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The psychology behind fraught sibling relationships and how to heal them

BY Victoria Stokes

16th May 2023 Life

The psychology behind fraught sibling relationships and how to heal them

Siblings are supposed to be our closest allies, but for some, the relationship seems impossible. We talk to a clinical psychologist about the reason for this, and how to fix it

Here’s a question: Have you got a brother or sister who simply rubs you up the wrong way, and no matter what you do, the two of you just can’t seem to get along? Maybe they badmouth you to the rest of the family or seem to criticise you at every turn. Well, if you answered yes, you’re certainly not alone. 

Research suggests that one in two adults still fight with their brothers and sisters, and 43 per cent believe the tension with their siblings heightens every year. What’s more, it’s not just petty arguments and friendly competition; but intense, decades-long conflicts that can cause lasting tension, division and stress. 

Summary of sibling rivalries


Troubled sibling relationships can take many forms, according to psychologist Gurpreet Kaur

Whether it’s persistent squabbles or total estrangement, chartered clinical psychologist Gurpreet Kaur, says fractured sibling relationships take many forms. “Conflict can manifest through competitive behaviours; belittling achievements, viewpoints, desires, or actions; intruding on personal boundaries and intentionally provoking siblings to anger them or create a ‘they started it’ scenario,” she surmises. 

Clashing celebrity siblings  

Popular culture offers up plenty of examples. Just look at Prince William and Prince Harry, who are rumoured to be feuding, or Oasis band members Noel and Liam Gallagher, who reportedly can’t bear to be in the same room as one another. 

"Kaur says sibling rivalry goes right back to your childhood and is symptomatic of the attachments you form at a young age"

Ever wondered why we often have the most fractious relationships with the people we’re supposed to care about most? Kaur says sibling rivalry goes right back to your childhood and is symptomatic of the attachments you form at a young age. 

The psychology behind sibling rivalry


Most often, fractuous sibling relationships relate back to how we were treated as children

“It boils down to competition for parental attention,” Kaur explains. “This can be exacerbated if siblings feel threatened by or jealous of each other’s relationships with their parents, especially if they perceive favouritism or unequal treatment.” 

"If you competed with your siblings for attention or resources as a child, you’ll probably encounter these same tensions as an adult"

These complicated dynamics tend to play out in adulthood because we form a sense of identity as children. “As a child grows, they are developing a sense of who they are based on how others treat them,” Kaur explains. “A secure sense of self comes from a loving, secure, predictable environment and an anxious sense of self comes when children seek excessive reassurance.” 

In other words? If you competed with your siblings for attention or resources as a child, you’ll probably encounter these same tensions as an adult. 

Other factors 

But there are other factors at play too, like differing worldviews and having little in common with your siblings. These differences often allow rivalry to fester and grow, perhaps because there’s an expectation that you and your siblings should be more alike. 

After all, one of the biggest difficulties with sibling conflict is that it’s assumed you’ll be close with your brothers and sisters: you’re supposed to have a tight bond; an inherent closeness. When this isn’t the case, the tension can feel more pronounced and further cement the resentment you feel towards your family foe

"A sibling can act as a mirror for all the things you don’t like about yourself"

On the other hand, sometimes the problem is that you’re simply too alike. A sibling can act as a mirror for all the things you don’t like about yourself. Maybe you’ve always hated how introverted you are or disliked how critical you are of others; when you see these same traits in a brother or sister, you’re more likely to take it out on them than you are yourself. 

Healing the divide


It's best to try and repear the relationship when you are both calm and honest

So, one thing is clear: sibling relationships are complicated. What can you do if sibling rivalry is getting you down? The good news: it’s often possible to heal the divide. 

Kaur says the first—and most important—step is thinking about why you want to resolve these long-standing issues. “Knowing your "why" keeps you focussed on repairing the relationship rather than falling back on old patterns,” she explains. “It acts as a compass for new interactions with your sibling and can set the tone for how you communicate with each other in the future.” 

When you get a chance to chat, Kaur says you should broach the conversation in an open, honest, and non-confrontational way. She suggests thinking about the topics you want to discuss beforehand. 

“You’re not going to be able to cover everything in one go, so think about one to three points you want to discuss,” she advises. 

Be forewarned that your sibling may not be in the same place as you are. “Just because you have decided you want to repair the relationship, does not mean that your sibling will be as keen,” Kaur points. “Reaching out may lead to rejection and your attempts at communication may be thwarted, but having a strong sense of why you’re doing this will help you keep going.” 

If you and your sibling decide that you want to work on things, Kaur says it’s important to remember there is no right or wrong. 

Listen to perspectives 

You might want your sibling to take accountability for their actions or apologise for the pain they’ve caused you in the past, but Kaur says this takes time, and may not happen at all. Tempering your expectations for the relationship and being able to listen to each other’s perspectives is crucial. 

And if it all feels like a little too much to cope with on your own? Consider seeking the support of a therapist who, together or separately, can help you understand why you feel and act the way you do. 

Complex, contentious, strained. A fractured sibling relationship can take its toll, but with some empathy and understanding, and plenty of patience, in time your sibling could become more friend than foe.

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