Brothers and sisters are one of the few people in our lives who will be with us the longest. They are there when we were children and they will likely be around when we’re old and gray. Nearly 80% of us have a sibling, and for many of us, the bonds—whether good or bad—formed in childhood follow us into adulthood. “We often think there’s a demarcation line between our childhood and adulthood,” said Dr. David Hawkins, director of The Marriage Recovery Center in Seattle. “But sibling relationships don’t stop when we leave home.”
Growing up, I didn’t have a close relationship with my five siblings, mostly because of the age gaps between us: three of my siblings are 11, 13 and 15 years old than me, while the two others (twins) are 14 years younger than me. That meant there weren't a lot of shared families memories from childhood adventures and scrapes. In adulthood, I’ve had to make new connections with my three sisters and two brothers. It hasn’t always been easy, but the rewards of having a closer relationship with them has been well worth the effort.
“There is a unique camaraderie that comes with having that shared history,” said Sarah Phillips in Richmond, Virginia, of her two sisters, three stepsisters and one stepbrother. “It’s irreplaceable and often supersedes differences and difficulties. I’ve come to see sibling relationships as the natural ‘school’ God uses to teach us what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ.”
But for many families, navigating the waters of adult relationships with brothers and sisters can be tricky. For example, stories of brothers and sisters fighting over wills and having unresolved childhood hurts that harm present-day interactions abound. “We have a nation of siblings who have regretted not staying close,” said Hawkins, himself one of five siblings.
Sarah* in Denver described her current relationship with her three brothers as “loving but a bit distant. While we enjoy each other, it doesn’t seem like we’ve known how to adapt and accept the very different individuals we’ve all become.”
Whether you have a fantastic relationship with your siblings as adults or one that needs improvement, here are 10 ways brothers and sisters can help their interactions with one another flourish, instead of flounder.
1. Recognize the importance of siblings. Our brothers and sisters are an integral part of our lives, and even if our interactions as adults hasn’t been healthy, they still had a great impact on making us who we are today. “These are our first relationships—and thus some of the most formative—of our lives,” said Sarah. “No one will know or understand like our siblings where we came from and what shaped us.”
“Your siblings know the real you,” added Ginny Hamlin in Corona, California. “There isn’t anything quite as comforting as being loved for who you are versus who someone thinks you should be or could be.”
2. Acknowledge God’s hand in your family. Whether you grew up in a Christian home or not, accepting that God placed you in your family with your siblings is very important. “God placed us all in families, so these relationships should always be more important than non-family relationships,” said Lynellen Perry in Dumfries, Virginia. “Christian families are to model God’s relationship with humans, much as the church should. So when non-Christians see siblings that treat each other badly, why would they want to know Christ?”
3. Keep the bond strong. Like any relationship, we must take care to nurture ours with siblings. Frequent interactions will help to keep us connected with our brothers and sisters. “My sister and I come from a broken home where there was a lot of trauma, both emotional and physical,” said Hamlin. “There is a bond my sister and I share of having survived that environment that no one else can relate to. Today, we can talk about anything and for that, I’m thankful.”
4. Embrace the differences. Some characteristics will never change, and while we should expect growth—and experience it ourselves!—we shouldn’t presume a total personality change is going to happen, either. “There are some dynamics that might never change,” said Phillips. “I am a sensitive Type B who might normally take offense at too much straight talk from a stranger, but my little sister rarely offends me with her plain speaking because I am so familiar with her style of communication and ways of thinking.”
5. Accentuate the positive. We all have our good qualities and our not-so-good ones. When thinking of your brothers and sisters, focus on the positive, rather than the negative. “Look for the positives in them, even if it means going back to early childhood to find them,” said Jennifer* in Tampa, Florida. Phillips added that she describes her relationship with siblings overall as “positive, supportive and enduring.”
6. Work together. As I’ve found out recently, having brothers and sisters can lighten the load when helping your parents in their twilight years. “As our parents grow older, I’m thankful to know my brother and sister will be available to help make decisions and absorb changes as they come,” said Elizabeth Spencer in Battle Creek, Michigan.
7. Address any problems. When a sibling relationship needs repairing, we shouldn’t hesitate to do the work necessary to get things back on the right track. “Be willing to communicate with your sibling, even though it may be painful,” said Tricia* in Fort Myers, Florida, who has gone through some difficult times with her two brothers and twin sister. “Be willing to try to understand your sibling’s point of view. Realize that even though you have been wronged, there is probably some wrong on your side as well.”
Spencer added, “Honest conversation in a safe environment with clear ground rules may be productive. Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds but it can provide perspective.”
8. Learn to let go. Sometimes, we hold on to things that happened in childhood and allow those hurts to color our current relationships with our brothers and sisters. “I think humans tend to hold on to hurts from childhood no matter who inflicted them,” said Perry, who has one younger sister. “Non-family members can be ignored when we’re adults, but family relationships usually keep us in contact with those who hurt us. That means the wounds keep getting irritated unless we take action to intentionally forgive.”
“It seems to me that human nature is to recall the painful, difficult, heartbreaking or otherwise negative experiences more than the pleasant and uplifting ones,” said Jennifer. “We must choose to dwell on the good but it is easier to recall and dwell on the bad.”
Living out our forgiveness can be hard but it’s vital to moving past the offense and continuing the relationship. “God teaches us grace and forgiveness, but even then, you have to remind yourself that the past is over because insecurity and hurt feelings can run so deep,” said Cheryl Hammond of Fairfax, Virginia.
9. Know when to walk away. Sometimes, a sibling is on a self-destructive path that might require stepping away for a time or limiting contact. “For years, I tried to engage in a relationship with my brother, who had a gambling addiction. However, even though my efforts at communicating with him were out of kindness, he often responded by lashing out at me,” said Tricia. “The relationship became emotionally abusive, and I’ve had to limit my communication with him to birthdays and Christmas—but have left the door open for him to contact me if he desires.”
“There are times when you might need to put a sibling relationship on hold,” pointed out Hammond, who had to step back for a time while her older brother wrestled with substance abuse and paranoia. “He wasn’t safe to be around, but we made sure we were there for his wife and children.”
10. Hope for the best. Don’t completely write off your siblings even if you have to take a break from contact for a season. “Friends and other relationships will come and go, but siblings have a deeper bond, even if they don’t actually like each other,” said Spencer.
Our faith presses us to shower them with kindness, rather than retaliate for wrongdoings. “Continue to pray for God to intervene in their life, but keep the door open for reconciliation,” said Jennifer. “Keep realistic expectations and hold out hope that with work and prayer, some sort of relationship can be established.”
Overall, we should keep foremost in our mind the call to love one another, especially those God has put in our lives as part of our family. “Be intentional about having a relationship with your brothers and sisters,” said Hawkins. “When all is said and done, you want to be able to say you did all you could to have a healthy relationship with them.”
* Some sources requested only first names be used to avoid harming their sibling relationships.
Sarah Hamaker is a certified Leadership Parenting Coach™ through the Rosemond Leadership Parenting Coach Institute. She’s also a freelance writer and editor, and her book, Ending Sibling Rivalry: Moving Your Kids From War to Peace, is available now. Sarah lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her online at www.parentcoachnova.com for more ways to get along with your adult siblings.
Publication date: June 18, 2015