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Sibling Relations Can Change Over Time

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am the mother of two sons who do no speak to one another.  In my mid-70s, I hope that before I die, they reunite.  This riff has been going on for 10 years.  Do you have any suggestions on what I can do?  I am a very sad “aging” mother.  

Answer: My heart goes out to you.  Clearly there is no easy solution.

Lillian S. Hawthorne in her book “Sisters and Brothers: All Those Years” (VanderWyk & Burnham, 2003) writes that “sibling relationships in general are among the earliest and most lasting relationships in our lives, but they are also among the least understood and the most underestimated.”

The relationship between older siblings has attracted researchers and educators. According to the Aging Family Series Bulletin published by Ohio State University, five types of sibling relationships have been identified.

  • Intimacy: Based on mutual love, concern, understanding and empathy.
  • Congeniality: Embraces a strong friendship and regular contact.
  • Loyalty: Has less personal involvement yet is supportive in crises; contact is infrequent.
  • Apathy: Mutual lack of interest with minimal contact.
  • Hostility: Strong negative feelings of hostility and anger with no contact.

Unfortunately, your sons fit into the hostile relationship category, which one psychologist refers to as a family tragedy.

Yet, sibling relationships are not static and can change over time.  Sometimes a critical incident such as divorce, retirement, illness or death can initiate new contact between siblings.

Hawthorne notes, “There’s more that binds us together than breaks us apart.” Here are five common characteristics of sibling bonds:

Powerful: Siblings are connected by “genetic glue.”  We can have an ex-spouse or an ex-friend, but we cannot have an ex-sibling.

Ambivalent: We may want a feeling of “togetherness” with our sibling and still desire to be separate and independent.  We may want to be liked by a sibling and even want him or her to be like us.  And yet, we may prefer to be different and sometimes even better.

Lasting: Sibling relationships probably are the longest relationships we experience.  They are enduring and continue from the beginning to the end of our lives.

The relationship is both involuntary (we didn’t choose him or her) and voluntary (we can choose the contacts and connections).

Siblings are closest when they are children.  They share the same home, eat the same food and are exposed to similar experiences.  Siblings typically are our first friends, peers, role models and allies – and our first enemies.  These firsts often have an impact on the rest of our lives.

Parents have a profound influence on how siblings perceive one another.

The following parental comments may sound familiar:  Susie is the smart one; Linda is the quiet bookworm; Andy is the popular one; Carol never eats; Mark is the artist.  These labels and perceptions can shape how one sibling sees the other.  They may have nothing to do with reality, particularly reality in adulthood.

Here are some suggestions from Hawthorne’s book to enhance current relationships, to build a bridge with that brother or sister and to prevent the hostile – no contact — relationship:

  • Keep in touch on a regular basis by phone, E-mails, twitter or postcards.
  • Acknowledge and share life events, particularly milestones such as birthdays and anniversaries.
  • Remember special events or achievements of your sibling’s children and grandchildren
  • Make contact for no reason.
  • Be with them and support them in times of need and loss.
  • Don’t harp on old quarrels.
  • Express kind words, love, caring and affection.

Perhaps you can deliver the follow message to your sons.

As we enter the later years we have a chance to rebuild a relationship that reflects who we are in our older, present lives.  It may be our last chance for such an opportunity.

Thank you for your question.  Everyone who has a brother or sister can relate to some aspect of this important subject.    My best wishes to you in bringing your sons together.

Copyright Helen Dennis 2010. All rights reserved.

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