The Secret, Surprising Way Your Siblings Hugely Impact Your Adult Life

Photo: - Yuri A / Shutterstock
three adult sisters hugging

Do you find yourself struggling with your relationship with your sibling? Do you often think, "If only they weren't so mean," or "If only they would change, everything would be better"? Unfortunately, it's not always that simple.

In my 50 years of experience working with siblings, I've discovered that what they perceive as the problem is often just the surface level. The root of their current issues may have been established years ago.

Consider the following scenarios:

Naveed is in therapy due to feeling depressed and upset following his recent separation from his wife. Risa and Jaypal have not spoken for the past nine months, having engaged in bitter arguments for years. They are now seeking assistance to improve their communication

My fundamental belief is that individuals have the capability to resolve their own issues. If they are unable to do so, it's likely because they lack crucial information or are viewing the situation from a distorted or obstructed perspective. Therapy is typically sought out when attempts to resolve the problem have been unsuccessful.

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Throughout my years of practice, I have identified a recurring pattern in the distortions or blocks experienced by clients. Although it doesn't apply to every client, it is significantly more frequent than a haphazard pattern.

In situations where therapy seemed to be at a standstill and the client had siblings, I would pose three targeted questions about their early childhood relationship:

  • Were you and the sibling you currently have issues with close during those early years?
  • Who did you and your sibling perceive as the favored child of your mother/father?
  • What were the assigned roles for each of you?

Through the frequency of these questions, I began to identify a recurring pattern that involved four key concepts:

1. Frozen images

The emotions and attitudes one held toward a sibling during early childhood can become deeply ingrained, resulting in a lasting impression of how they are perceived today, even if significant changes have occurred. These perceptions, whether positive or negative, can become "frozen" and remain unchanged for many years to come.

2. Crystalized roles

Parents often assign labels to their children, which can dictate their behavior and identity, such as the funny one, the intelligent one, the difficult one, the irresponsible one, or the solitary one. These roles can become crystallized and shape an individual's sense of self, impacting their personal and professional lives, even if they no longer align with their current reality.

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3. Unhealthy loyalty

This idea is nuanced. Although family loyalty can be positive, it may be perceived unconsciously as an acceptance of one's rigid role. This can result in self-sabotage by a sibling, who may limit their potential in order to uphold the established roles. Consequently, this can have negative consequences on their romantic relationships and professional success.

4. Sibling transference

This occurs when individuals carry over their perceptions and roles of their siblings from early childhood into adulthood. Consequently, they may interact with people in their present life based on the same patterns they had with their siblings in the past. This behavior may lead to unhealthy loyalty and hinder their growth and success in life.

The complexity of these behaviors lies in their unconscious and inconsistent nature, making it difficult to recognize when a sibling is caught in such situations.

Let's revisit the examples of Naveed, Risa, and Jaypal. Naveed expressed an idealized perception of his wife as perfect, believing she could assist him with his weaknesses, such as communicating assertively and staying organized. However, when his wife left him, Naveed struggled to understand why, repeatedly citing her statement that he was not an equal partner and needed to be constantly pushed along.        

Naveed held his wife in high regard and often sought her guidance. When inquiring about his siblings, Naveed shared his admiration for his older brother, who had always been supportive and inclusive of him. His brother taught him practical skills, such as cutting a hamburger and riding a bike, and was a constant presence in his life.

When asked if there were any similarities between his brother and wife, Naveed smiled and revealed that his wife reminded him of his brother, which was one of the reasons he fell in love with her. In this scenario, Naveed's positive childhood memories of his brother led to a sibling transference to his wife.

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Let's examine the relationship between siblings Risa and Jaypal, who were only two years apart in age.

Risa and Jaypal frequently engaged in arguments, which ultimately resulted in their long estrangement. However, when questioned about their relationship during their pre-school years, they both acknowledged being very close. They also agreed that Jaypal was the charming and likable one, while Risa was the intelligent one.

Unfortunately, Risa had to abandon her dream of becoming a brain surgeon when she fell ill and instead settled for a retail job. In contrast, Jaypal pursued a doctoral degree in Astrophysics but struggled to complete his dissertation, leading him to take an entry-level job in a different field.

What we see is the crystalized role of Risa as the smart one thwarted by her illness, but Jaypal remained (unconsciously) loyal to her role — his inability to move ahead with his education and career.

Not every client’s problem relates to these four concepts, but in my experience at least one of them often is the origin of so many of the issues that trip up clients. 

What becomes evident is the crystalized role of Risa as the smart one thwarted by her illness, while Jaypal remained unconsciously loyal to her role, which impeded his ability to progress in his education and career.

It's important to note that not every client's issues are related to these four concepts. However, based on my experience, at least one of these concepts often serves as the foundation for the various problems that clients encounter.

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Dr. Karen Gail Lewis is a family and sibling therapist who has published hundreds of articles and more than eight books about relationships in general and who has spoken nationally and internationally about marriage, adult siblings, and single women.