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Sibling Rivalry: Adult Siblings


As siblings grow into mature adults, they hope and expect rivalries will recede into the past. For most siblings this is the case, but for some rivalry continues to burn deep. In some cases new rivalries pop up. When sibling rivalry persists into adulthood, the conflict and self-doubts can be devastating. For those suffering these negative consequences, it's important to learn about sibling rivalry and how to minimize it.

Roots of Adult Sibling Rivalry

Expectations

Sometimes parents place expectations on their children to compensate for their own inadequacies. As children try to fulfill these expectations|whether spoken or unspoken|they often fear they will fail. These expectations and fears often have a negative effect on sibling relationships.

Labels

Parental expectations tend to include comparisons between siblings, and they often result in labels that can stick for a lifetime. Common labels include wiz kid, wonder child, klutz, lazy, do-gooder, rebel, delinquent, crazy one, clown, happy go lucky one, and bully. These labels often  mold us -- we become our labels. As adults, labels can contribute to continuing rivalries with siblings. 

Favoritism

One of the most precious resources that siblings fight about is their parents' love and approval. If parents show favoritism toward a child, they can harm and even destroy sibling relationships.

For example, in one family of sons the youngest child was spoiled and pampered by his parents, and one of the older sons always felt left out of the picture. As the two boys became adults and started having children of their own, the pampering of the youngest child continued with the spoiling of that son's grandchildren. One Christmas the older son received a package of gifts from his parents and realized the gifts were not age-appropriate for his children. So he called his mother and asked her if she had mixed up the packages. She had, she realized. She apologized to both brothers and had each forward the package to the correct person. When the older son received the package meant for him and his children, it was smaller and the items were fewer and less expensive. He became jealous and called his mother to express his disapproval. She responded, "You should be lucky you received anything." This situation, caused by the parents, has perpetuated bitter sibling rivalry between these two brothers.

The Phases of Sibling Relationships

Over time, families experiences many changes, such as marriage, siblings having children, the illness and death of elderly parents, the parents' or a sibling's divorce, geographical moves, and career successes or failures. Each of these situations can cause new sibling rivalries.

Marriage

When a sibling gets married, the other siblings often feel like the sibling bond has been dissolved. They may feel they have lost something that will never be regained. An 18-year-old young man, for example, had a brother who got married while they were both at college. The younger brother felt sad and rejected, as if he had lost his older brother forever. His brother was now a married man preoccupied with responsibilities. As the older brother bought a house and started having children, the younger brother felt even more unimportant and like they were now worlds apart.

As siblings marry, keep in mind the following:

  • The wedding can be very stressful and can cause many hurt feelings between siblings. Some siblings may feel like they are being left behind. If you're the sibling getting married, be sensitive to what your brothers and sisters are experiencing. Your relationship with them is going to be different, and this can be a difficult change to deal with.
  • Weddings can be difficult for an older, unmarried sibling who would like to be married. He or she might feel resentful and emotional. The sibling getting married should be sensitive to this situation and tolerant of volatile emotions.

Becoming more established

As siblings get older and more established in their own lives, it's easy to drift apart. Even if you do everything you can to stay close, a certain amount of distancing is inevitable. The demands of a spouse, children, education, career, a home, money problems, troubled teenagers and many other realities of life can put sibling relationships on the backburner. All these factors also can increase competition between siblings as they compare how their adult lives are going. Below are suggestions to keep the competition in check.

  • Don't compare the looks and qualities of your spouse to the looks and qualities of your sibling's spouse.
  • Avoid comparing yours or your spouse's occupation to that of your siblings or your sibling's spouse.
  • Don't respond to siblings' attempts to hook you into competing.
  • Develop your own standard of success, then focus on that instead of your sibling's standard. When you stop comparing yourself to your siblings' measuring stick, you will eventually feel proud of your own accomplishments.
  • Don't compete over the number of children each of you has|whether who has more or who has less.

Aging parents

As your parents age, you may find new conflict arising between you and your brothers and sisters - or old conflict in new forms, especially if you're sharing caregiving responsibilities. Stacey Matzkevich, a licensed clinical social worker, suggests the following preventive measures to keep sibling rivalries from flaring up under the stress of this situation.

