Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Sisters for Life: Common Problems That Persist Into Adulthood


There are many, many reasons why siblings feel guilty toward one another. There can been wounds, real or imagined, that we have inflicted on one another. More often, guilt is experienced by a sibling who has triumphed, been favored, or won the genetic lottery in some way that has left the other(s) at a disadvantage. Even though this is not (usually) the winning sibling’s fault, we are guilty anyhow because, consciously, or unconsciously, we all would rather win than lose.

This problem is especially severe in families who have a child who is significantly disadvantaged in some way: e.g., mentally or physically handicapped. The healthy sibling not only feels guilty for “winning,” but also for the anger and resentment brought up because of all the extra trouble, expense, attention, etc. created by the sibling’s handicap.

People who have grown up in these kinds of families often have persistent feelings of ambivalence about winning, as well as guilty feelings that are difficult to allay, even if the troubled sibling’s situation has improved.

Unburied Hatchets

This issue, along with its corollary, Family Secrets, allows siblings’ problems to persist in a toxic “time capsule.” As long as the past injury is never brought to light, no one has to face whatever painful truth is being hidden. If someone is still angry many years later because her sister seated her at the wrong table at her niece’s wedding, she may be using this to shield other long-simmering resentments that haven’t been aired. But if the family has tacitly all agreed that “We Don’t Talk About That,” our only choice is to go on pretending that these violent feelings were brought on by the seating chart.

Toxic Relationships That Can’t Be Changed

There are some sibling relationships that are so toxic, so resistant to change or to improvement, that a time may come when we should consider cutting loose. Just because someone is a blood relative doesn’t mean that she is your lifelong curse. Some people have genuine sociopathic trends. Some siblings are so angry at one another that they genuinely mean to harm. Others, like chronic addicts or debtors, may have come to you for help many times and squandered it. The benefit of the wisdom that comes with age is that we may be able to make more reasoned judgments about these troubled siblings than when we were younger. For example, the addict who has used your cash to gamble or drink over and over may not seem worthy of your children’s college funds any more. Furthermore, your experience is telling you that your “help” is not helping. It can often take many years and be very difficult to decide to cut loose, but in some cases there is no other road to improvement.

Sibling issues can lie dormant and then re-emerge during holiday gatherings, family reunions, weddings and funerals. The most dangerous ground of all is the inheritance. If the parents’ wills are not very well and/or fairly written, they will always be breeding grounds for whatever latent anger the siblings harbor toward one another. On a brighter note, siblings can draw closer as their parents pass away, finding strength in one another and in their link to their common past.

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