Do you ever find yourself asking in frustration, “Why does my brother/sister always do that?!”
So many questions arise when it comes to sibling relationships. It goes far beyond simple power struggles, jealousy over who has the most or best toys, competition for attention, or resentment about perceived favoritism on the part of their parents. These may form some of the underpinnings of lingering hard feelings, but they are just the surface level of a much deeper set of challenges.
We all develop patterns of behaviors, habits and beliefs as we grow up and many of those remain with us as we mature. Even if you have changed, you may not feel that your siblings see the changes, and maybe your siblings have changed and you don’t see the changes in them either. This isn’t a judgment, it’s simply the fact that we often feel locked into our roles when we are with our families of origin. Getting our siblings (or sometimes even our parents) to see us differently is often a challenge in and of itself.
Today’s focus is on some practical ways of getting at these deeper drivers of sibling disharmony. My goal is that you see there’s hope for improving your own ability to navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of adult relationships with your siblings.
Improve your understanding by questioning your assumptions and beliefs
You can do this for yourself, by yourself, but it’s even more helpful if you can discuss these dynamics calmly with your siblings. If you are able to arrange that, it’s helpful to introduce right up front the concept of “filtering,” also known as selective processing.
When we have a strong belief that any given event can only be interpreted in one way – our way – that is a pretty good indication that we are selectively ignoring any and all information that could cast doubt on our viewpoint. We need to be willing to at least hear other possible interpretations, to “test” our beliefs about what is true versus what’s just a stubborn position that would get us something we want.
If you and your siblings can all make a commitment that you will each “own” that your experiences have all been filtered through your own particular set of lenses, and look for the places where you can question your own beliefs, you’ll be able to make much more progress toward consensus. Take as a given that there is no “truth” (or very little that can be nailed down as a fact) – there is only each person’s experience, and what got created out of the combination of experiences.
Once you’ve agreed to the ground rule of trying to notice your own filters, the basic question to explore is, “What was our family life like for me, and for my siblings?”
Start at the beginning: what was your relationship like with each other growing up?
- Was there mutual respect, caring and communication or was there animosity, jealousy, and resentment?
- Was the negative part of your relationship out in the open? Or did everyone pretend it wasn’t there even though that was clearly not the case?
- Whose responsibility was it to manage disagreements among you? Was it a free-for-all, or did one person usually dictate how things would be handled?
- Has anything changed today as you have all become adults?
Now for the challenging part: What was your role among your siblings?
I am not asking these questions to stir the emotional pot, but to help you to gain clarity as to where you stand within your own thoughts and feelings about yourself and your role in the group. For example, most of us can quickly identify that we were assigned roles such as “the bully” versus “the victim,” or “the smart one” versus “the goof-off,” etc. – whether we agreed with those labels or not.
- How did you feel about your role, and those of your siblings?
- How did these dynamics lock into place your relationships with your counterparts in those roles?
- What did you assume things were like for your siblings?
- How might you now see that your picture of their experience could have been off-base or at least incomplete?
Looking at these things objectively, and if possible discussing them without rancor, may create a space for asking that new compromises be considered, and that some things be handled differently, now that you are all adults.
When we open up our awareness to things we couldn’t see before about our siblings’ points of view, their behavior starts to make much more sense. And when it makes more sense to us, we are better able respond with compassion, and even forgiveness. We can let some things slide, look past them at what our desired outcome is in that situation, and reach agreement where before there were only standoffs.