoid contact until you’ve calmed down. But resist the temptation to sever ties for good, however much you feel like it. Such announcements are hard to retract, and there’s too much at stake.
- If you’re the one holding a grudge, take another look at what upset you in the first place and do your best to understand your sibling’s situation. Tell them you’ve been holding a grudge and that you wish you weren’t. You’ll not only understand more about each other’s feelings but one of you may even apologise.