healthy adult sibling relationships

Maintaining strong sibling bonds through adulthood

Transitioning from a kid to a real grownup is hard for most of us. During these delicate years, the idea of who we are is in a constant state of change.  Some of us have had the opportunity to share our journeys with others. Anyone who is lucky or unlucky enough, to have a sibling knows that the bond that siblings share is one of great complexity. More than an old friend, your brother, sister or nibling (gender-neutral term) has most likely been there from the beginning and is most likely to be there until the end. In fact, the American Journal of Psychology has established that sharing a close and healthy emotional bond with your sibling is associated with higher life satisfaction.

It’s most often with our siblings that we share our longest-running relationships; it’s, therefore, important that the way we relate with them consistently evolve. The same person that you always forced to dress up as the Robin, to your Batman, has now become a fully-fledged adult. Understanding and respecting that shift will help you grow a friendship through adulthood.

The significance of birth order in healthy adult sibling relationships

Oh, so you’re a middle child, I could tell right away! Or, OMG, he’s such a “textbook only child! Although these kinds of vague statements sound like psychobabble they are somewhat supported. Research by the American Psychology Association shows that our birth order has lasting effects on who we become. Something as mindless, as the way we play with our brothers and sisters, is, in fact, the foundation of our conflict resolution skills. Our sibling relationships are testing grounds for all relationships to follow.

We adopt certain roles early on in our development. First-borns tend to be more cautious. They prefer structure and are often perfectionists. They like order and are inclined to be controlling. First-borns have proven to be the most traditionally successful of the siblings. Second-borns have a tendency to be the peacemakers of the family. They tend to be more adaptive. Second-borns are often the more independent of the siblings. Third-borns are often quite social, though they have a tendency to be manipulative. They traditionally seek a lot of attention.

Growing out of your roles and into healthy adult sibling relationships

Dynamics amongst siblings are hard things to change. Traditionally, older siblings are essentially an extension of the parental unit. When we’ve been tasked with being our sibling’s caretakers since birth, it is understandable that we would want to protect them from themselves even as an adult. It is important to take a step back and accept that our younger brothers or sisters are responsible for their own actions. This does not mean we should stop being nurturing or offering guidance,  but we can refrain from inflicting potentially harmful judgments on them. Too often we take familial relationships for granted and relate to those who are kin, in ways that we would never relate to a friend. Taking a step back allows for a reevaluation of our interactions.

Being able to rely on a sibling for support is a part of the fabric of a healthy adult sibling relationship; however, we need to be sure to not exploit our sib’s generosity. As much as we may feel like we are profiting from this sort of parasitic dynamic, we can in fact be impeding our own progress. We can arrest our own development by not being independent. If we do, our sib may feel responsible for us and will find it difficult to relate to us as adults. Respect is earned, and it starts with us respecting ourselves. Embracing our independence and relating to our siblings as equals, means reciprocating their support. Establishing clear mutual boundaries allows us to grow and develop strong sibling friendships without any resentment.

Resolving conflicts amongst healthy adult sibling relationships

As much as we love our siblings, they are not a part of our chosen, but rather our given family. We didn’t meet them at school or bond over sneakers. We don’t listen to the same band or vote for the same political party; we are simply members of the same family. So all things considered, it is reasonable to assume that we will not always get along. It is important to understand that not every argument we have with our brother, sister or nibling will end in a perfect resolution. We should consider the float response the next time our disagreement comes to a head. Instead of fight (challenge) or flight (disengage); float allows us to accept what is. Our sibling is not someone whose values have to be in line with ours; they are not our partners. Work on solving solvable problems or creating “best” if, not perfect solutions, says American psychological researcher and clinician, Dr. John Gottman. We might never agree but we can respect each other’s opinions, no matter how fundamentally different they may be. And that’s ok.

Our lives are not static. We will change jobs, move homes, and have people pass in and out. For most, the one constant is family. Establishing sound familial relationships, just like any other valuable asset, takes awareness, willingness and practice.