For most people, their siblings will be the longest-lasting relationships of their lives, potentially enduring all the way from birth until past the death of their parents.
Marked by both jealousy and conflict and love and loyalty, siblings are also some of our most complicated relationships. While a little over half of people describe their relationships with their siblings as positive, about one-fifth classify them as negative, and a quarter say their feelings about their siblings are decidedly mixed.
Here to take us on a tour of the complex landscape of sibling-dom is Geoffrey Greif, a professor of social work and the co-author of the book Adult Sibling Relationships. Today on the show, Geoffrey shares how our brothers and sisters shape us and how our relationship with our siblings changes as we move from childhood to old age. We discuss how the perception of parental favoritism affects the closeness of siblings and how a parent’s relationship with their own siblings affects the relationship between their children. Geoffrey explains how most sibling relationships are marked by the three A’s — affection, ambiguity, and/or ambivalence — and how the relationship can also become very distant or outright severed. We end our conversation with Geoffrey’s advice on developing a good relationship between your children and reconnecting with your own siblings.
Resources Related to the Episode
- Geoffrey’s previous appearance on the AoM podcast: Episode #360 — Understanding Male Friendships
- AoM Article: Forging the Bond Between Brothers
- Study: “How Experiences with Siblings Relate to the Parenting of Siblings“
- Study: “Differential Effects of Perceptions of Mothers’ and Fathers’ Favoritism on Sibling Tension in Adulthood”
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For most people, their siblings will be the longest lasting relationships of their lives, potentially enduring all the way from birth until past the death of their parents. Marked by both jealousy and conflict and love and loyalty, siblings are also some of our most complicated relationships. While a little over half of people describe their relationships with their siblings as positive, about one fifth classify them as negative and a quarter say their feelings about their siblings are decidedly mixed. Here to take us on a tour of the complex landscape of sibling-dom is Geoffrey Greif, a professor of social work and the author of the book Adult Siblings. Today on the show, Geoffrey shares how our brothers and sisters shape us and how our relationship with our siblings changes as we move from childhood to old age.
We discuss how the perception of parental favoritism affects the closeness of siblings and how a parent’s relationship with their own siblings affects the relationship between their children. Geoffrey explains how most sibling relationships are marked by the three A’s, affection, ambiguity and or ambivalence and how the relationship can also become very distant or outright severed. We end our conversation with Geoffrey’s advice on developing a good relationship between your children and reconnecting with your own siblings. After the show is over check out our show notes at aom.is/siblings. All right, Geoffrey Greif, welcome back to the show.
Geoffrey Greif: Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: So we had you on several years ago to talk about the nature of male friendship. You’ve also done research and writing about the nature of another type of relationship that has a big impact on our life. And that is the sibling relationship. As a professor who studies this stuff, how would you describe a sibling relationship? Like what makes it unique?
Geoffrey Greif: Sibling relationships are the longest relationships we have. They’re with us when we are born often. If we’re the oldest or older sibling, it could be the person with whom we spend most of our lives. We have these relationships longer than we do with our parents, longer than we do with our partners, spouses. Maybe if there’s a big age gap between you and your sibling or siblings, you may have a friend that you meet in kindergarten or something. But for the most part, these are the longest and I would argue probably the most important relationships that we have in our lives because they are so long and they define us in so many ways, both in relation to our parents, in relation to them. They’re the first intimate relationship we have. And they are there for us throughout the good times and if we have them, the bad times.
Brett McKay: So you’ve done research on friendship. How is the sibling relationship similar and different to a friendship?
Geoffrey Greif: One of the things that happens with friendships is of course is we can pick them up and drop them. If I have a toxic friendship or a friendship that turns toxic, I can decide to drop that friendship. A sibling is like a shadow throughout your whole life. Whether or not you are close or distant from that shadow/sibling, they are always with you and you do not have a choice about having them in your life and maybe you don’t have a choice if they are out of your life.
Brett McKay: So siblings relationship, it could be like a friendship. Some siblings are just like best friends, others not. They’re just indifferent or maybe they have a really bad relationship. But you also talk about how the sibling relationship is interesting because it is horizontal. You have this vertical relationship with your parents. But then even sibling relationships can sometimes resemble a vertical parent child type of relationship, correct?
Geoffrey Greif: Sure. If there’s a big age gap between siblings or even a small age gap, a two or three year age gap, they can certainly be a vertical or almost an intergenerational. If we think about parents up the line and grandparents up a line, that would be a vertical relationship whereas a horizontal relationship going across in your general age or in your general family hierarchy would be a sibling, it could be a partner, it could be a friend. Those would all be of course horizontal. And if you have children, that could be a vertical relationship with you at the top of that hierarchy. So it’s this interesting mix of with siblings is you’re dealing with somebody both from a horizontal point of view, but you have to come together when your parents age perhaps and become ill and deal with the vertical relationship. So it’s this fascinating intersection of the two that we all have to struggle with if we have siblings.
