Dealing With Sibling Relationships As You Age

“Siblings give us sustenance and support,” says family therapist Geoffrey L. Greif, “but they can also cause us great pain.”

Greif is something of an expert on siblings. In fact, the University of Maryland School of Social Work professor recently co-authored a book on the subject called, appropriately enough, Adult Sibling Relationships.

Written with Michael E. Woolley, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and director of research at the Maryland Longitudinal Data System Center, the book is designed for both family therapists and the lay public; it’s based on in-depth interviews and surveys with 262 people between the ages of 40 and 90 who had at least one living sibling.

Sibling relationships have a profound effect on our lives. “Our relationships with our siblings are, generally speaking, the longest relationships we have. They are with us throughout life,” says Greif.

In conducting their research, Greif and Woolley observed that most sibling relationships are, in general, a mixture of affection, ambivalence, and ambiguity–which is to say that if you think your relationship with your siblings is complicated, you’re probably right.

According to the authors, only 8 percent of those interviewed said they were never close to their siblings and only 22 percent said they had always been close. That leaves 70 percent whose relationships can’t be characterized one way or another. And that’s OK, according to Greif. “Mixed feelings are normal. You don’t have to force a Norman Rockwell-type relationship.”

Sibling relationships can, in fact, ebb and flow through the years.

Iris Ingber recalls that she wasn’t particularly close with her two brothers, Carl and Lee Oppenheim, as kids. “We had our arguments,” she says, though Carl’s recollections are that “it was just kid stuff…there was no lasting animosity.”

Today, the three adults share a sibling bond – all in their 60s— they socialize on a regular basis (it helps, they say, that they all like their siblings’ spouses), and share responsibility of caring for their 94-year-old father, though both Lee and Carl note that Iris, the elder of the three, “takes the lead.”

“Occasionally I disagree with a decision,” says Lee, “but we always talk about it and work it out.”

The adult siblings say that they wouldn’t describe themselves as “best friends,” but do consider their relationships with each other important. “My brother and sister are good people,” says Carl. They’re people I like to know.”

Though Ingber and her brothers have found ways to share the responsibility of caring for their father, the caretaking of parents can be a major stressor between siblings, according to Greif. Old issues resurface–“Mom always loved you best!”—while new ones can arise as well, from how to care for parents, who takes care of what, who’s doing more than the others, how the parents’ estate is to be divided. For some siblings the caretaking and subsequent death of their parents can draw them together; for others, their parents were the glue holding them together and when they’re gone, the relationship doesn’t always survive—at least, not in its previous state.

Sometimes too much has happened between siblings to put their relationship back on track. One woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, regrets that her relationships with her brothers ranges from distant to virtually nonexistent.

The beginning of the rupture began in childhood. The three siblings had another brother who died in an accident. That event understandably had a serious effect on the family, and when her surviving brothers left home, she essentially became an only child and their relationship was never the same.

Now 55, she has reached out to her brothers through the years but with little success. Will she try again? She doesn’t think so. “I’m tired of being an afterthought or being ignored,” she says. “I’ve chased a relationship before…why would things be any different now?”

Fortunately, according to Greif and Woolley, most sibling relationships–even those with a complicated history–can be strengthened or even rebuilt, and they offer these tips:

Communicate: Share your feelings with your siblings, and be open to what they have to say as well.

Forgive: It’s not always easy (and in some cases may be impossible) but to strengthen a relationship, let go of painful incidents and words from the past.

Put in the time: Relationships take work. Make the initial effort and then continue the investment to “reignite the relationship and keep it alive.”

Try new experiences: “New activities help people break out of their old ways of relating and allow them to take a different view of one another,” according to the authors.

Accept the ambivalence and ambiguity: Sibling relationships are not always easy, but “the interdependence, reliance on, and connection to our siblings last a lifetime,” write Greif and Woolley.

“The journey we take with them may not always be easy but if we know they are riding along with us, we feel safer, the bumps along the way may be smaller, and the ride a lot more fun.”

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