Sibling Ties: Navigating the Lifelong Bond as Adults

sibling relationships

Sibling relationships are considered one of the longest-lasting relationships in your life. They are formed since childhood, even before one sibling becomes aware of the other, and last well into adulthood and old age.

Research suggests that the importance of sibling relationships fluctuates over the lifespan, with older adults being very advantaged, especially in terms of promoting well-being and combating loneliness. The existence of siblings is also beneficial in supporting socioemotional adjustments and self-esteem during teenage years and transitioning to roles and responsibilities in more complex contexts during early adulthood. For individuals with disabilities, siblings can provide caregiving support.

One of the characteristics of a sibling relationship that distinguishes it from other family ties is the combination of hierarchical and egalitarian interactions. Unlike unequal power relations between parents and children, sibling relationships may show both inequality (due to gaps in age and individual development) and reciprocity and sharing, as seen in peer relationships. This makes the sibling dyad dynamics more interesting as power relations are rather relative and affected by various factors, such as gender composition in the dyad and parental favoritism

Sibling relationships in adulthood can become even trickier. You may have certain expectations of how the other person and the relationship should be, as you have been in each other’s lives for so long. This, in fact, may lead to conflicts and even estrangement because they feel like they are not understood or respected as a grown-up. To ensure that you can maintain and improve the ties with your siblings, there are several ways to navigate sibling relationships as adults.

Reevaluate sibling relationships

A sibling relationship is not constant over the years. It is expected to change along with the individual transition points, such as entering college and getting married, or life events like parental separation and death. 

You may observe a shift in interaction frequency with your siblings as you enter adulthood. Early literature suggests that siblings interact less often in early adulthood than in earlier years, continue the same frequency throughout middle adulthood, and increase their interaction in late adulthood. The same patterns may be seen in closeness and sibling rivalry.

Besides being open to changes in interactions, it is also important to recognize that your view of your siblings since childhood may need to change as you grow up, interact with more people, and experience life in general. As they enter adulthood, siblings need to reevaluate their relationships in a way that will balance each other’s independence and closeness. The key is in the relationship quality, which should remain positive, supportive, and respectful, regardless of the interaction frequency. 

Set healthy boundaries

One of the important steps for healthy adult sibling relationships is to have healthy boundaries. Sibling relationships in adulthood cannot remain the same as in childhood. Whether you feel your sibling is the same or a different person you grew up with, you need to align expectations with each other. This is where boundaries come into play in realizing healthy adult sibling relationships where siblings can still keep their closeness without invading each other’s privacy as adults, as opposed to codependent or toxic relationships. 

Boundaries should be communicated clearly and specifically and accompanied by consequences, which are not necessarily punishment for stepping out of line but reinforcement to maintain the positivity in your relationships.

Boundaries in adult sibling relationships may involve treating each other’s belongings and spaces, respecting each other’s principles and beliefs, and respecting each other’s time with other people (friends, partners, children). It can also come in the form of topics that you discuss with your siblings. A study found that adult siblings have taboo topics, such as intimacy, finances, and politics. In line with this finding, Stand Alone survey reveals a clash of values as one of the reasons for sibling estrangement. 

As siblings recognize their differences, such topics are avoided to keep the conversation and their relationship positive. Even further, it keeps them from taking extreme measures such as cutting off contact. This serves as a boundary that allows you to keep personal matters to yourself and avoid things that will make your sibling uncomfortable or strain your relationships. No matter how it looks, the boundary should cherish your individual differences and the important things you share as siblings.

Stay in touch

Sibling relationships in adulthood oftentimes mean long-distance relationships. As you grow apart physically, you may see your emotional closeness being affected as well. 

Studies found both positive and negative impacts of physical distance on sibling relationships. In some cases, it makes it difficult to maintain contact. In other cases, living apart reduces conflicts and strengthens bonds between siblings and appreciation of their interactions. Even though it is expected not to stay in touch as often with siblings as adults, it does not define every sibling relationship; there are always ways to do it differently and stay connected.

Making time to talk over the phone or meet up for dinner can be on top of everyone’s list, so you can stay in touch despite physical distance, competing demands, and other responsibilities. Following each other on social media, doing the same hobby, sharing exciting news, and sending congratulations messages are more ways to keep the relationship going. 

For siblings who are uncomfortable around each other due to past events or resentments, you may need to assess to what extent you can tolerate being in contact with each other and always be open to the idea of reconciliation. 

Regular contact is also necessary as it allows siblings to exchange support more. Even though siblings may not always provide as high a support as friends, their support is dismissible. This is because, despite living further away, emotional support between siblings increases, which is not found in support between friends. This again highlights the lifelong bond between siblings, which in many cases can’t be on par with friendships.

In conclusion

For some people, siblings are the first playmate they get to recognize and have fights with. For others, siblings can be lifetime friends they have taken for granted. Regardless, people may reap benefits from nurturing and maintaining positive relationships with siblings throughout their life. It is important to look back on sibling relationships as you grow older and find the balance that will allow you to stay in each other’s lives and support each other until the end.

If you would like to learn more about tending to siblings relationships, visit the Family Science Labs. The lab produces courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other learning materials based on research done by the Institute for Life Management Science. Check out the Family Science Labs today.

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