Anyone with a sibling can tell plenty of stories about the time their brother or sister got the better room in the house, a bigger share of dessert, or extra affection from Mom and Dad.
As we age, though, that rivalry typically simmers down, and often settles into a lifelong friendship.
But not always. “I know of one case where two sisters stopped talking,” recounts Geoffrey Greif, PhD, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and co-author of Adult Sibling Relationships. “They shared a two-story house, one family on each floor, and they couldn’t stand each other.”
While that may be an extreme case of antipathy, having a poor relationship with a brother or sister is hardly uncommon. In a Oakland University research study,over a third of 18-to 65-year olds described their relationship with their sibling as apathetic or downright hostile.
That’s unfortunate. Odds are, your longest relationship will be with a sibling; at age 70, the vast majority of us will still have a living brother or sister. If your parents need care as they age, your siblings may be able to share that burden. And if the rift between you makes family gatherings uncomfortable, you could be missing out on enjoyable moments with loved ones.
By practicing the tactics below, you can turn down the heat on the tension—and prevent yourselves from throwing cold water on family events.
Let the little things slide
Whether it’s a twice-divorced brother who resents your healthy marriage or your irritation that your sister has an enormous income, adult sibling rivalry is often rooted in envy, says Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.
If you’re the object of this envy, try to recognize that your sibling is likely struggling with her self-esteem, and don’t take it personally. “Recognize the insecurity for what it is and be willing to take the ‘one down’ position if it minimizes sibling drama,” Degges-White says.
And if the shoe’s on the other foot, try to remember that your siblings’ accomplishments or status have nothing to do with your own. In fact, says Degges-White, they may be happy enough in their own lives that they don’t see you as a rival at all. So, don’t create a competition where there isn’t one.
Train your parents
Parental favoritism, imagined or real, is a major predictor of strain in sibling relationships, says Grief. But while little kids are known for squabbling over who gets more time with their parents, some studies have found that favoritism actually happens more with adult children than young ones.
Why? A parent may identify strongly with a certain sibling after they’ve grown, or prefer one child’s partner over another. Geography often plays into it, says Greif, especially as parents age and families spread out. The favorite may live closer or visit more frequently, or be a more attentive caregiver.
As the favorite, your can speak up about your siblings’ good qualities, and don’t allow your parents to put them down. If your closeness stems from proximity, Facetime and Skype your siblings in for discussions about things like vacations and even doctor’s appointments, says Michelle Riba, MD, MS, a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at University of Michigan and Past President of the American Psychiatric Association.
And if you’re not the obvious favorite? Don’t let a parent’s preference interrupt what could be a good relationship with your brother or sister, says Greif. Understand, too, that parental favoritism may stem from their personal history or factors beyond your control—it may have nothing to do with you at all.
Knowing that, he says, “can begin to help you separate emotionally a little bit from what is going on.”
Acknowledge the divide
All too often, bitter feelings between siblings takes the form of passive-aggressive comments or sarcasm.
Most of the time, however, it’s better to get your feelings out into the open. Send your sib a friendly text or email asking to have a chat.
Even if the invitation is rebuffed, says Degges-White, you’ll likely get something out of the attempt.
“Sometimes just making the offer to explore things further can help you heal,” she says, “And to feel that you’ve done all that you can do to change the situation.”
If you do sit down to talk, keep in mind your goal isn’t winning. It’s understanding what’s driving the conflict, says Riba, and finding solutions that work for both of you.
Remember that you may interpret events in your shared history differently from your sibling—and you can’t change what’s already happened.
“Let go of resentment or grievances that are rooted in the past,”
Degges-White says. “Focus on building healthier relationships with your siblings in the present.”
Practice purposeful avoidance
What if you’ve tried to heal the rift and it’s not happening? Then switch your focus to tolerance. After all, there are bound to be plenty of family events—weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, graduations—where you have to see each other.
So plan ahead. Can you be placed at a different table? Come and go on different days? Anticipate comments that might set off your resentment, and answers you could give that would diffuse the tension. The easiest way to end an argument, notes Degges-White, is to refuse to enter it in the first place.
If you have children of your own, keep in mind that you’re modeling on their behalf. After all, they’re likely to mimic your behavior when they relate to their own brothers or sisters. “What kind of family narrative do you want to write for your kids?” says Grief.
Finally, remember that as the years move on, the dynamic between you and your siblings is likely to change. Parental illness and death often bring grown children together, and “no one can predict how they are going to handle it,” says Degges-White.
You may even grow closer. “You may need to take a sort of a breather from some people for a while, but usually people like to be reunited,” says Riba. “That’s been my experience.”