Sibling Relationships Are Cradle to Grave

Source: JesseBridgewater/Pixabay

Siblings are unique people in our lives. They have known us forever and probably always will. They share our upbringing and we often have jokes and stories shared between us that no one else can understand. They are uniquely able to understand our parents’ quirks and they will likely be there as we age, face divorce, illness, and our parents’ death.

Research bears out the importance of the sibling relationship too. Studies have shown that siblings are important sources of advice, support, and companionship throughout our lives. Sociologists Dr. Lynn K. White and Dr. Agnes Riedman found that two-thirds of adults claim that one of their siblings is their closest friend! But it isn’t always easy to be friends with our siblings. Siblings can be a source of conflict as they are often people we compare ourselves with and rivalries from childhood die hard. We can fall out of touch with our siblings, especially during middle adulthood when both parties are busy, often with their own kids and careers. 

A line of my own research with Dr. Jenna McNallie, a professor of communication at Augsburg College in Minnesota, has examined just how adults maintain these important yet challenging relationships. Maintaining relationships takes hard work and a lot of communication. In a study of over 300 adult siblings from across the United States, we found that siblings use five different types of behaviors to maintain their relationships. These types were originally applied to understanding maintenance in romantic relationships (see work by Drs. Laura Stafford and Daniel Canary), but they apply in sibling relationships too.  

  1. Positivity is all about being an optimistic and cheerful person to be around. When you get together with your siblings during the holidays or for a cookout on Labor Day, are you an enjoyable person to be around? If not, perhaps make a conscious effort to act like the type of person you’d like to have a long lasting relationship with. If “cheerful” is not something that would describe you, maybe try funny, happy, or just pleasant. 

  2. Openness can be hard for people, but remember that your sibling has likely known you longer than anyone else in your life, and they might understand what you are going through better than others. Being open means sharing what is going on in your life, including being open to discussing your relationship. Your sibling might offer you unique and useful perspectives if they are removed from a situation you are struggling with at work or at home.

  3. Assurances can be another tough one if you aren’t used to talking openly about how you feel about your sibling, with your sibling. This maintenance behavior is all about assuring your sibling that they mean a lot to you and that you care about them. This kind of communication is often unspoken, especially in family relationships. It can be harmful to think that because you are family you don’t really need to tell your sibling you care about them. Instead, it might be exactly what they need to hear from you right now. 

  4. Social Networks is about having overlapping circles of friends and family. Overlap in your social circles allows you to spend more time together and have others you know in common, increasing the number of activities you can do together and talk about. If you dislike your sibling’s friends, think about introducing them to yours or finding new friends together that share your common interests. 

  5. Sharing Tasks means equally contributing to the relationship and the work you have to do together. It might not be obvious what kinds of work siblings share if they live in different places, but planning family get-togethers (e.g., mom and dad’s anniversary party), or helping convince your parents to see a lawyer about writing a will all fall under work that has to be negotiated between siblings. We often overestimate the work we do while underestimating what our relationship partners do, so be sure to check in with your sibling to find out how they view your contribution.

Dr. Scott A. Myers, a communication researcher at West Virginia University who specializes in sibling relationships, has found that siblings provide several reasons for wanting to maintain their sibling relationship including, “we are family,” “we provide each other with support,” and “we share similar or common interests and experiences.” Over multiple studies (by myself, Dr. Myers, and Dr. Alan Mikkelson, a professor at Whitworth University), researchers have found that the three most commonly used maintenance strategies in sibling relationships tend to be positivity, assurances, and sharing tasks.

In the study I did with Dr. McNallie, we found that expectations for what siblings are doing to maintain the relationship differ from what people think their sibling is actually doing. In other words, we tend to think our siblings share in tasks less than we wish they would. This might not be all that surprising. For every type of maintenance behavior, people expected their sibling to be doing more than they actually were. Despite this, the more their siblings did to maintain their relationships, the better their relationships were. So even if siblings aren’t always meeting expectations, we learned that the more we can do to maintain our relationships, the better. 

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