The Real Reason For Troubled Sibling Relationships

Real-life is always different than theory. One way that this notion is illustrated is in my psychotherapy practice, where I’ve noticed a number of patterns that I never read about in any book. One such pattern I see recurring with frightening regularity is that of deeply troubled sibling relationships.

If you think about the kind of person who comes for therapy, it puts things into perspective. My patients often come from backgrounds in which they witnessed or experienced neglect, abuse, manipulation or deprivation.

The family unit was often highly dysfunctional, with one or both parents behaving in hurtful ways toward the other parent and/or the children.

When siblings are raised in environments where there’s conflict, chaos, rejection or a lack of protection, it has an enormous impact on how they end up relating to each-other in adult life.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of patients whose siblings have behaved in strange or hostile ways toward them. For example, I remember Betty*, whose sibling stole her inheritance; Darlene, whose sibling did everything they could to sabotage her career, and Joyce, whose sibling talked the man she liked out of a relationship with her.

I remember Olivia, whose adult sibling was pathologically jealous of her and who competed with her for parental attention; Dinah, whose sibling contemptuously rejected her and Noelle, who’d been threatened by her sibling and was afraid of them becoming violent with her.

Psychologically, it all makes sense. Children who share a chaotic, abusive or neglectful home environment may form close attachments to one-another or more often, they can develop an “every man for himself” coping strategy.

Experiencing or witnessing trauma can cause a child to shut down emotionally, and this can distance them from the other children in the family. Instead of feeling connected to their siblings, they can become alienated from one-another. I remember Lena, who had four siblings, but who was estranged from all of them.

Parents are supposed to model loving, caring relationships to their children, so if they’re mean to each-other or hurtful or neglectful toward their kids, the children can adopt these ways of interacting.

There are many reasons for children growing up to become disconnected from their siblings. Dysfunctional parents often overtly favour one child over another, and the siblings are then set up to compete for parental attention. Equally, when parents are withholding of nurturing, siblings often become rivals for the few crumbs of affection they’re hoping that their parents might dole out.

Children who grow up in dysfunctional families often feel hurt, rage and frustration toward their parents but most of the time, they’re too afraid to express these feelings directly toward Mom or Dad.

It’s a lot easier to take out their feelings on their siblings, because the stakes are a lot less high, so instead of bonding together out of a painful shared experience, they often end up venting their hurt and anger at each-other.

Sometimes, one sibling wants to be close to the other, but their sister or brother rejects them. It can be out of jealousy — siblings from troubled homes often mistakenly perceive that the other child got “more” of the love, attention and care than they themselves did. This certainly happened with my patient Estelle.

In the case of Greta, her parents forced her to be the surrogate mother for her two younger siblings, and this created a life-long tension between them as adults. Her siblings expected too much of her, and also resented the power she’d had over them in her parental role, even though it was never what she’d wanted.

Many children who grow up in troubled homes hold on to the hope that maybe, one day, they’ll finally be able to get some love and positive attention from their parents. They’d prefer to reject their siblings rather than risk alienating their parents’ affections and missing out on the possibility of some belated, but better-late-than-never love. My patient Sasha’s sibling did this with her, but never got what they hoped for from their folks.

Sadly, these individuals would do better to connect with their sisters and brothers, as the likelihood of hurtful parents turning around and suddenly becoming capable of loving their adult children is slim to none.

I’ve seen far too many of these troubled sibling relationships, and the tragedy of these is that, having such a unique and powerful shared experience, and knowing exactly what the other person went through, siblings could potentially have a very close bond and be there to support each-other, going forward. Far too often, the opposite occurs.

If you have a troubled relationship with one or more of your siblings, perhaps these thoughts can put your own experience into perspective.

P.S. This notion is now part of our popular culture. The new James Bond movie, Spectre just opened. At the center of this film, there’s a sibling relationship that’s about as troubled as you could ever imagine, and then some.

*In order to protect the privacy of my patients, all the names and some identifying details have been changed in this post.

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