Sibling rivalry doesn’t always end in childhood. In fact, an Oakland University study showed that about 30% of respondents felt animosity or apathy toward their adult siblings. That is an unfortunate statistic because siblings tend to be the longest-lasting social relationships we have in life.
Mending that damaged relationship can lead to a fantastic friendship and provide a stronger foundation from which to deal with the challenges of life.
For instance, as your parents age, they are going to need more care and attention. Caregiving is much easier when the responsibility is split up between people and approached as a group. But it becomes more complicated where adult sibling rivalry is involved.
Anyone with a sibling will be able to tell you about the times their parents favored their sibling. It may not even have been a conscious effort on the part of the parents, but that favoritism can give rise to all sorts of difficult feelings and conflict.
Most people get over that as they age. But some people don’t. And some people develop other problems that fuel their sibling rivalry and jealousy well into adulthood.
Causes Of Adult Sibling Rivalry
Adult sibling rivalry isn’t always rooted in poor childhood dynamics. As siblings get older, they follow their own paths as independent adults that may not go as planned. Feelings like jealousy and envy can amplify rivalry into a state that disrupts the family dynamic.
It may be a divorced sister who is jealous that her brother’s marriage is healthy.
It could be a brother who is jealous of his brother’s success and the career opportunities that opened up to him.
Instead of being happy for their sibling’s success, it becomes a competition in their mind and something to be angry and bitter about.
Sometimes an adult sibling rivalry is inadvertent. A sister might be jealous of her brother’s relationship with their parents. It’s much closer because the brother lives closer to the parents, so he sees them more often and can build a stronger relationship with them because of it.
It could also be that the sister turns out to be more like the parent than the brother, so they get along better and seem to have a deeper connection. The brother is envious of that connection but doesn’t know how to facilitate a better relationship with the parent. The parent may be encouraging the rivalry between siblings by accident because they don’t realize that they are treating their children differently.
Then there’s the case of when the parents become grandparents and it seems to one sibling that they show the other sibling’s children more love and attention than their own. If envy or jealousy already existed, this can amplify it. But even if there was no rivalry before, perceived preferential treatment of one grandchild over another can be enough to spark one into existence.
That’s really just scratching the surface. There are deeper, far more severe problems that can fuel the rivalry wrapped up in abusive dynamics outside of an internet article’s scope.
The relationship might be affected by lingering domestic abuse and violence that the siblings experienced in their formative years, particularly if the abusive parent liked to pit the siblings against each other. That harm will carry on into adulthood, where it will take professional help to overcome.
How To Deal With Adult Sibling Rivalry
Different strategies can be adopted to deal with the rivalry depending on what role you are playing within the family dynamic. Let’s look at some strategies for each of the roles.
As the target of the rivalry…
As the target of the rivalry, there are a couple of potential solutions.
The first and most obvious is to just sit down and talk it out. Ask your sibling what the issue is and whether you can find an amicable resolution to the problem.
Just listening to their grievance may be enough to reconcile their emotions, particularly if they feel like they aren’t being paid any attention or no one cares about what they’re dealing with.
You may also find that the problem isn’t what you thought it would be. Communication is always a vital first step.
But what if your sibling doesn’t want to work with you on it? What if they want to stew in their anger and envy?
The option left to you then is to change the way you interact in the dynamic. You can alter the behavior of everyone in the dynamic by changing your own.
For example, let’s say your sibling is angry at you and trying to bait you into a fight. That tactic loses a lot of its power when you refuse to engage in the argument.
Even better, if you can respond with calmness and clarity, it really throws off people expecting their anger to be met with anger.
As the sibling who is harboring the rivalry…
Ask yourself, “Why?” Do you understand the why of your negative feelings toward your sibling?
Is it jealousy? Envy? Do you feel like your parents don’t love you like they love your sibling?
Or hey, maybe your sibling is kind of a jerk, and there is a good reason you feel negatively toward them.
Maybe they are lording their success in life over you because they’re in competition with you and trying to start arguments that way. In that scenario, you may have no real choice other than to reduce the amount of time you spend with them.
Identifying those negative feelings will help you plot a course toward resolving and overcoming them.
If you feel like you’re not getting enough quality time with your parents, perhaps you can arrange to spend more time with them or have more frequent calls to catch up on life. Try to keep that quality time just you and your parents (or including your partner/children), so that your sibling isn’t there to compete for your parents’ attention.
If you are jealous of your sibling’s seemingly happy and successful life and/or relationship, remind yourself that no life is perfect and that what you see on the surface might not reflect the reality of their situation. They may be highly stressed by work or struggling to keep their marriage together, but this may be hidden out of sight of you and the rest of the world.
Jealousy can also be tackled with gratitude. It’s easy to look at someone else’s life and want the things they seem to have, but how often do you stop, look at your own life, and give thanks for all those things you have and enjoy? This change of perspective can ease the nagging envy and resentment you have toward you sibling.
Gratitude can be extended to your relationship with your parents. Sure, your sibling may have a deeper and closer bond with your parents, but you still have a relationship with them which will hopefully have its share of love, affection, and connection. Be grateful for the relationship you have with your parents, not jealous of the one your sibling has.
Sometimes it runs much deeper than that, though. If you and your siblings grew up in an abusive or neglectful home, your best option is going to be talking to a certified mental health professional to address these feelings and heal.
As the parent of rival siblings…
It’s disappointing to watch your children fight with each other. The world’s a rough place, and family is the only refuge that many people have.
The unfortunate reality is that this isn’t a problem that you can solve for your kids. Instead, you can try to facilitate mending the bridge by communicating clearly with your children, strive to show them (and their children) equal attention, and take an equal interest in their (and their children’s) lives.
Reinforce that you love the aggrieved sibling for their qualities, not despite their sibling’s. Avoid comparing the two.
The most important thing to remember is that family dynamics always change with time. Life takes people in different directions, and sometimes those directions are apart.
They may also come back together later on. Sometimes you can guide that, sometimes you can’t. It may take the siblings some time to acknowledge and heal the rift.
What if we can’t find a cause or solution?
Family dynamics are deeply ingrained. Their formation begins with birth and continuously evolves as time passes.
Unhealthy dynamics become normalized because it’s just what the family is regularly experiencing. Because it is “normal,” it can be challenging to sort through the situation’s reality.
To solve the problem, getting a third party opinion about the situation from a different sibling or relative that is close enough to see within the family may be worthwhile. They may provide a perspective that can’t be seen by the people who are emotionally involved in the rivalry.
Adult sibling rivalry is a common issue that family therapists often address. If you feel that your family isn’t making progress on overcoming this issue, it would be worthwhile to look into professional counseling for some additional help.
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