Learning to get along as well as possible with your siblings as you grow older can be the ultimate self-help gift. While not every sibling relationship will blossom into friendship in adulthood, developing a better relationship with siblings can pay off just when you need it most. As with any relationship, the quality of siblingships seem to hinge on four basic relational virtues—honesty, trust, loyalty, and support.
Honesty Among Siblings
In any relationship—friendship, romance, professional, social, familial—honesty is a keystone quality. In robust sibships, brothers and sisters are able to be more honest with one another than other people might ever dare to be. When you think about it, siblings have seen one another's best and worst behavior across their lifespan. Siblings often serve as a person’s first “cover” when older siblings coerce their younger brothers or sisters to lie or make excuses for them to their parents. Honesty between adult siblings provides a space for the expression of differences without feeling the need to pretend to agree with one another when they don't see eye to eye.
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: Saad Shaheed
When some siblings open up a conversation with words such as, “let’s be honest,” they may be seeking tacit permission to ambush another. It is not, however, a phrase that provides justification for tactlessness, intentional insult, or communication brutality. While some siblings tend to lay everything out on the table without thinking first, they may also be quick to forgive each other, and dedicated to figuring out how to fix things moving forward. This might be OK for siblings, but it doesn’t always transfer to other types of relationships.
When choosing to speak about potentially inflammatory topics with siblings, it is important to recognize that honesty is about your own feelings, beliefs, attitudes, or perspective. Honesty is not about trying to impose your own beliefs on another, it is about accepting ownership of the content you are communicating, and risking emotional intimacy with your sibling. To facilitate open and honest communication with siblings, the virtue of trust—both earned and granted—must be present.
Trust is a complicated construct. It reflects both your willingness to place faith in another person and your worthiness to warrant the same from others. In families where chaotic conditions prevailed, placing trust in one another may have been difficult if the family structure and expectations of mutual support were not set in place. Over the course of a lifetime, circumstances may encourage siblings to develop a sense of mutual trust.
Home is often the only place where people feel safe enough to let down their guard or metaphorically lick their wounds. People typically allow themselves to be seen at their weakest only when they are surrounded by their families. When trust is in place, siblings can practice self-disclosure and confidence sharing. Without trust, even young children will hesitate to share personal information. Some caregivers may raise children to withhold trust from others. As children mature, this lack of trust can negatively influence the ability of siblings to trust each other as adults. Unfortunately, it can take practice and vulnerability to learn to trust as an adult.
When many people think of “family loyalty,” they may imagine Sopranos-inspired loyalty and devotion. Having an implicit code of family loyalty is not unusual—parents encourage their children to stand up for one another and children seem naturally driven to defend their family’s honor when it is questioned. Decades ago, the sibling relationship was described as an intriguing combination of unquestioned loyalty that coexisted with potentially intense rivalry. Siblings may unceasingly argue on shared “home turf,” but jump to each other’s defense when out in the larger world.
Loyalty between family members can be an awe-inspiring, almost tangible, force. Shows of loyalty can appear early in childhood. Being willing to stick up for your siblings, defend them when they are being victimized or bullied, and keep their secrets are just a few examples of healthy loyalty. Unquestioned blind loyalty, however, can be a symptom of family dysfunction. When a sense of loyalty or obligation moves from functional to dysfunctional, it reflects a role change from supportive sibling to enabler. Being supportive is the ideal outcome of healthy loyalty. Enabling a sibling can turn a challenging situation into a path to disaster; supporting a sibling can lead to something much more constructive
Siblings may show their support for their brothers and sisters in multiple ways. Some siblings are quick to offer emotional support and many are willing to provide instrumental support—a place to stay, cash, transportation. Instrumental assistance is generally easier for brothers to offer and to give. In fact, more strongly gender-typed men are less likely to seek emotional support than other men and women. Although research suggests that sisters would be more comfortable and prefer to request or receive emotional support, most women tend to be equally comfortable with either form of assistance. Regardless of gender, all siblings benefit from support from one another. Sometimes the best support is the kind that a sibling does not have to explicitly request.
Siblings can become the best friends you ever know. While that may seem quite a stretch in some sibling dyads, once you reach life’s home stretch, you’ll realize just how rich a resource siblings can be.