With the holidays arriving, the notion of “family” and getting together is in the spotlight. Adult siblings help to drive these family gatherings. Most of them will be happy occasions but for those that are avoiding siblings completely or are stressed about the prospect of being in the same room as their brothers or sisters, you are not alone.
Sibling relationships are the longest we are likely to have in our lives. Despite their centrality, they have been understudied in the mental health field until fairly recently. Psychoanalyst Joyce Edward believes the attention to the Oedipal complex in both therapy and training caused sibling issues to be pushed to the back burner. Regardless of the origins, the foci on parent-child and partner relationships have overshadowed sibling relationships. But with a growing divorce rate among the middle-age population in the U.S., siblings may be the loved ones we come to rely on for emotional and instrumental support. They certainly are the ones we turn to when aging and dying parents need assistance. If we have been ignoring or just abiding them, we have to team with them to make health care and estate decisions if those have been left unresolved. Working to effectively connect with siblings, if the relationships are strained, can be vitally important to the family’s present and future.
Victor Cicirelli,Victoria Hilkevitch Bedford, Scott Myers, Karen Gail Lewis, Jeffrey Kluger, and others have all provided important research, clinical wisdom, and personal stories that can assist in understanding how these relationships evolve across the lifespan and how they can be approached if repair is needed. Their work informed the research that Michael Woolley and I undertook for our book, Adult Sibling Relationships (Columbia University Press, 2016). Based on more than 260 interviews and questionnaire returns from people 40-years-old and older, we wanted to draw a picture of typical sibling struggles so that mental health practitioners could be better equipped to be of assistance.
To understand how these relationships operate, we used the lenses of Family Systems Theory (Murray Bowen), Structural Family Therapy (Salvador Minuchin), and Experiential Therapy (Virginia Satir). These leaders in family therapy called our attention to how intergenerational patterns are passed down, to how boundaries are drawn between siblings, and to how families communicate and strive for growth. These theories helped us bring context to what we heard from those who were interviewed.
While the majority of the siblings in our sample (and in other research) have affectionate relationships or ones marked by mixed feelings, a handful described sibling relationships that are severely strained or non-existent. For example, 11%, when asked their level of agreement with the statement, “We trust each other now,” disagreed. Ten percent, when asked to describe their sibling, used negative terms. Nine percent said they were never close with at least one of their siblings. Ten percent had no email, face-to-face, or telephone contact with at least one sibling. Many of the same people gave these responses.
One example of how, to use a Bowen term, a cut-off (non-existent relationship) develops comes from Ron. In his late 50s, he has had limited or no contact with both his older sister (three years his senior) and brother (six years his senior) for over 40 years. He is the main caregiver to his parents. As he reported, “I felt like an only child from a fairly young age, maybe as young as twelve, because my sister was not around much, and it was never a close relationship. In fact, it was a pretty difficult relationship. My older brother had a very troubled life emotionally from the day he was born…My parents became so concerned (about his behavior) that they kept a vigilant watch toward my brother. He couldn’t be in the same room as my sister and me.” By adolescence he felt he had no siblings and this pattern has continued.
Helping a sibling to deal with distrust, negative feelings, or an historical lack of closeness may depend, in part, on the amount of contact they have. If there is contact and it is strained, a more active approach focusing on boundaries, clear communication, and an intellectual understanding of family history may be helpful. If there is no contact and none is sought with a sibling, as in Ron’s situation, a focus on family history may be most useful to try and stanch having the pattern of cut-offs continued in future generations. Ron would need to consider what messages about closeness with others he is handing down to his son.
Want to improve the relationship? Consider, as Bowen would, where the history of the strain originated (parents? aunts and uncles? grandparents?) and whether an intergenerational pattern could be addressed. Consider where the boundaries of the relationship could be re-drawn (as per Minuchin) to re-build the sub-systems. And consider, as would Satir, how clearer communication could flow in the future that would help build the self-esteem of all family members and make get togethers more pleasurable.