Jealousy frequently comes up in our family therapy with adult siblings, even though jealousy is often more discussed in regards to kids and adolescents. Offering insights into jealousy between adult siblings, our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist spoke to VICE about how siblings can discuss and potentially diffuse this tension in their relationship.
In “What to Do if a Sibling’s Jealousy Is Tearing Your Family Apart,” Matt encourages siblings to both acknowledge the jealousy and consider where the feeling may be coming from. He explains, “In AA they call it making amends…Recognizing that we’ve all harmed each other in the world, even if that harm was done when we were 8 years old in an environment where there were forces that led us to do that. I think there’s kindness in naming and acknowledging that.”
What might be the source of the jealousy? Though not in the article, jealousy has to be understood in historical context. It’s important to deeply appreciate just how much an encounter between adult siblings can be deeply regressive. Adult siblings in our family therapy will say, “I’m 7 around my sister!” Siblings should work to understand that this relationship never existed as an independent dyad (or triad or whatever it was), but rather was a part of a system that typically had two adults in charge. Parents influence the relationship between siblings more than many people recall or realize.
Additionally, very often the idea of scarcity is in play. In families in which there weren’t enough resources (e.g. food was scarce, lack of funds for clothing, or one or both parents worked a lot, were depressed or sick), often jealousy is a misunderstanding of scarcity. Sometimes when there isn’t enough (affection, for instance), a sibling might misunderstand this. Rather than seeing that there isn’t enough, they believe that the other sibling is getting more. One of the tragic things about this is that a shared experience like not getting enough love is instead cast as a point of contention.
In VICE, Matt provides guidance on how a sibling can approach another to have a conversation about jealousy in their relationship, which will likely also touch on difficult topics from childhood. Before jumping into the conversation, Matt urges siblings to ask whether or not their sibling wants to go there, as well as lay some ground rules for the conversation such as agreeing to pause if someone feels hurt or uncomfortable. He describes, “It’s knocking on somebody’s door but before you step in, being invited in…There’s clear affirmative consent to have the conversation.”
While avoiding being defensive or argumentative, it can be helpful to allow your sibling to talk first. For instance, Matt suggests saying something like: “I want to talk to you about issues from our past. But first I want to see what your experience of this is. What’s your lived experience of what happened with how our parents treated us?”
Some sibling relationships, however, may not be at a place where this conversation will be welcomed or even beneficial. In these cases, Matt observes that it’s fine to tell a sibling to knock it off if they’re making jealous remarks. This can be especially helpful for siblings who weren’t able to stand up for themselves as kids. “The emotional work here is learning to stand up for oneself, perhaps with a sibling with whom that wasn’t easy or even safe in childhood,” he says.