Fighting With a Sibling? Psychologists’ Tips for Making It Work or Cutting Ties

Dr. Serenity
April 13, 2023

Sibling Rivalry: Experts Discuss Making Up or Cutting Ties Amid Royal Drama

The ongoing sibling drama between Prince William and Prince Harry has highlighted the issue of adult sibling conflicts. While their situation is unique, sibling rivalry is common. Psychologists weigh in on whether it’s worth making up or cutting ties altogether.


Adult Sibling Conflict: Common Causes and Effects

Adult sibling conflict is a common issue that affects many families. According to Kalley Hartman, clinical director at Ocean Recovery in Newport Beach, California, this type of conflict can be caused by different opinions, hostile behavior, and competing interests. Disagreements over finances, parenting styles, or major life decisions can also be contributing factors. Additionally, unresolved issues from childhood, different personalities or values, power struggles, and family secrets can create feelings of betrayal or mistrust among siblings.

Sibling rivalry, which is often seen during childhood, can also contribute to adult sibling conflict. It can involve jealousy of attention or privileges given to a brother or sister. Perceptions of parental favoritism or preferential treatment can lead to long-lasting impacts on sibling relationships. Even in non-estranged sibling relationships, research shows that approximately 30 percent of relationships can be defined as “apathetic,” with an additional 6 percent described as “hostile.”

Sibling relationships are complex, and the structure and roles within the family unit often remain unchanged regardless of the age of those involved. A survey conducted in 2019 by Karl Pillemer, PhD, from Cornell University, found that roughly 9 percent of family estrangement can be attributed to sibling relationship fallout.

Life circumstances and changing viewpoints or roles can lead to challenging sibling dynamics, says Heidi Horsley, PsyD, executive director of the Open to Hope Foundation and an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York City. Marriage, new additions to the family, death of a loved one, moving, career advancement, or experiencing a major setback can all contribute to sibling conflicts.

Resolving adult sibling conflict can reduce stress and tension within the family unit. Additionally, positive sibling relationships, free from bullying or abuse, offer health benefits across the life span. Supportive sibling relationships have been found to bolster mental health in youth, assist with goal progress in early adulthood, and reduce the incidence of loneliness in older adults.


Tips for Working Through Sibling Conflict

Sibling conflict can be incredibly difficult to navigate, particularly when dealing with a long-standing relationship that has gone sour. However, the deep connection between siblings and the desire to salvage the relationship can make it worth the effort. In some cases, there may be a legal obligation or familial expectation to work through the conflict. Here are some tips for working through sibling conflict:

  1. Set Boundaries

Establishing rules of respectful behavior and communication that all siblings must adhere to can help to create a safe and productive environment for resolving the conflict. This can include things like avoiding personal attacks or insults, using “I” statements to express emotions, and agreeing to disagree when necessary.

  1. Discuss Expectations

An honest conversation about expectations for how the sibling relationship will function going forward can help to set realistic goals for reconciliation. This can include topics such as how often to communicate, whether or not to discuss certain topics, and what types of behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable.

  1. Practice Active Listening

It’s important to make sure that you are really hearing and understanding each other’s perspectives without judgment or interruption. Active listening can help to validate the other person’s feelings and help you to understand where they are coming from.

  1. Focus on Common Goals

Identifying shared goals, values, or interests that can bring you together rather than apart can help to create a sense of shared purpose and unity. This can include things like supporting each other’s career goals, working together on family events, or bonding over shared hobbies or interests.

  1. Apologize When Necessary

If an apology is appropriate, accept responsibility for your actions and genuinely apologize. This can be a powerful way to demonstrate your commitment to the relationship and to show that you are willing to take responsibility for your role in the conflict.

  1. Attend Therapy Sessions

Working with a family therapist can help siblings resolve conflicts and learn to communicate more effectively. A therapist can provide a neutral perspective and help to guide the conversation in a productive and healthy direction.

