Actionable strategies to mend and strengthen adult sibling relationships.

    by Cynthia Baum-Baicker Ph.D.


    • Relationships with siblings often change throughout one’s life.
    • In sibling conflict, current wounds may very well echo, or bring forward, those from years past.
    • There are questions to ask that can be helpful in navigating difficult conflict-laden conversations.

    There are no relationships in life like those we have with our siblings. Siblings are the witnesses to our lives. And in the case of biological siblings, we share 50 percent of our genes. In childhood, the sibling relationship serves many purposes, and siblings’ function in our development cannot be underestimated.

    With siblings, we can learn the consequences of conflict and the benefits of commitment and loyalty. The relationship offers a sense of constancy in an ever-uncertain world, a sense of mutual identification in shared acts of loving towards—and anger against—parents, as well as a shared identity as members of the same family.

    While a biological sibling holds the title “sibling” forever, relationships with siblings can change throughout one’s life. Brought back into closer contact in middle age, for example, many siblings’ old patterns and rivalries are re-ignited. Family dynamics may become re-energized with the need to care for older parents or deal with extended family gatherings.

    And given now-independent lives, there often exists a more complex context in which to resolve discord.

    Greg Altman/Pixabay

    Source: Greg Altman/Pixabay

    If you are experiencing conflict with a sibling, here are some questions to ask yourself. Perhaps your sibling, too, wants to work towards a resolution. In that case, sharing these same questions with your sibling(s) and using your answers ought to help navigate your dialogue.

    Can You End Sibling Rivalry in Adulthood?

    • In the best of reasonably possible worlds, can you paint a picture of what a realistic relationship between you and your sibling might look like?
    • What are some personal strengths that you have that you can utilize to help resolve the conflict? What are some of your weaknesses that may get in the way?
    • And What are some of your specific memories of sibling solidarity (times of fun, support, fond memories)?
    • How do you see yourself as similar and or different from your sibling?
    • What do you remember about your parents’ relationships with siblings? Are you and your sibling having similar dynamics?
    • Parents often define their children (the smart one, the creative one, the lazy one) and treat offspring differently (celebrated, ignored, favored, singled out) How did you see yourself? How did you see your sibling? Are either of you harboring lingering perceived injustices?
    • Your understanding of the current sibling conflict. How do you think your sibling perceives it?

    There may be a curvilinear relationship between age and feelings of closeness, contact, and meaningfulness. Relations that are close during early and middle childhood can decrease during adolescence and early adulthood, as siblings go their own way to establish identity and their own families. While these relationships may stabilize during middle adulthood, that doesn’t mean they are free from conflict.

    In sibling conflict, current wounds may very well echo, or bring forward, those from years past. Given the possibility of unleashing seething resentments, many may shy away from confronting the strife and distance themselves, or even cut ties with their sibling.

    It takes courage to confront conflict with a sibling, but if resolved, there is a connection that can be maintained or re-established, which is a rich bond like no other.

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