You’ve just sat down to eat, and the phone rings. When you answer, your dining companion doesn’t have to ask who it is. The expression on your face gives away the fact that it’s your quarrelsome brother. You roll your eyes and think, Here we go again.
The topics may change — money, caring for parents, holiday plans, children — but the tension between you two is on an endless loop. You know that within two minutes you’ll be having the same old fight. And the answer to the question “What can I do differently to create a different outcome?” is nowhere to be found.
It’s Not the Person, It’s the Pattern
Changing your sibling relationship starts with recognizing that the problem isn’t one person’s fault. It takes two people to create the clash — though often there are others lurking in the shadows.
Once you decide you genuinely want to improve a relationship that is distant, contentious, agitated or empty, the first step is figuring out the underlying emotional and behavioral pattern. Some examples: Your brother provokes, you seek harmony. Your sister demands, you placate. One of you is a giver, the other a taker. One aggressively confronts, the other meekly submits.
These patterns are less linear than circular in nature: Each action elicits the same response. By the time you’ve reached midlife, trying to figure out “who started it” is fruitless. More important are these realizations: Blame is pointless, we’re in this together, and the work it takes to change is worth it.
When your sibling relationship becomes less bound by old patterns, more real and open to allowing the differences between you to peacefully exist, your lives will become richer and more meaningful. Authentic connections with people who share your history and mythologies, who speak your special family language and can laugh at common foibles, are worth their weight in gold.
(MORE: 8 Reasons Why Sisters Are Better Than Friends)
The Sources of Sibling Patterns
Many believe that altering a long-standing sibling relationship requires initial agreement from both parties. But in my 35 years of practice I have found that one determined person can initiate a process of change. The ideas I offer in this article are derived from a well-established practice called Family Therapy With One Person, and with mindful thought and careful action, you can implement them on your own.
This work begins with your deliberations and reflections, proceeds to taking action and ends with having conversations with your sibling(s). Conventional wisdom suggests that communication is required, but with this approach, it comes at the end of the process, not the beginning.
The second step to transforming your sibling relationship is acknowledging that you are stuck in a repetitive pattern. To gain insight, assume the role of “anthropologist.” However sibling dynamics are playing out today, they’re usually traceable to our families as a whole, so you need to review the intergenerational “culture” of brothers and sisters in the household in which you grew up.
Many factors influence how siblings will interact. And until we question them, these become our model of relationships. Often, without realizing it, parents assign certain roles to their children: the smart one, the funny one, the beautiful one, the ditzy one. Although the roles likely contain some elements of truth, nobody is that one-dimensional. Furthermore, these roles “imprint” us, and unconsciously we all start to manifest more and more of those qualities and interact with our siblings from these “childish” starting points.
As you dig deeper, you may discover, for example, that your mother and her younger sister had a relationship characterized by one demanding and the other appeasing — and that that’s exactly what happens between you and your sister. Or maybe your father and uncle were in business together and one was a methodical thinker and the other a dreamer, just like you and your brother today.
Birth Order and What to Do About It Now
Most family therapists acknowledge that birth order plays a role in sibling dynamics. The first-born is often the most responsible and the custodian of family traditions. Middle children usually need to figure out for themselves where and how they fit in. The youngest may have had more freedom and been encouraged to be carefree.
A last-born, for instance, may grow up feeling her parents trusted an older sibling with information and responsibilities, while viewing her as irresponsible. We “grow into” expected roles, and this can set up a state of permanent tension and conflict.
Changing these roles and the patterns they engender allows us to experiment with new behavior — parts of ourselves that have been submerged or sublimated in larger family expectations. As you begin to do so, your sibling will likely discover there is more room in the relationship for aspects he or she has kept hidden from you.
(MORE: Letting Go of Entrenched Family Roles)
9 Steps to Changing Sibling Dynamics
Once you’ve discerned your repetitious patterns, you can begin to act differently to break a vicious cycle and inaugurate a “virtuous” cycle. As in all our important relationships, siblings often get stuck waiting for the other person to change. It’s helpful to think about this as a nine-step process.
- Determine your repetitive sibling pattern. Pursuing-distancing? Demanding-placating? Achieving-failing? Caretaking-care receiving? Awareness of rigid patterns is the first step to deliberate change.
- Identify your place in the pattern. What do you do over and over again in response to your sibling? We’re all good at noting what other people do, but what’s your role in the interaction? This non-blaming recognition will help you to decide what you might change in your own behavior. Relationships improve when we stop trying to change others and take responsibility for our own actions and own a new role.
- Plan one small and manageable change. If your usual dynamic with your sister is that she always needs support and you always provide it, try sharing a struggle you’re having and ask for her help. Be specific about what she can do. Relationships are not transformed all at once, but rather with thoughtful steps.
- Anticipate “openings,” or moments in family life when change is more likely. These include times when other shifts are occurring, like the death of a parent, children leaving home, retirement, divorce or the birth of grandchildren. At such moments, people are more emotionally available and the dynamics more fluid.
- Consider who else will be impacted. Whenever we change a pattern with one person, other relatives are often affected. If you and your mother are especially close and you begin to confide in your brother for the first time, how might your mom respond? If you and your partner have long discussed your brother’s unavailability and he starts to show up, expect some changes in your primary relationship. Also, because we tend to play out these same roles in other situations (at work, with friends), you could experience some changes there too.
- Be prepared for positive and negative reactions. Moving out of a familiar pattern can be highly disconcerting to others. Don’t be surprised if your sibling’s initial response is to try to pull you back to the tried and true. If you have always been the helper in the relationship and now you are asking for assistance, watch out for a new call for help.
- Maintain your new position. Pay attention to the pull to familiar old anger and defensiveness — and resist. Think about ways to repeat your new place in the pattern, and implement them. If your older brother has always been demanding and you have always placated, your refusal of a demand will likely not be met with applause initially. Calmly let your brother know how he might help you — or himself.
- Watch for your sibling’s new responses. When you take a new and unexpected action in the relationship, observe what she begins to do differently. There will be more room for flexibility.
- Initiate a deeper conversation with your sibling. What would each really like going forward?
Resources for Finding an Experienced Family Therapist
- Ackerman Institute for the Family, New York City
- American Family Therapy Academy
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
- Multicultural Family Institute, New Jersey