3 min
October 16, 2022

Breaking the Chain of Sibling Rivalry

How on earth do some siblings have such a great relationship? I’m so intrigued by their mutual love, affection, and ability to communicate well. 

It must be a facade.

I’ve got sibling issues. My brother Jim is the oldest of my siblings, three years older than me. As a kid I idolized him. I wanted to be the only girl on the football team and wrestling team because my brother played both sports. I was the only one of my four sisters who willingly let him practice his wrestling moves on me. It always ended with me getting hurt, but it was worth it for the attention. 

He wanted nothing to do with me, as I assume most older brothers want nothing to do with their pestering little sisters. I figured that some siblings connected more than others and there was nothing I could actually do to change it. 

An example of two very connected and loving siblings are multi-talented movie makers Mark and Jay Duplass. Like me and my brother, they are also three years apart. 

In an interview with Brene Brown, Mark had this to say:

“My parents get a ton of, ‘What did you do to raise two boys that made them stick together like this, communicate [like this], love each other the way they do?’ And the only thing I can say clearly is it has to start with the older sibling. All the younger siblings really want is to go party with the older siblings and they usually experience rejection there. Then the toxicity enters and it never leaves.”

I never thought about it as toxicity but that’s exactly what it was and it’s never left my relationship with my brother. Not that I blame him for the way he treated me when we were young. Lots of older brothers are mean to their younger siblings. And frankly, I was annoying.

But we’re adults now. Brene Brown explained that some of the most painful interviews she’s done are between adult siblings who have no relationship:

“There seems to be a pattern, which is that parents use shame as a parenting tool, and then siblings look and see what hurts the most and use that with each other. And then parents go, ‘Eh, brothers will be brothers.’”

This struck close to home. As kids my brother and I learned which buttons to push to really piss each other off (he would call me stupid, I would call him gay). But as adults I have tried to be vulnerable and have a real conversation with him about our relationship. I told Jim to his face, through tears, that I love him and I don’t want to have a bad relationship with him anymore. He seemed to respond well despite being totally uncomfortable that I was crying. But things eventually went back to the way they’ve always been. And now when he says something that’s hurtful and mean and I mention it to my Mom all she has to say is, “Well that’s just your relationship with each other.” 

As if I haven’t tried to make things better. As if I deserve it. As if the way he treats me - in our freaking 30s - is normal, brotherly behavior. 

To some degree I’ve given up on having a good relationship with my brother. But I’ve been thinking about sibling relationships because I’m pregnant with my first child and hope to have more. My Mom has a pretty crappy relationship with her siblings. I have a pretty crappy relationship with mine. I want so badly to break the chain. But how do I foster a healthy, loving relationship among my kids? 

Jay Duplass, who has an older daughter and younger son, had some advice:

“They don’t have as much in common as two siblings of the same gender would. So what I have to say to my daughter is, “Okay, I understand why you said what you said to Sam, but what we need to do is encourage the things that you love in him. We want Sam to think positively about who he is and what he contributes to this family.”

The wisdom in this advice needs unpacking:

  1. Jay spoke to his daughter like an adult and asked for her help. This implies trust and creates accountability without it feeling like a burden.
  2. Jay spoke about his youngest child, Sam, as an equal in the family. This creates an even playing field. No one is more important than anyone else. 
  3. There was no shaming in Jay’s words. It was full of positivity and encouragement, which creates a safe space for both his daughter and his son. 

Jay and Mark are both so deliberate in fostering a loving relationship among their kids. I’ve never heard people talk about sibling love in such an actionable, intentional way. 

While my relationship with my brother might never be great, I have been able to let my guard down with my younger siblings in our adult years. Based on Mark’s first piece of advice that it has to start with the older sibling, it makes sense that I’ve been able to have a greater impact on my relationship with them. The more vulnerable I am with them, the easier it is for them to be vulnerable with me. 

We all grow up in our familial bubbles and think our upbringings are normal. It’s not until we venture outside of the bubble that we’re able to see things from a new perspective.

All siblings should at least have the opportunity for a healthy, loving relationship. And as a soon-to-be parent, it’s my responsibility to create opportunities and space for that sibling love to grow.