Psychology experts talk through strategies for dealing with sibling rivalry
Whether close in age or many years apart, siblings can be a wonderful source of mutual love and support, from your school days through to adulthood.
A bit of light-hearted sibling rivalry isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course – it might spur you on to work harder at your exams or in sport – but when family ties are strained for a long time, the results can be catastrophic.
Take the Gallagher brothers, for instance. As part of Oasis, Liam and Noel enjoyed phenomenal musical success in the Nineties, but their creative partnership had already started to sour at the height of the band’s fame.
The band official split in 2009, but the frontman and lead guitarist, who are five years apart in age, have have been trading insults and recriminations in interviews and on social media ever since.
As recently as June this year, Liam, who has just turned 50, was making digs at his older brother on Twitter, suggesting Noel would be “devastated he didn’t pass the audition” to play with Paul McCartney at Glastonbury.
It’s unclear how much of the Gallaghers’ beef stems from competitiveness and how much is down to plain dislike, but if you’re struggling with sibling rivalry into adulthood, it can be difficult to know what do.
In some cases, you may even be wondering whether it’s time to cut ties if your brother or sister is making you deeply unhappy, or if you should persevere for the sake of family bonds.
Here, psychologists talk through sibling rivalry between adults, and how to deal with it…
Is it normal to experience sibling rivalry in adulthood?
A survey by streaming service NOW in 2021 found 51% of siblings still competed over things like career, parenting, home ownership and being the ‘favourite’ in the family.
“While rivalry may be common and last into adulthood, the subject of the rivalry may differ depending on the sibling feeling it,” says psychologist and author Dr Audrey Tang (draudreyt.com).
BACP accredited Gestalt Individual and group psychotherapist Katerina Georgiou (kgcounsellor.com) says it often depends on the nature of family bonds: “Some families experience difficulties that dissipate once the adult children flee the nest and develop their own lives – other families are more enmeshed, and it isn’t so simple.”
How can you manage your own envy over a sibling’s achievements or relationships?
If you’re the one turning into a green-eyed monster every time your brother or sister announces their latest promotion, unveils a flashy new car or brags about how close they are to your parents, ask yourself where the envy comes from.
“What is it about your siblings’ goals that trigger these emotions in you?” Georgiou asks. “If you can increase your awareness around what you are experiencing… this will ground you with more support to move forward in a less reactive place.
“If your feelings are particularly intense or happen far more frequently than you’d like, causing a negative impact on your relationship, you might wish to consider therapy as a confidential space for you to carefully unpick those feelings,” she adds.
It may be that your envy stems from a lack of self-esteem, Tang points out: “When it comes to love and validation, if we are able to give it to ourselves, the source is infinite – there’s no scarcity, therefore no need to feel you are losing out.”
What should you do if a sibling is envious of you?
If you’ve been on the receiving end of mean comments or felt the envy emanating from a sibling, a little empathy can go a long way.
“Try to step outside of the experience of being envied for a moment and imagine what it’s like to fear that you aren’t doing as well [and] your status is at threat,” Georgiou says. “The strong primal feelings evoked because of this can be quite terrifying.”
It might help to start a dialogue to calmly explore the issue, rather than demand that your brother or sister stops their behaviour immediately.
“There is a tendency for an older sibling to try and ‘sort it out’ or even behave in ‘loco parentis’, but it can be far better for the relationship if they ask why their sibling feels as they do,” says Tang.
“Then acknowledge their right to feel that way – for example, I’m really sad you feel that way – and ask why, and even what they would like you to do about it.”
Is it ever OK to cut ties with a sibling when your relationship has become untenable?
“It is OK to cut ties completely if the situation is intolerable, but sometimes that extreme response can result in grandchildren/nieces and nephews missing out on what could be an enriching relationship,” Tang says.
Georgiou agrees distancing may sometimes be healthiest: “You can tell it reaches this point where the same repeated patterns continue, never with any resolve or progression, but actually worsen the experience of the relationship for both.”
Before you reach that point however, try setting boundaries in terms of the behaviour you’re willing to accept from each other, to see if you can reach an amicable resolution.
“You may need to state a consequence,” Tang says. “For example, ‘If you continue to compare my children with yours, I cannot allow them to come around here without me anymore’ – and be willing to follow through.
“With this, you might be able to open a negotiation and ask, ‘So, how can we resolve this?'”
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