Sibling rivalry in adults is as old as Cain and Able. Thousands of parenting books have been written for parents dedicated to dealing with sibling rivalry. But what happens when you’re an adult and the rivalry is still going strong?
Over holidays and longer visits, sibling rivalries can be acerbated. When visiting our families, we may end up staying in the same house, leaving us with no place to go hide from the feud with our sibling.
All kinds of things big and small can contribute to a sibling rivalry in adults. It usually starts when we’re kids. Small things when we’re little like getting an extra cookie, receiving a perceived “better” present, one always getting their way or never getting in trouble, to having a sibling who is “better” at everything, like getting better grades, being more athletic, being more popular in school - all of this can carry right on in to an adulthood sibling rivalry.
How Parents Fuel Sibling Rivalry
Our parents influence our relationship with our siblings a lot. Here are a few personal examples that still get to me:
- As a teenager, the dinner dishes had to be done before I could go out, and I had to practically have a written itinerary of where I was going and whom I would be with. These rules did not apply to my younger brother. Even today, when my mother defends my brother’s behavior or actions, it doesn’t even matter how trivial it is, I can literally feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It still fuels the sibling rivalry even if what we’re talking about happened years ago.
- When I have to see my brother at the holidays, it’s a tough gig. It’s always his way or no way, and although I can understand my parents are more apt to tolerate it because they don't see him as often as they do me, it really adds to my ire.
- Several times my brother has changed his plans at the last minute and made it home for a holiday or weekend. It’s expected that I will change my family’s plans to accommodate him. When I resist, there’s arguing and guilt tripping. I finally had enough the last time this happened, and after a week of arguments, I explained that it wasn’t fair that whenever he decided to change his plans however last minute, it was expected that I would drop everything and I wasn’t doing it any more. That ordeal did nothing but add to my already existing rivalry with my sibling – even more so because I was now branded the bad guy in the whole situation.
Often parents don’t see that their expectations for or treatment of their children are unbalanced or unfair. Or how it can make the rivalry between siblings even worse, and that it can linger well into adulthood. Much of the time, parents also don’t want to hear about it either.
While our parents can play a big role in it, at some point, we’re all adults and we have to learn to handle the rivalry on our own. During the holidays or vacations, when in close quarters, maybe even in the same house we grew up in, it can really take us back in time and our old sibling rivalries that may have taken a backseat are once again front and center, potentially ruining that time spent together for everyone.
Competing With The 'Perfect' Sibling
It seems like there’s always one sibling who is like Ferris Bueller, from the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. They can do no wrong, pull off the impossible and always come out on top. Everyone in town seems to know and love them. Growing up, it can be hard to have a sibling so popular when you’re not. It can be hard to control our resentment and jealousy as a younger child or teenager, and keep it from affecting your own friends, schoolwork, sports and your relationship with your parents. It’s hard to see that focusing on ourselves more, letting go of some of the jealousy, and the problems with anger that can go with it, would help immensely.
Dr. Kurt's thoughts:
Michelle’s experience is hardly unique. Sibling rivalry in adults is really not that uncommon. Many of us take those childhood hurts with us right into adulthood and let them continue to influence our thoughts, feelings, and behavior in ways that ultimately hurt us way more than our sibling."
How to Manage Sibling Rivalry
When you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that you'll have to see your sibling, and that you’ll be spending time together, there are some things you can do to keep the rivalry at bay and have a pleasant visit with the family.
- Remember why you’re there. Vacations or the holidays and family traditions are important, and don’t come around very often. It’s only for a few days, right? Just let it go. At least for the few days you’re together.
- Plan on taking breaks or getting out of the house. Being cooped up can really add to the tension. Make plans to get out of the house and go to the park, for a long walk, or even a shopping trip to the mall. If you can’t get out for a long period or your trip is short, something as short as a run to Starbucks can make a difference!
- Walk away when you feel your buttons being pushed. Fights with siblings often digress into a historical rehash of a lifetime of events. It’s really not the time or place to bring up when you were 5 and got blamed for breaking a dish your sister actually broke.
- Avoid alcohol, especially in excess. This might sound counter-intuitive, because it seems like it would be good to take the edge off, but it’s not. Alcohol lowers our inhibitions, and can give us the courage to say things we may not otherwise. It also can fuel hidden anger and resentment that can put any sibling rivalry in adults on full display for everyone to see.
It’s easy enough to ignore our sibling rivalries as adults most of the time. Usually there’s advance notice of when siblings are taking a trip to see us, so there’s plenty of time to prepare. It would be better, however, if we practiced using better communication skills and worked on bringing our adult sibling rivalry to an end. As we get older we need to accept that there's just more important things in life.
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