Sibling relationships are complicated – a source of struggles and conflicts, but also a vital prop of support. Anyone with brothers and/or sisters knows these relationships can be emotionally charged, for better or worse.
Not making the most of siblings is squandering a great interpersonal resource
Just think about it: Chances are you spent more of your childhood with your siblings than your parents or school friends. So yes, you know each other really well – and with that intimacy comes a unique emotional intensity.
Since no other life relationships involve a communal upbringing, or the same genes, it’s no wonder siblings have become one of the most fascinating and studied of all human relationships. As science writer Jeffrey Kluger wrote in The Sibling Effect, “To have siblings and not make the most of that resource is squandering one of the greatest interpersonal resources you’ll ever have.”
But if you do have a tricky relationship with your sibling(s), here are some tips on patching things up to make that journey through life together a little easier.
1. Identify a time to talk to them.
OK, so sometimes you need to talk seriously with your bro or sis – to confront them, get something off your chest, and delve into the darkest recesses of your relationship. But don’t just charge in there.
This can help break up the family tension
“To prepare for a meeting with a difficult sibling, make sure it is clearly time-framed before the meeting,” says life coach Carole Ann Rice. “It is also sometimes helpful to have an outsider at the meeting too, whether that be a friend or a partner. This can help to break up the tension and difficulty of a family atmosphere by changing the dynamic. Also, they are more likely to behave well in front of other people who aren’t in the family.
“You should sort it out one to one and not at a family party, gathering or in front of lots of people – especially if you’re drunk! It should be a private discussion and not aired in public or in front of other family bystanders.”
2. Forgive them.
If there’s one way to ensure a continued difficult relationship, it’s holding onto the past. “If you do have a resentment with your sibling, don’t bring it up all the time,” suggests Ann Rice.
Start building a relationship with your sibling in the present
“You should forgive your siblings for stuff they did when you were kids,” says Geoffrey Greif, author of Adult Sibling Relationships and professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “Try to get to know your siblings as they are today, be curious about their lives, what they do, what they like, think, feel. Do not assume you know them as they are today.”
In other words, whatever they’ve done, it’s time to let it go, look forward, and start building a relationship with them in the present.
3. Disassociate them from your parents.
Family issues stretch way beyond arguing with your brother and sister. Let’s face it, many of life’s problems somehow stem from your parents.
We all regress when get back together with our families
As the famous Phillip Larkin poem goes, “They f––– you up, your mom and dad”. But that’s no reason to take it out on your siblings. Even if it’s all too easy to do so.
“For folks who grew up in families with emotional struggles, work to separate your struggles with your siblings from your struggles with your parents,” advises Greif. “Especially if there is a history of conflicts and struggles, be aware of how we all regress when we get back with our families.”
4. Be tactful.
Words can be a powerful tool – or weapon. So if you’re trying to make peace and find common ground, choose your words carefully.
Be careful with language and they’re less likely to feel accused
The wrong words are a surefire way to exasperate any emotional situation, but the right words could smooth over a lifetime of sibling-based turmoil.
“Be reasonable and careful with the language you use. If you use ‘I feel’ or ‘I was upset’ rather than ‘you made me’, the other person will feel less like they are being accused, and it will be more of a discussion than an argument,” suggests Ann Rice
Good ways to reach common ground can be choosing only to engage on neutral topics, such as sport, football, fashion, or movies. Think about keeping it generic and keeping it light.
5. Meet on neutral ground.
If there have been big arguments in the family home, or other places with strong personal ties, move the discussion somewhere else.
“If possible try and meet your sibling outside of the family home,” advises Ann Rice. “Go for lunch, go for drinks, or an event together. This way there is less history around you and there is no parents or other family members to influence you or your actions.”
6. Accept that you may not be compatible.
Just because you’re related doesn’t mean you’re going to be friends. Make it workable and civil but remember you don’t have to be besties. Life isn’t some sort of sitcom where everyone gets along. Most people have dysfunctional families. Don’t feel bad. It’s normal.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t like them
Jenny talks about her own personal experience with her sister. “After cutting her off for a while,” Jenny says. “I accepted that if I met her as a stranger I would not pursue a friendship with her. She is really not my kind of person. We have nothing in common and very different views on life.”
“It’s important to remember that you didn’t choose the family, you don’t have to like them,” says Ann Rice. “It may be controversial, but you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t like them for whatever reason. You are human and so are they.”
7. Never reply in anger.
Jenny’s strategy is to try to keep the peace at all times. “We financially support our parents, but our messages [between us] are limited to birthdays etc,” she admits. “My strategy when I do have to see her or message her is to remain polite.
I’m polite with my sister but never share personal stuff
“When we used to acrimoniously message each other, I made sure to rant and rave to my husband offline before I answered her emails or texts. I never answered in anger, as much as I wanted to.
“Even when I emailed her to tell her that I didn’t want to deal with her anymore and needed a break, I made sure I was polite and careful what I said in writing. She has been known to twist messages especially to my mother and I’ve had to often show my mom the messages, so she can see the truth.
“Now I remain polite but don’t share much about my life at all. I don’t let her into my life, would never share personal stuff, so she has no reason to get involved or twist things to suit her agenda.”
8. Know when you need to step away.
Pick your battles and choose which hills you’re willing to die on. Not every sibling spat is worth an argument or family-wide drama. Sometimes it’s easier to leave things alone and get on with your life stress-free.
It’s hard to cut ties, especially with other family around
“Just because somebody is your sibling does not mean you have to accept abusive behavior from them,” says Jenny. “As you grow older, you start to evaluate everyone in your life and don’t want to waste time on people who do not contribute positively in some way.
“I used to tell my kids that if somebody made them feel bad about themselves, those people are not friends. Then I thought my sister made me feel this way, so she was not a friend. It is very hard to decide to cut ties, especially if you have other siblings or family around. In that case, just see them as an acquaintance and always be polite. You can manage to do that through family get-togethers and then walk away.”
9. Research help.
If you really want to make amends but don’t know how, read up on what to do. There’s plenty of help and advice out there on the thorny issues of family politics.
Hand them the olive branch and don’t be proud
After all, it’s something everybody goes through.
“Learning as much as you can about human relationships really helps,” admits Jasmin, who had a problematic relationship with her sister after the birth of her first child. “I read Families and How To Survive Them [co-authored by the psychiatrist and psychotherapist Robin Skynner and the comedian John Cleese] and Human Givens [by Joe Griffin].
“There are so many good self-help books about family dynamics and if it is something that you really want to improve or save, then read up on it and make the first step. Hand them the olive branch and don’t be too proud.”
10. Try therapy.
Millie, who has a troublesome relationship with her brother, says therapy is worthwhile.
“Therapy has revealed a lot of underlying hurt for us,” she reveals. “And the fact that our behaviors when threatened tend to aggravate the same sort of behavior in each other and create a vicious circle.
“It might not be effective in bringing about a reconciliation, but you can use therapy to create ground rules and negotiate from there.”