Many people wish they were closer with their brothers and sisters, especially as their own children grow up and leave home, or as they find themselves responsible for the care of their parents. The reasons for distance between siblings often go back to childhood, when a series of fights, or unresolved unfairness, came between kids. Those old stories do not have to be re-enacted for life. Here are five things you can do to make your sibling relationships easier. You may never be best friends, but very little in this life is perfect.
1. Tear up the old family script. In most families, each of the brothers and sisters takes on a role, and that becomes habitual. Some of these roles depend on genetics (talent, looks), others on family dynamics (the good one, the rebel), and some depend on personality (the grind, Miss Popularity). As adults, these roles are irrelevant to our lives and we shed them—except with our siblings. So get out of the rut: if you were the bossy one, ask your sib for advice and listen to it. If the “angel” in the family gets into trouble, don’t gloat–offer to help. Cutting the labels from your sibling suits is surprisingly effective in bringing you closer.
2. Make a deal with your brothers and sisters that what happened in the nursery stays in the nursery. Many people focus on the things that occurred between them when they were all children. Hitting, biting, stealing from each other, tattling—these unfortunately are hallmarks of childish behavior. They happen in every family, but sometimes the hurt from these experiences lasts a lifetime. If you can retell yourself these stories from the point of view of the adult you are, two things may happen: you will forgive your older brother for pushing you around, and maybe you’ll forgive yourself for being so mean to your sister. Anger and guilt are emotions that keep us apart. Reframe them, and you’ll breathe more easily.
3. When your brother or sister really annoys you, put the shoe on the other foot. How many times have you thought, “I can’t believe we come from the same family”? There are good reasons why you’re different, but that doesn’t matter when you see things so differently and it bothers you. If you’re a working mom with kids in daycare, and you think your stay-at-home sister is wasting her talents and education, remember that she may be wondering how on earth you could turn your kids over to strangers. If you think your brother throws his money around, while you are conscientious about finances, imagine that he might find you cheap. Coming from the same family doesn’t require sharing values or life styles as adults. So it helps to accept their quirks, and hope (without insisting) that they will accept yours.
4. No behind-the-back conversations. You can duck a lot of misunderstandings and hurt feelings if you avoid talking about your brothers and sisters behind their backs. Don’t let your parents vent to you about any of them and stay away from gossip about them. It might feel good in the short run to be the confidante but it will eventually complicate your relationships. If something happens to one sibling that another needs to know about, it’s best to put them in touch with each other, instead of being the messenger and getting between them. It’s just smart behavior to stop playing “telephone” with, and about, our siblings.
5. Sibling relationships come in every shape and size, from very close to occasional communications. Every relationship takes work, we know, from friendship to marriage, to parenting. Just because you’re born into the same family doesn’t mean you have to be perfect brothers and sisters. Of course there are siblings who are one another’s best friends, but most people go back and forth between loving their siblings and being hurt or annoyed by them. Just like the real world. Don’t worry if your relationship doesn’t appear to be as good as your friend’s does. Sometimes we idealize or envy people because we don’t know what is really going on behind closed doors. The funny thing about feeling better about a relationship is that, when you do, it becomes less tense and tends to improve.
As we get older, there are fewer people to talk to about the past, and fewer people to remember our childhood pets and the songs we sang on the endless car rides, so it’s worth a little effort to improve our sibling relationships. Besides, we need others more than we did when we were younger, and we’re wise enough to understand the value of relationships we once took so lightly. It’s worth a try, and the results may be surprisingly good.
Published with permission from Jane Isay, author of “Mom Still Likes You Best: The Unfinished Business Between Siblings” (Doubleday).