Working through sibling conflict can be a difficult and emotional process, but with patience, compassion, and a willingness to communicate, it is possible to repair even the most damaged relationships.


Knowing When to Cut Ties with Siblings

When siblings have a strained relationship, it can be difficult to determine if reconciliation is worth the effort or if it’s best to cut ties. In some cases, cutting ties may be the better option, especially when it comes to protecting one’s own mental, physical, or emotional health.

Toxic Behaviors that Call for Cutting Ties

According to Hartman, cutting ties is often necessary when there are persistent emotional manipulation, physical abuse, or other unhealthy or destructive behaviors that are causing harm. Toxic relationships can be identified by controlling behavior, gaslighting, physical violence or assault, emotional blackmail, and constant criticism or verbal abuse.

Making the Decision

Deciding to cut ties with a sibling can be a difficult and emotional decision. It’s important to remember that prioritizing your own well-being is a valid reason to do so. “You don’t need to have a sibling in your life forever just because you were raised with them,” says Horsley. “If they’re not good for you emotionally, psychologically, or physically, it’s better to have a chosen family with friends, rather than sibling relationships chosen for us — especially if nothing’s going to change in that sibling dynamic.”

Advice for Cutting Ties

If you do decide to cut ties, it’s important to set boundaries and stick to them. This may involve ending communication, blocking them on social media, or avoiding family events where they’ll be present. Remember that it’s okay to seek support from friends or a therapist during this difficult time.

Seeking Professional Help

If the decision to cut ties with a sibling is causing significant emotional distress, seeking the help of a therapist can be beneficial. A therapist can provide guidance on how to move forward and cope with the emotions that come with ending a relationship with a family member.


Navigating the Grief of Sibling Conflict

Sibling conflict can be a difficult and painful experience, and in some cases, it can lead to cutting ties entirely. Such situations can cause feelings of grief, which can be challenging to manage. In this article, we will discuss how to cope with these feelings and how to find closure.

Disenfranchised Loss and Sibling Conflict

When a sibling conflict arises, it can be an example of disenfranchised or ambiguous loss, according to Horsley. This is a type of loss that isn’t typically acknowledged or validated by others. While people are generally supportive when a sibling dies, the response to a relationship that ends because of unresolved issues is often different. People may judge you or suggest that you should have worked harder to reconcile.

Dealing with Grief

If you’re feeling sad, angry, or hurt because of a sibling conflict, Hartman suggests several coping strategies:

  • Acknowledge your feelings and give yourself space to experience them.
  • Seek support from non-judgmental friends, family, or professional counselors.
  • Allow yourself time to process the loss.
  • Find healthy ways to cope, such as exercising or trying new hobbies.
  • Look for ways to find closure on your own terms, such as having a final conversation with your sibling or writing a letter.

Pause, Reconciliation, or Cutting Ties?

According to Horsley, saying that a relationship is over forever can be challenging. People change, and their beliefs, values, relationships, and life situations change as well. The circumstances that led to a break in a relationship may resolve in the future.

Hartman notes that there may be opportunities for future reconciliation if both parties are willing to take responsibility for their part in the breakdown of the relationship and commit to making changes that foster healthy communication and respect. However, it’s up to you to determine whether it’s worth it.

Cutting Ties for Your Own Health

If a sibling relationship becomes toxic and poses a threat to your mental, physical, or emotional health, Hartman advises that cutting ties may be the best path forward. Toxic relationships may involve controlling behavior, gaslighting, physical violence, emotional blackmail, and constant criticism or verbal abuse. Although other family or friends may express dismay or judgment if you choose to cut ties with a sibling, it’s essential to prioritize your own well-being. You don’t need to keep a sibling in your life just because you were raised together.

Final Thoughts

Sibling conflict can be painful, but there are ways to cope with the grief that comes with it. Acknowledging your feelings, seeking support, finding healthy ways to cope, and looking for closure can help you move forward. Additionally, while there may be opportunities for future reconciliation, it’s crucial to prioritize your own mental and emotional health.

Author Dr. Serenity

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