Adult sibling rivalry can be something we claim we are just used to. But it is stressful, and can lead to moments, particularly around holidays, of feeling very alienated, lonely, and let down.
So what can be done if we’ve been engaged in sibling rivalry for, well, forever? Andrea Blundell explores.
How to Handle Adult Sibling Rivalry
1. Stop making triangles.
Sibling rivalry is rarely just between siblings, but tends to be a vortex pulling in other family and extended family members.
Most often, it is a triangle that involves parents. This is hardly surprising, given that adult sibling rivalry often arises from a childhood where one child was preferred to the other, even if that dynamic changed over time.
An American study of over 700 adult children found that, “favouritism in childhood was more important than perceptions of current favouritism in predicting tension among adult siblings, regardless of age.”
It all serves to disguise the issues you and your sibling actually CAN control and deal with — uniquely the ones between just you two.
TRY THIS: The next time you communicate with your sibling notice your tendency to ‘triangle’ — pulling other people into the conversation. This looks like “Mother always said that..”, “My husband agrees that….”. “My children think that….”. Apologise and point out that you want to keep it between them and you. Or find a non-charged moment to talk about both of your tendencies to pull in others and what can be done about it.
2. See their perspective, if only for a moment.
This can admittedly be a challenge. Adult sibling rivalry is based on a decades long build-up, and we become entrenched in our views.
The point here is not to totally understand your sibling or forgive them, but to simply create a moment of air between your two battle points. (Space that can create a stepping stone for the next point that follows.)
TRY THIS: Take a tool from Gestalt therapy here. Get two chairs and sit on one facing the other, which now represents your sibling. Tell them all the things you’ve always wanted to say. Then switch chairs and take the perspective of your sibling and speak back. Just let words come, no matter how strange, without controlling or judging them. Keep switching chairs until you feel a sense of resolution or understanding.
3. Raise your acceptance game.
Adult sibling rivalry is often based on wanting something the other person isn’t giving us. This might be an apology for a past misdeed, or it might be as simple as wanting them to finally make an effort to understand you.
Wanting others to change in any way is often a losing battle, even if what you want is not a difficult request from your perspective. The person who suffers most is you. You feel constantly let down and angry. What would it feel like to accept that this situation might never actually change?
TRY THIS: Write a list of all the things you would like to be different between you and your sibling, even the small things. Take a deep breath. Are there any you can let go of right now? Cross them off. How good does it feel to just let it be as it is? How will it feel to one day rip the list up when you’ve accepted all?
4. Focus on your own ‘family’.
This does not mean if you are single you should heap pressure on yourself to find a partner and have children.
Family are people we feel closest too and can rely on. If your family is a circle of good friends, then focus on and invest more in this group.
TRY THIS: Are there other relationships in your life that could support you, but you are too distracted by sibling rivalry to invest in them? The next time you are tempted to call or email your toxic sibling to complain, pause, take a deep breath, and instead use the time to strengthen your relationship with that other person. Spend the next ten minutes arranging to get together and do something.
5. Show yourself some self-compassion.
Adult sibling rivalry is a funny thing. We can be righteous on the outside, sure we are the one wronged. But deep down, we can blame ourselves and feel mired in shame. It can go as far as running our childhoods through our heads, remembering all the times we said and did things we regret.
We might even know, on a certain level we never voice, we aren’t being completely fair. We are blaming our sibling for our own lack of self-esteem or feelings of failure. Or we are even causing conflict to avoid admitting that deep down, we don’t want a relationship, but find our sibling uninteresting.
Self-compassion is a recent buzzword in therapy circles with good reason. The more we focus on letting ourselves off the hook, the higher our self-esteem, and the easier it suddenly becomes to let others off the hook, too. It starts with you.
TRY THIS: Think of a friend who made a mistake recently in life. Write them a letter explaining why they should go easy on themselves. Take time to list their good qualities. Now change the name at the top of the letter to your own name and read it out loud to yourself. How does it feel to speak to yourself like a friend?
6. Don’t let the past obliterate your present.
We can’t change the past, any more than we can predict the future.
It’s in the present moment, and full acceptance of what that present moment actually is, that we find any sort of peace.
This doesn’t mean you have to forgive and forget (see the next point). And it definitely doesn’t mean you should skip out on processing past hurts.
It just means that you consciously choose to shift your perspective to the present more often, in order to not let the past blind you to good things going on right here and now.
TRY THIS: Try to imagine what it would be like if you were a total stranger meeting your sibling on the street. What might you notice? How differently might you perceive them if you had no past with them?
7. In fact forget about forgiveness.
A focus on forgiving someone usually leads to anything but. It places us on a pedestal and the other down below, as the terrible person who we, as a superior, forgive. And the other person usually reacts with anger, which we then say is unwarranted, ‘can’t you see I have forgiven you?’. When we haven’t. We have created a spectacle, that’s all. And they know it.
Real forgiveness tends to come naturally and in its own timing. We finally process our anger and sadness, and suddenly, one day, we realise we have just let go without even realising it.
Time to face and process your upset about adult sibling rivalry and find a way forward? We connect you with London’s top talk therapists. Or use our booking site to find a UK-wide registered counsellor or online therapist you can work with from any country.
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