It is difficult for some people to recognize that letting go of the past is the best way to facilitate more rewarding siblingrelationships. Trying to “fix” a family problem by trying to fix a family’s member "attitude" is seldom successful. Family roles are the product of years of practice. It may only take 21 days to break a personal bad habit, but role-based family behaviors can be much more intractable because many siblings prefer to avoid admitting that they have problem behaviors, and do not want to accept a sibling's suggestion that they change.
Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D. is professor and chair of the Counseling, Adult and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University. She is a licensed counselor whose focus includes working with individuals and families facing transitions. Her academic research explores development over the lifespan with a strong focus on women’s relationships and women’s developmental transitions. She is currently president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, a division of the American Counseling Association.
Editor: Haroon Christy
The most effective way to break the cycle of relentless rivalry is to reset the system. As family therapists know, the easiest way to enact change in a family system is to encourage one member to change his behavior. When the old pattern is interrupted by a change in the familiar functioning, the entire system will shift in response.
Here are six suggestions that might help you reset your family system:
Bear in mind that you and your siblings each had different relationships with your parents; not only that, but your parents were different people when each of you entered the family constellation.
Siblings who always want to “one up” you, even in adulthood, clearly have a limited repertoire of engagement strategies. Recognize that a little bit of modeling in your own interactions may be needed to move them out of the competitive rut they are stuck in.
Acknowledge that competition may be driven by childhood feelings of insecurity and a reaction to perceived scarcity. Some siblings will continue to fuel such a rivalry well into adulthood. If this happens in your family, keep the conversation moving forward and do not let yourself be antagonized into responding. As parents often tell their children, “It takes two to start a fight.” If you’ve already had all the sibling squabbling you can tolerate, don’t engage further.
If a sibling simply cannot move past the past, perhaps you should have a face-to-face, heart-to-heart discussion with him or her. Perhaps you might want to share your perspective on how you felt inferior to the sibling growing up.
It is said that adulthood turns rivalry into envy: If someone is envious of what you have accomplished, that says a lot about their own self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. If a sibling tries to denigrate your accomplishments, perhaps you can defuse the building tension by admitting that you haven’t accomplished all that your sibling has.
- If all else fails, limit time with a rivalrous sibling and simply let their comments float by if you must be in his or her company. The best way to end a fight is often to refuse to engage in the first place.
Breaking old patterns is seldom simple: Sometimes you might be the only person who desires change. Remember, it only takes one person to change the functioning of an entire family system—and when you shift your behavior, your siblings have no choice but to shift in response. It may take a while to reach the optimal level of interaction, but knowing that you are making optimal choices provides momentum to keep doing that new thing you’re doing.