The Often-Overlooked Bond Between Adult Siblings

Posted April 9, 2024 by Cristina Vrech

Cristina Vrech - Individual and couples therapist

Cristina Vrech

Founder and Director - Individual & Couple Therapist, Corporate Services

Co-founder and director of Leone Centre, Cristina Vrech, has 20+ years of experience in working and supporting people, 14+ years of extensive experience as a therapist and offers valuable knowledge to individuals and couples. Prior to being a therapist, she worked in the financial sector.

Cristina takes a down-to-earth and direct approach across the landscapes of relationships, communication, stress, infidelity, confidence, loneliness, addiction, separation and divorce, IVF, and anxiety.

Offering Online Counselling and in person counselling.

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When considering lasting connections, we often celebrate and admire enduring relationships between romantic partners and lifelong friends. We may think of how lucky couples are on their golden anniversaries, or cherish stories of people who met on the first day of primary school and are still good friends in their 60s. But there is a unique and profound relationship which is often underrepresented: the bond between siblings. We often know our siblings from our first days on earth to our last, and they shape us in ways we can never be fully conscious of.

Three adult siblings (two sisters and one brother) taking a selfie. Image by freepik

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How our sibling relationships shape us

In the UK, around 80% of people have at least one sibling. Our siblings are sometimes our first friends, rivals or confidants, and are often our longest-lasting relationships. They witness us through our formative life stages, acting as stable, enduring presences through life’s ups and downs.

“That shared perspective is one of the facets that makes sibling relationships so valuable for child development,” – Laurie Kramer, PhD, clinical psychologist, Northeastern University

In our childhood years, we often share a great deal with siblings, from parents and potentially a last name, home or bedroom, to formative experiences – whether enriching or challenging. For most children, time spent in the company of siblings surpasses any others during out-of-school time. And yet we are each entirely our own, autonomous person. No two siblings, even twins or triplets, navigate their upbringing with identical outlooks and experiences.

The significance of sibling bonds

During our formative childhood years, siblings, particularly those who are fairly close in age, are our first relationships where we live with people similar in age and outlook to us, preceding flatmates, friends or partners. We learn from our siblings, and they learn from us.

Karen Gail Lewis, PhD, whose career as a sibling therapist spans 50 years, explores in her book Sibling Therapy how deeply this reciprocal learning process between siblings shapes each individual’s life and identity. She highlights how early behaviour between siblings, whether this features rivalries and hurts or care and compassion, frequently serves as a blueprint in later relationships and interactions.

Lewis states that a myriad of issues in adulthood can be traced to sibling relationships, describing them as “a laboratory for all subsequent relationships.”

The patterns established in sibling relationships have been noted to affect us into adulthood. A child who felt intimidated by their sibling may grow into an adult who is particularly sensitive to perceived aggressive behaviour in others. Similarly, a child who is domineering over their siblings may find themselves replicating this behaviour in their later friendships and relationships. Therapy can play a key role in discovering how these past roles have impacted other relationships, and helping to create balance in interpersonal dynamics.

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The transition from children to adult siblings

Adult sibling relationships can be incredibly complicated. Many adult siblings have a deep, enduring love and loyalty for one another, coexisting with a legacy of rivalries and jealousies. Therapy and counselling can be invaluable for adults seeking to navigate these multifaceted dynamics and improve their relationships with their siblings.

Numerous factors can impact our sibling relationships, including roles established in childhood, parental treatment, the environment we grew up in and formative experiences. For instance, expectations placed on the oldest child to take responsibility for the well-being of younger siblings can extend into adulthood. This can then foster feelings of resentment; the older sibling may feel burdened by the strain of their efforts and the younger may feel their autonomy as an adult is being overlooked.

Positive sibling relationships have been shown to significantly benefit emotional and mental health. However, strained relationships with adult siblings can have adverse effects. In the Harvard Study of Adult Development, researchers found that participants who had less supportive relationships with their siblings had a greater likelihood of major depression and substance use.

The value of enduring bonds between adult siblings

Our siblings connect us to who we once were. No matter the transformations we have undergone throughout our lives, our siblings create a bridge between us and our earlier selves, and this can be both grounding and beneficial. By maintaining connections with the people and experiences which shaped us, we can remain aware of how we became who we are today. This can help us nurture a greater level of self-awareness and insight.

Sibling relationships often act as a unique arena for the exploration and adaption of behaviours. Given the enduring nature of sibling relationships, we may find more freedom to explore different ways of interacting, with a lower likelihood of the relationship ending. This may occur unconsciously, but it offers ongoing learning which can enhance our other ties and interactions. This is not to advocate for intentionally experimenting with behaviour when interacting with adult siblings, but rather to acknowledge that there are valuable lessons to be gained.

front view two brothers sitting on a couch. Image by freepik

Siblings are also more likely to be honest with us. Unlike friends and partners who may try to shield our feelings, responding with tact or politeness, siblings are likelier to offer straightforward feedback and tell us when we are being unreasonable or unfair. While this level of candour is not guaranteed, due to the relative stability of sibling relationships, they are more likely to tell us what we need to hear.

Adult siblings can also enrich our lives by having children and giving us nieces and nephews. This allows us to form meaningful relationships with children without the full-time responsibility of parenthood. We can become mentors, tutors and role models outside of, or in addition to, the role of parent. Similarly, when we expand our own families, we can also make our siblings aunts and uncles. This new dynamic can increase family closeness, and open up new avenues for confiding and sharing experiences – and responsibilities, such as babysitting.

Enhancing adult sibling bonds

• Dedicate time to spend together. Make a point of scheduling and prioritising this. Like all meaningful relationships, nurturing our ties with adult siblings requires ongoing effort and dedication. Building new memories can help to heal childhood wounds and rivalries, propelling the relationship into the present and laying the foundation for renewed connection.

• Have meaningful conversations. Venturing beyond small talk may feel awkward, especially if you and your sibling don’t interact much as adults. However, discussing more substantial topics is vital for closeness. There’s no need to delve straight into your deep-rooted childhood issues straight away, but opening up about experiences and asking for advice about work, relationships and life can help you to rekindle the authentic sibling bond.

• Be emotionally present, consistent and authentic. Our siblings, perhaps more than anyone else, can tell when we’re not being true to ourselves. By embracing honesty in our interactions, communicating honestly, apologising sincerely, being grateful when necessary, and bringing our true selves to the interaction, we can enhance our relationship with our siblings in a way which can make it feel safe to replicate with others.

• Seek support. Should you and your sibling encounter challenges in creating the close, loving relationship you seek, seeking professional guidance can be incredibly beneficial. It is a common misconception that relationship counselling is exclusively for romantic couples. A skilled and certified relationship or individual therapist can help you to see where both past and present behaviours are influencing your sibling relationship and how to move forward. Family counselling can also be incredibly valuable if you are seeking to improve relationships with more than one sibling, or if you would like to include your parents in the process.

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two women sitting playing with leaves park Large

Sibling relationships are both complex and profoundly impactful. Whilst readjusting to adult dynamics can feel daunting, our sibling bonds are a testament to our growth. These connections can link our past to our present, and provide avenues for exploration and growth.