Moving, a new job, marriage, having a new baby. These significant life transitions not only impact the individuals moving, landing that new job, getting married, or that are expecting, but also their siblings in ways that often go overlooked. Reflecting on their experiences practicing family therapy with adult siblings, Senior Therapists Rachael Benjamin and Kelly Scott discussed how big transitions can affect adult siblings:
Rachael Benjamin: Often transitions move quicker than sibling relationships can. Having a sibling move or meet someone, for instance, can mean that the sibling set (as a dyad, triad, or quad) has to move into a new reality. This can raise a lot of questions: What does that reality mean? What does it bring up, including both feelings and the history of the family and sibling relationships? Do people feel left out, left behind, shut out, or asked to continue old roles rather than mature into new ones? Do we mourn or grieve what was lost in the relationship? People can cry at weddings because they’re happy, but also because they’re feeling a bit of loss as they have to share this person more.
Kelly Scott: There’s so much loss that sibling relationships have to weather and integrate. You make a great point–even “happy” transitions like weddings involve losing what came before. While this is certainly not always the case, sibling relationships can be formed or exist as a reaction to the relationships with parents. For example, I have had patients who had very neglectful and absent parents, leading them to develop intensely nurturing (parentified?) relationships with older siblings who were better able to meet their needs growing up. So when those older siblings develop romantic relationships or even have their own children, there can be a complicated mixture of feelings evoked. There is joy, but also sadness and sometimes resentment, jealousy, or competition.
Rachael: Mourning what was lost (or losing what came before as you said) in a relationship is actually gut-wrenching work. As a therapist, I do a lot of witnessing of what someone is processing, asking a ton of questions, and allowing crying and gnashing of teeth. In family therapy with adult siblings, this takes extra slowness because siblings really, really need to hear each other and do the vulnerable work of mourning. It’s important to not block the grief by the performance of family roles or trying to protect their parents or their sibling about whom they feel jealous, sad, or like they’re losing. Whether the sibling has kids, is getting married, or is moving away, it’s about noting: “This part of our relationship is ending. We don’t know what comes next and that’s scary and sad. We haven’t built it yet. Can we? Will we? How?”
Kelly: I’m thinking a lot about how sibling relationships are formed in part in response to the parenting they receive. And what you name about siblings’ roles in the family system REALLY impact their relationships with one another. Someone is the caretaker, another is the disruptor, another is the parents’ spokesperson, and another is the peacemaker. These roles can be really rigid and unforgiving–the entire family structure is anchored to everyone playing their characters without deviating from the script. So when there is trouble in sibling relationships, it can be really hard for them to step outside their roles to heal together. For example, what happens when the disruptor and the peacemaker have conflict with each other over a transition? In family therapy, we can help them recognize ways their relationship is being influenced by the larger family unit and figure out how to clear some of that out of the way.
Rachael: In family therapy with adult siblings, we can help siblings recognize the family’s influence, as well as help them create new ways of relating without damaging the relationship. We help patients tolerate feelings about their sibling’s transition that may feel outside of the role they typically play in the family.
I also like that you specifically named jealousy. Jealousy is such a long-term feeling for siblings that after about five-years-old gets under-talked about. When it is discussed, it’s often done so in uncurious ways. It’s almost like jealousy as an adult is deemed extra bad.
Kelly: Sibling relationships can sometimes have a way of defying the laws of time and space, meaning dynamics that were established as children can get fossilized and stuck if they don’t adapt as people grow up. So the jealousy you felt as a child can become calcified and magnified as an adult. And that’s hard to talk about because there’s a lot of shame attached to it. You’re “supposed” to love your siblings unconditionally–they’re your closest blood relatives. Being jealous or resentful can be hard to talk about because it can seem to take away from your love of your sibling, even when it doesn’t. Similarly, when jealousy crops up as adults, it can also feel shameful and petty. You’re “supposed” to feel happy for your sibling who gets married, for instance.
Sibling therapy can help make space for the complicated feelings that exist in families and name them so they aren’t hiding in a dark corner, pulling strings in these relationships. There is a huge benefit to having the richness of perspective when multiple siblings are in the room. Every sibling has a slightly (or wildly) different view of things. It can be incredibly helpful and additive to hear from everybody.
Rachael: A piece that feels big in this is that if you see the siblings as a set in therapy, you can actually slow down and “uncalcify,” as you so brilliantly said. The different perspectives need space to live rather than be simply acted on or swept under the rug. I’m thinking about how part of why we’re non-diagnostic is that the process of healing exists in relationships–how we relate to ourselves, our therapist, our sibling, and the world. This is not a diagnostic issue, but a relationship that needs life again.
When big events like moving, switching careers, weddings, and babies come up, they hit that hard place that has always needed some attention with siblings. In family therapy with adult siblings, we can have honest talks about jealousy from both the person feeling jealous and the other on the receiving end of that jealousy. What made the jealousy happen? How did other parents, teachers, or the world promote it? What purposes did it serve? And how do we want to mess with it and create an adult relationship of choice and development?
Kelly: Choice! Yes!
Rachael: Choice is so key. Especially around big transitions, there are so many cultural rules (“Everybody in the family, especially your sibling, has to go through this with you”). The standard is impossibly high and sometimes just impossible. Choice can be a big part in how to participate in these transitions. I think most siblings are in a coercive state usually by parents or the parents’ rules–that they have to go through this transition (e.g. a wedding in which someone is both happy and feels a great sense of loss, jealousy, and fear) and that they do not have a choice in how to unpack that with their sibling and with themselves.
Realizing you have a choice is the first step for adult siblings to work as separate humans rather than just siblings, brothers, or sisters. They can say, “Guess what? I get to choose you now that I’m an adult and have a voice, feelings, and a process of how I relate to our relationship.”
Kelly: I want to jump onto your point about the parents’ role. Kids grow up playing by their parents’ rules (or at least being expected to). “Go outside and play with your brother”-type stuff. The sibling relationships don’t exist on the siblings’ terms, not really. As adults, we have a chance to reevaluate what we want from those relationships, experiment with closeness and distance in new ways, and learn how to make the relationship exist independent of our parents and family. As you said, “I choose you.”
Rachael: It can also be, “I choose you now.” It’s also okay to say, “For now, I need to not choose you so that maybe I can one day choose you.” Or “I need to accept I do not choose you because that is healing for me.”