Why Sibling Relationships Matter

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Alex and Stephen Baldwin, Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Beyonce and Solange Knowles, Kim Kardashian and Rob Kardashian, Eric and Julia Roberts, Madonna and her two brothers, and Prince William and Prince Harry, just to name a few. All are estranged siblings.

Kelly Osbourne, of the reality show, “The Osbournes,” has no contact with her sister, Aimee (who didn’t participate in the television series). “We don’t talk,” Kelly told People. “We’re just really different. She doesn’t understand me, and I don’t understand her.”

I could have said the same thing about my only brother. We didn’t talk for decades.

While the estrangement experience may be common, it often carries profound hurt, a deep stigma, and a terrible loss of self-esteem and trust. Support groups for the estranged exist, but many who endure this trauma are reluctant to join. In addition, most who can’t get along with a sibling – roughly one out of three people – don’t want to tell their heartbreaking stories, so they suffer in silence, isolated twice – from a sibling and social support against the loss.

In my case, I didn’t know why my only brother had cut me off, and I never discussed it with anyone. Instead, I contemplated endlessly about the break, chronically mourning the living. The estrangement resulted in other losses. I no longer was a sister, sister‐in‐law, or aunt. My children had no cousins on my side of the family. I dreaded birthdays, holidays, weddings, funerals, and family get-togethers—any and every possible encounter with my brother or, perhaps worse, with his glaring absence.

Even when estrangement is a clearheaded choice to move forward from abuse or unbearable discord, the cut-off leaves disconnected siblings in a world of secrecy and shame. Estrangement feels like an utter contradiction of the very nature of family, an aggressive rejection of the fundamental way most living creatures organize themselves.

Most siblings probably don’t understand how they contribute to a brother or sister’s well-being. Yet, the most comprehensive study of well-being, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, underway since 1938, reported that a strong sibling connection could be fundamental to emotional health. The study identified a close relationship with a sibling during college years as the single most reliable indicator of emotional health at age 65 – more critical than childhood closeness to parents, emotional problems in childhood, parental divorce, even marriages, and one’s career.

Additional research reinforces the value of positive sibling relationships. For example, various studies have shown that adolescents who perceived that their siblings validated and valued them reported higher levels of self‐esteem. They have also shown that sibling support correlates with better academic performance, and sibling support and closeness were associated with lower levels of loneliness and depression.

In childhood, brothers and sisters teach one another necessary social qualities—tolerance, generosity, loyalty—that eventually shape their adult relationships. As a result, siblings typically spend more time together than with anyone else; for the fortunate, those relationships endure through decades, often outlasting friendships and marriages.

Still, some siblings, particularly those who come from dysfunctional families, often are at risk for a cut-off. I was surprised to learn that there are risk factors for estrangement, including family trauma, parental favoritism, poor communication skills, family values, judgments, and choices, such as lifestyle or partners.

Certain life stages that require family members to redefine their roles are particularly difficult for siblings. These turning points include: 

Adolescence: A teenage sibling creating their own identity may leave home for college or a job, changing the established sibling relationships and dynamics in the family. 

Marriage: A new brother- or sister-in‐law may seek to reduce or control the couple’s involvement with one side of the family. 

Birth of a baby: As a sibling focuses on their new family, some may feel abandoned or betrayed. Siblings may even compete with each other through their children.

Divorce or illness: The physical, emotional, and financial responsibilities of helping a sick or divorcing family member may overwhelm one sibling, creating resentment at an unevenly shared burden.

Parental illness, death, or inheritance: In this stage, siblings may compete again for power, love, and family loyalty, and conflicts may arise over health care, payment for an elderly parent, and inheritance.

A sibling cut-off often ripples well beyond its origins, disrupting ties with other relatives, friends, and acquaintances and deeply disturbs an individual’s sense of belonging. Therefore, Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School and the fourth director of the study, recommends people reach out to relatives they haven’t spoken to in years. “Those all-too-common family feuds,” he says, “take a terrible toll.”

Now reconciled for seven years, my brother’s and my renewed connection is a treasure for our elderly mother and our children. In addition, as the Harvard study reported, we have found the loving presence of a brother or sister brings rewards well beyond our relationship.

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