How to Deal With Sibling Rivalry?

03 Nov 2018
POSTED BY Y Magazine

Why do siblings stop speaking? Gemma Harrison reports on why shared history can often end in tears, and how estrangement can be averted.



Warring siblings are nothing new. Resentment and jealousy can often result in antipathy, and sometimes permanent estrangement.

Be it the Gallagher brothers of Oasis, Madonna and her brother Christopher Ciccone, or Kim and Rob Kardashian, examples abound to make us think: “What happened there?”.

But it’s more common than you think, according to U.S. clinical psychologist Dr. John Duffy. 

He says: “It happens all the time in families. Typically, it’s just the result of a real close relationship and there’s some misunderstanding that draws you apart.

“But often it’s not based on truth, or fact, it’s based on emotion.”

One friend of mine, Jonathan* has not spoken to his sister for two years. He cared for their widowed father for a year before he passed away from cancer.

He says: “I was able to do it and got in a home help to assist Dad in washing and getting dressed. But whenever my sister came, she could only ever criticise about how untidy the living room was or what I was giving him for dinner or whatever.

“I accept that she had a home of her own and a young child to look after but I would have appreciated it if she had come the occasional weekend to give me a break.

“She never did, and a year after Dad’s funeral, which I organised, she later accused me of bullying him in his final months, which was completely untrue. I had to get him up in the morning and motivate him to make the most of what time he had left but that isn’t bullying.”

Jonathan’s elder sister did not apologise for the remark, and he has not spoken to her since. But more importantly, he is not keen to speak to her anytime soon.

“I miss the contact with her youngest child, who is my niece, obviously; but I don’t miss the lack of respect, the recriminations, implicit criticism in remarks over how I’m living and so on. Even at Christmas, there were always the barbed remarks and the ‘fat’ jokes, as I used to be quite big, but they just get a bit tedious after a while. Who needs it?”

“I’m sad about it. But we only ever got on providing she got her way. Now that Dad is gone, we don’t need to be in contact and I’m actually relieved in some ways.”

But perhaps Jonathan could save the relationship if he wants to. Dr. Duffy reckons that, often, a conversation or two can save the impasse.

He says:  “It’s brutal. There’s this massive loss and grief affiliated with it. All along there’s this prolonged sense of unfinished business.

“To bridge the gap, it’s important to have a conversation. It means swallowing your pride and being ready to tell the other person what they mean to you and say, ‘Here’s what has happened, and let’s see if we can’t work through this’.”

Another U.S. clinical psychologist, Dr Eileen Kennedy-Moore is the author of What About Me? 12 Ways To Get Your Parents’ Attention Without Hitting Your Sister. Here, she offers a few tips on how to make things up with your sibling:


1) Be sympathetic


Try and appreciate his or her situation and try and see their point of view. There may be reasons that could explain their behaviour.


2) Be diplomatic


Venting about all the reasons why you’re upset won’t work. Instead try to explain calmly why your sibling’s behaviour has upset you, and ask them what they think.


3) Be realistic


Ending the relationship is an irretrievable step you might regret. Instead, why not arrange to restrict your meetings to occasional family events or an annual celebration?

However, if you really can’t reach common ground, sometimes there’s no alternative, as Dr Kennedy-Moore says: “Like the end of a marriage, sibling estrangement is always sad even when it brings relief. It’s not what anyone hoped for but sometimes it’s the wise and necessary choice.”

*Name changed to protect identity

Sources:  Next Avenue, drjohnduffy.com


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