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Oh Brother! (and Sister) — Dealing with Siblings
by Eric Maisel, PhD • San Francisco Bay Area, CA


fireworks in a light bulbThe pretty picture of brotherly and sisterly love is belied by what we see in real families. It is common for brothers and sisters to fall out, for early divisions to last a lifetime, for grudges to be held, and for public feuds to erupt. Sibling relations can be both fragile and volatile. Given these realities, what can you do to forge a good relationship with your siblings? Here are ten tips that may serve you:

  1. Accept that there is a dark side to sibling relationships. You may be envied for being favored, you may hate your siblings because they were better treated than you, you may hold some grudge over a minor matter — that favorite toy that got destroyed — or over a major one — for example, sexual abuse by a sibling. It isn’t possible to paste a pretty face onto sibling relationships and make believe that all is sweetness and light.

  2. See which old perceptions need updating. Maybe you’ve been resentful for decades that your younger sister was entitled, got away with murder, was praised when she didn’t deserve praise, and had too much handed to her. Even if that was all true, do you need to still see her that way now that she has two divorces behind her and serious health problems? Is it time to forgive her and update your mental picture of her? The issue is not whether you should condone that past unfairness but whether you may want to see her as she is today and not as she was when she was five or twelve or seventeen. She has been through the wringer now, too, hasn’t she?

  3. Be safe. It isn’t okay for one of your siblings to harm you physically or emotionally. If you’re living with your family of origin, go to your parents, even if you’re convinced that they won’t take your side. Don’t stop there. Go to a trusted adult and reveal what’s happening. Check out online resources that provide information, hotlines, reporting instructions, and other vital help. There are books that may help, among them Vernon Wiehe, What Parents Need to Know about Sibling Abuse: Breaking the Cycle of Violence; Richard J. Gelles and Suzanne K. Steinmetz, Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family; and John Caffaro and Allison Conn-Caffaro, Sibling Abuse Trauma: Assessment and Intervention Strategies for Children, Families and Adults. Violence against you is not okay!

  4. Have a conversation in a different setting. If it is important to you to forge a better relationship with a sibling, create a chance for that to happen. You may feel that you might be able to mend your fences with a brother or sister, but the opportunity for a real heart-to-heart chat never seems to arise, certainly not at the annual (painful) Thanksgiving dinner or in the midst of your everyday lives. You might suggest a weekend away or even just a walk by the lake or the ocean. Who knows: one honest, heartfelt conversation might completely alter your relationship for the better. Of course, it might not: but if your intuition tells you that such a conversation is worth the risk, make it happen.

  5. Be clear. Families often maintain secrets, create false scenarios, and perpetuate lies. You may be holding something against your brother or your sister that never actually happened or that happened quite differently from the way the family tells the story. Maybe you don’t know the whole story about what happened. Maybe your brother did act out — but not until your father started punishing him cruelly. Wouldn’t that second part of the story be important to know? Maybe your sister did have an abortion — but for reasons that put her actions in a very different light. Two questions that naturally arise are, “Who knows the truth?” and, “Will they tell it to you?” Is one family member the most objective and the most reliable truth teller? You might approach that person and finally get the real story.

  6. Detach from alliances. Ever since childhood you may have aligned with one sibling to gang up on another: perhaps you talked behind your older sister’s back and in other ways created an “us against her” alliance. Think about whether you want to perpetuate that alliance. Maybe you never really felt good about it; maybe you’ve secretly wanted to improve your relationship with the disavowed sibling for the longest time. Is this the moment to do exactly that?

  7. Close the distance. Maybe distance opened up over time between you and your sibling because one of you had children and the other didn’t, because of geographical distance, or for some other reason. Maybe the distance was there from the beginning, maybe because your sibling came into your life when a parent remarried or because he or she was half a generation younger or older than you. Maybe you’ve grown apart and have very different lives and very different interests. Do you want to close that distance a bit? Is this a moment for some new closeness? If it is, what would be required to make closing that gap happen?

  8. Let go of grudges. Was it really your brother’s fault that your parents gave him far more money for college than they gave you? (Wasn’t that really much more your parents’ doing?) Was it really your sister’s fault that she won awards that you coveted? (Should she really have performed poorly just for your sake?) Are there some grudges that it makes sense to let go of now, either for the sake of an improved relationship with your sibling or just to lighten your load of grudges?

  9. Envision a different relationship. How would you like to see your relationship with a brother or sister change and improve? If you can get a picture of that — maybe it involves spending more time together, maybe it has to do with sharing more deeply, maybe it requires that you take a strong stance with respect to some problematic behavior, like drinking or stealing — then think through what concrete actions you might take in the service of that vision. Once you name those actions, see if you want to muster your courage and enact them.

  10. Choose for today. How do you want to be with your brother or sister today? Maybe today is a day to avoid your brother. Maybe today is a day to reconcile. Maybe today is a day to have a simple, shared moment with your sister: a meal, a movie, or a board game. Maybe today is a day to have an important conversation. Maybe today is a day to be helpful, loving, and kind. Maybe today is a day to speak up, be brave, and say what you need to say.

Sibling relations can improve. Use these ten tips to improve yours!

Excerpted from the book Overcoming Your Difficult Family: 8 Skills for Thriving in Any Family Situation. ©2017 by Eric Maisel. Printed with permission from New World Library www.newworldlibrary.com.



Eric MaiselEric Maisel

Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than fifty books including his latest, Overcoming Your Difficult Family. He has been quoted or featured in a variety of publications, including Martha Stewart Living, Redbook, Glamour, Men’s Health, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Self. His website is www.EricMaisel.com.