  • Make a deliberate effort to break free of old roles.
  • Allow shared caregiving to bring you closer instead of creating more stress. Give yourself and each other a break.
  • Be ready to say "I'm sorry" or "I forgive you" when needed.
  • When emotions become heated, take a break and cool down. Think before you act or speak.
  • If rivalry or other issues interfere with your work as caregivers, seek professional counseling.

Communication with Your Siblings

In any relationship a lack of communication skills causes problems. General communication principles that can improve siblings relationships include:

  • Avoid sarcasm. It makes it hard for your siblings to understand what you mean, and it often causes injury.
  • Stick to the facts.
  • Avoid interpreting behavior. You can never be sure why a sibling has done what she has done, so don't try to tell her what her behavior means.
  • Don't ask questions if you're not willing to hear the answer.
  • Don't wait too long to voice complaints. The longer you wait the more your resentment builds.
  • When you don't know what to say, be honest. If you feel awkward talking about something, let your sibling know.
  • Be a good listener. Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal behavior.
  • Ask questions that will help you gain understanding.

Making Friends with Siblings

No matter how old you are, it's never too late to improve a relationship with a sibling you've felt a rivalry with. Drs. William and Nada Hapworth and Joan Heilman (1993) offer the following suggestions to help you improve your sibling relationship:

  • Take responsibility for your part of the sibling rivalry. Do your part in trying to understand your siblings and their feelings toward you.
  • Don't waste your time envying other people's sibling relationships. Even relationships  that appear good on the outside most likely have conflict and baggage.
  • Your siblings are not children anymore. See them as adults and treat them accordingly.
  • Take the first step. Don't let pride or stubbornness stop you from improving your relationship. If you wait around for the other sibling to approach you, it may never happen.
  • Realize your siblings have experienced different things in life that make them different from you. Don't expect them to be like you or who you want them to be.
  • Clear up misunderstandings as quickly as possible. Holding on to resentment and misunderstandings only makes things worse.
  • Set boundaries for your relationship and respect those boundaries.
  • When you have a misunderstanding, don't assume your brother or sister is wrong. Placing blame is always destructive to relationships.
  • Show up at family functions. If you don't show up, siblings might think you're trying to avoid them or that you feel hostile toward them. Even if you don't feel like going, make the effort to go.
  • Don't wait for your siblings to make all of the contacts. Do your part to keep in touch.
  • Be there for your siblings during hard times. These times can help you draw closer together.
  • Make time to be with your siblings. A good relationship requires spending time together.

Staying Close as the Years Go By

Over the years, you can do many things to stay close to your siblings. Here are some ideas.

  • Create a family website. Designate one sibling to maintain the site. Invite family members to send attachments by e-mail or to mail photos and letters that can be scanned. Designate a space on the website where each family can post pictures and the latest news. While it's important to find joy in each other's accomplishments, avoid sharing things that could be seen as bragging.
  • Create a family newsletter. This is a good option for families less technologically inclined.
  • Don't gossip about siblings.
  • Find a common interest that you have with each sibling and participate in that interest together.

As you work to overcome rivalries and become friends with your siblings, it's important to stay close, be patient, and learn to communicate more effectively. If you can do these things and make needed changes in your own life, you will have taken valuable steps in overcoming your sibling rivalries. 

Written by Jeremy Boyle, Research Associate, edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

Cicirelli, V. G. (1995). Sibling relationships across the life span. New York: Plenum Press.

Goldenthal, P. (2002). Why can't we get along?: Healing adult sibling relationships. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Greer, J. & Myers, E. (1992). Adult sibling rivalry: Understanding the legacy of childhood. New York: Crown.

Hapworth, W., Hapworth, N. & Heilman, J. R. (1993). "Mom loved you best:" Sibling rivalry lasts a lifetime. New York: Penguin.

Matzkevich, S. (2002). Flashback to childhood: Family stress can rekindle good old sibling rivalry. Retrieved July 22, 2004.

McDermott, P. (1992). Sisters and brothers: Resolving your adult sibling relationships. Los Angeles: Lowell House.

Sandmaier, M. (1994). Original kin: The search for connection among adult sisters and brothers. New York: Penguin Books.

Schulman, G. L. (1999). Siblings revisited: Old conflicts and new opportunities in later life. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 25(4), 517-524.