Adult siblings usually contact us for family therapy because there’s been a painful rupture, a series of hurtful events, or consistent distance that is no longer tolerable by one or more siblings. Therapy with siblings can be challenging, but also provides the chance to honor, question, disrupt, and reconstruct these familial relationships. In order to shed light on this equally vulnerable and rewarding work, two of our Senior Therapists–Rachael Benjamin and Kelly Scott–had a conversation about their approach to therapy with siblings:
Kelly Scott: Sibling relationships are fundamental to how we learn about ourselves and how to relate to other people. They can also be the source of tremendous pain, anger, and alienation. Does sibling work feel particularly vulnerable to you?
Rachael Benjamin: Therapy with siblings seems so vulnerable because it’s like cracking a case. It’s also like pulling at someone’s heart and spelunking into their history that they (and you, as the therapist) may not have known was there before you started meeting, talking, and doing therapy. In addition to the tremendous pain, anger, and alienation, there can also be joy in this work. Therapy can bring joy through guiding this relationship to, for instance, a resolution or finally processing grief.
Why do you think siblings come to us for therapy? And how do you navigate holding them as a sibling set?
Kelly: One reason siblings come to us for therapy is that sibling relationships are really complicated in some sneaky ways. There are often some logistical ties that bind them together, but ultimately these relationships are still a choice. There are issues of boundaries, how to navigate closeness and distance, and how to show love. I think sometimes people are careless or rough with their siblings because they make the assumption that the relationships are sturdier than they are simply because they’re related (legally or biologically).
When I work with siblings, I find it helpful to make space for the shared experience of being in the same family, but also give a lot of room for the ways their experiences diverge. Every member of a sibling set has had different parents.
Rachael: “Every member of a sibling set has had different parents”–for the win! I think the sibling unit gets more complicated when we don’t have that key piece that every member has had a different set of experiences. I also think when you talk about siblings, you also have to talk about their roles in families. You can’t help but talk about the ways that fear or pain got normalized or rationalized.
Kelly: One way to look at these relationships is how they have experienced their family in similar ways and also different ways. One of the challenges in sibling therapy is coming up against the narratives they have to understand their family and their place in it. In therapy, we have to look at what in the story holds true and what needs to be challenged or edited. Doing this together as siblings can be really scary. It can feel risky, but it can also be a way to form a new type of connection and closeness.
Rachael: Siblings are also getting to know each other as adults and separate individuals rather than in their relationship and family dynamics as children. I think sibling therapy is often slower than couples therapy because, in a sense, this relationship has been formulated since birth. It takes the time that it takes to unpack these long-held family stories and dynamics. And usually there is not just one need to be addressed in this relationship, but many.
I wonder: how do we help folks know that they can talk about things like navigating choice and distance or how to show love, like you mentioned before? Or how do we help siblings get to know each other outside of their family relationship as children? For me, I try (usually I lead this navigation) to bring in relational slowness, wondering, and curiosity. I also frequently ask the other sibling what they were (and were not) aware of.
Kelly: I want to echo your emphasis on curiosity as the thing that fuels this process–not assuming you already know, not assuming your story is true, and being open that the other person’s experience is just as valid as yours. With our families, I think a lot of us assume we know what happened. We have a narrative we’ve constructed and we’re often REALLY reluctant to challenge it or question whether or not it’s actually true. When we don’t know how to make sense of something, we create a story for it to make it feel tolerable. That’s human nature, but the problem comes when we cling to a narrative or understanding that is distorted. These distortions can pit siblings against each other, fuel conflict, and create rifts that can sometimes last a lifetime.
Rachael: Yes, curiosity is so key to an adult sibling relationship. As a therapist, it’s helpful that you’re an outsider who doesn’t know any of the family. Because of this, you can lead in being curious about everything: What was that experience like for you? What does that word mean? Is it true for you or just true for your brother/sister/sibling? Do you experience your mom, dad, aunt, or cousin that way? Why or why not? In a way, my role as the therapist is to lead by example in how to be curious, reflecting on what I hear with new observations or questions. This can help siblings be curious of each other, their reactions, and their experiences, as well as who they are, were asked to be, made to be, and had to be in the family.
I also think some of the work is about not only seeing the fires and cooling the embers, but allowing the fires to be felt so that then they can be swept away or cleaned. In relationships, especially with siblings, we can feel tension when we’re around someone or on the phone or FaceTime. We feel something is off that we can’t quite put our finger on or there’s a silent conflict that no one names. A therapist can help by being curious about this tension or awkwardness so that the pain can be felt rather than avoided. The pain can become known to each person and siblings can then navigate this known pain (as well as learn to tolerate it) for growth-filled gain.
Kelly: As therapists, we also have to maintain safety for people to be honest and vulnerable. So that often means keeping a very tight hand on the reins of the conversation–calling out when siblings are taking swings at or abandoning each other.
Families can be the stage for a ton of trauma and siblings can be the audience members, participants, and also co-victims. Siblings can be a huge support in healing and processing trauma because they can sometimes have a unique ability to be close. Even if they may not have shared the same trauma, they know the players intimately. There is a real companionship that sometimes only siblings can provide. But that closeness can be weaponized. Siblings also have the unique ability to hurt each other because they often know parts of us that others don’t.
Rachael: That circle of hurt can be part of the BIG problem in the family that the sibling set or group doesn’t even know that they are enacting or playing a role in. In some cases, siblings don’t know if it is even safe to engage honestly and talk about the relationship because the hurt can come from everywhere and anywhere. It’s the therapist’s job to lead in creating safety, as well as holding the sibling set in ways their parents could not or would not.
As a therapist, I realize that few people have likely held this sibling set collectively and individually, and gone slow. It’s very important to take a bird’s eye view and, as you said, “keep a tight rein” on things. Unlike parents, I don’t have a parental investment or historical objective. This means I can navigate different parts of the relationship, while also navigating away from tearing at one person or causing people hurt in a pointless way that the family has historically done or organized around. Instead, we go slow and are willing to not know. I don’t have a wish per se on what has to happen in the sibling relationship. Instead, we can all see what can happen with growth, safety, and honesty in mind.