adult siblings

Adult Siblings Over a Lifetime

Siblings play a central part in our lives. They know us in a way that no one else ever will. They were witnesses to our childhood and share our memories. And for millions of baby-boomers, relationships with siblings will last almost a century.

But, unfortunately, adult siblings frequently have relationships that are fraught with conflict or are alienated and distant. The relationship can be doubly painful if we experience it as a failure to meet some unspoken ideal about how we are supposed to feel.

Some sibling relationships that start out being adaptive in childhood become problematic because of the competing pulls of spouses or children. Others suffer because of jealousy and competition.

Since our sibling relationships are life-long, there are still opportunities for adult siblings to understand and work out some of the unresolved issues that are lurking in us from childhood. In order to take advantage of opportunities to develop a better relationship with siblings, you have to be able to embrace regret and overcome feeling mortified by your part in perpetuating the problem. The good news is you will most likely have an extended period of years to work out the kinks.

Our relationship with our siblings is not only our longest relationship it is also one of our most constant. In many families siblings offer each other an ongoing sense of continuity in the face of major life changes. When parents change jobs and move, children’s friendships and social ties are disrupted, schools and teachers change. It is not uncommon for children to go through three or four school systems, neighborhoods, and friendship groups before graduating from high school. Siblings are witnesses to life events that no one else knows about or can corroborate.

Siblings can offer each other an ongoing sense of family when things change irreparably. Currently 40 to 50% of first marriages end in divorce. The shock is often followed by remarriage, bringing children into new family systems. In addition to coping with the new stepparent, remarriage often involves relocation and adjusting to new stepsiblings and/or half-siblings. Although each child experiences his or her parents’ divorce and/or remarriage differently, siblings confront the same trauma and even if they are not able to comfort each other at the time, they always remain potential witnesses for each other.

Even as adults we may change jobs, get divorced, lose parents and outgrow friendships. Friends who attended your first wedding may no longer be friends when you have your second wedding. You may have lost touch with friends when you moved or changed jobs or got divorced. One constant person during such dislocations is often a brother or sister.

Caring for elderly parents can revive all the emotional “stuff” from childhood and reduce adult siblings to kids again. No matter how old we get, reality is filtered through yesterday’s memories. We can enter a family gathering as confident adults and regress to roles we thought we had let go of long ago—the baby, the peacekeeper, the avoider.

But the experience of caregiving may also strengthen sibling bonds in middle age by creating or reinforcing the sense that you can count on each other. You may be able to use the kind of teamwork you’ve always had or create the sense of a team you never had.

Caregiving can be an opportunity for forgiveness and repair. For example, Robert and his two younger sisters grew up distant from each other, each in their own bubble trying from an early age to deal with a dying father and an overburdened mother. But the experience of caring for their mother has made them more related to each other. Robert says: “The three of us have meetings now to talk about my mother. Before that we rarely saw each other and never got together with the three of us.”

Roberta Satow, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist in Manhattan and the author of Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents Even if They Didn’t Take Care of You (Tarcher, 2006 paperback). Please visit http://www.robertasatow.com/#psychotherapy-psychoanalysis