Brett McKay: And that’s what makes it sometimes really complicated.
Geoffrey Greif: Yes, because if we get along well with siblings, even then things can become complicated. Parents may live closer to one sibling. Parents may pull on one sibling differently than another sibling. So there are grounds for things becoming very complicated depending upon how intergenerational patterns in families have been handed down and how current patterns are being acted out either de novo or as a reflection of previous family patterns.
Brett McKay: So what I like to do with this conversation is talk about how the sibling relationship sort of changes from childhood to young adulthood to midlife, then also how those relationships with our siblings affect us. So let’s talk about sibling relationship and childhood. What factors influence whether siblings and childhood are going to be close or is going to be acrimony? What are some of the factors you found in your research?
Geoffrey Greif: I think some of this is of course luck. So while we can say people carve out their own relationships, I think there’s a certain amount of luck. Sometimes siblings born in the same family just adhere to different values like doing different things have different natures. And so those siblings may or may not struggle more to find common ground aside from the common ground that they have from birth. Obviously, there are people that are born with greater disabilities and that can cause hierarchical swings as to who is taking care of whom. There are gender issues that can be revisited in families. If you’re from a culture that values men more than women, you may have a different status even if you’re the oldest girl or the oldest boy. Families may wait for the firstborn boy to come along or if you have parents that have always wanted girls and they have a series of boys, the girl that comes along third or fourth may get special status. So there are a lot of things that even have nothing to do with the behavior that someone chooses that can imprint upon siblings some of the things that can affect you.
Of course, people are born with different talents. We’re all not the same. Some people are better at writing. Some people are better at math. Some people are better in sports. Some people are better in chess, et cetera. So the way that we develop our talents may configure more closely with one parent or the next or with neither parent. So there are fundamentally so many different variables that can come in to affect these relationships. Do children share rooms? Are they close in age? If they’re one year apart, they’re more apt to share friends in school and to be in closer competition than if they’re three or four years apart and are not the same sex. So there are many, many factors that can come into play that begin a trajectory that maybe continues with them through life or at least influences them through life. Though I believe you can always change the trajectory you’re on.
Brett McKay: One of the factors that I thought was interesting you talk about in your book about adult sibling relationships, about childhood sibling relationship is that birth order can influence sibling relationships. So the firstborn might have this expectation to be like, well, I’m in charge. I got to take care of everybody. It’s sort of like George Bailey looking out for his kid brother. And then even the birth order can affect… Parents are different based on birth order. Like the first time parents have a kid, they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re going to pay a lot of attention. Then the next kid comes along and they don’t pay much attention to the second kid. And then that can affect the relationship between the first and second kid.
Geoffrey Greif: Correct. The first child usually has more attention paid and maybe more, a more intense kind of attention for better and for worse. Of course, the other things that happen that affect the time with a child and the way the child is raised is what’s happening in the parent’s marriage, what’s happening in the parent’s work life. The thing that a third or fourth child may benefit from is that over the course of time, many people begin to earn more money. So a family’s financial situation may improve, or of course the reverse may happen. Somebody may lose a job and that will have an impact on the family situation, where the family lives, how often the family moves. So all these kinds of things can affect the parent’s ability to focus. You also talked about the fact that, and this happened in my wife’s family, she’s the oldest of three daughters. Her father was a middle child and focused on my wife’s next younger sister. So he, being a middle child, felt much more sympathy and much more support for her because of his struggles as a middle child. He connected and supported her. My wife’s mother was an oldest child and focused more and was more supportive of my wife.
And that left the third daughter to kind of be on her own and not have the same kind of attention or focus or maybe even affection as the oldest two. So all these things can play out in so many interesting ways.
Brett McKay: We turn to the idea of gender and its influence on sibling relationship. Do sister-sister or brother-brother relationships differ?
Geoffrey Greif: Yeah, what we found, and we did a lot of interviews and have a lot of data in the book, Adult Sibling Relationships, that I wrote with Michael Woolley, we did a lot of focus on the fact that it appears that when we talk to sisters, as opposed to brothers, sisters play a much more fundamental role in communicating with each other and with their brothers, in keeping connections open. I’m very interested, as you said, in men’s roles, and I’ve been studying men’s and women’s roles because you can’t study one without the other for my whole career. And men still fundamentally leave a lot of the emotional work in the family to the women. It may not be true of any particular person listening to this podcast, but in general and across a wider spectrum, women are more central in many of these families, and sisters are more emotionally focused and are going to spend more time trying to make the relationships work than our brothers. We did find differences between brothers. The older brothers, those 65 and over, tended to be much more the traditional man than the younger brothers, those in their 40s who tended to be more open and more emotionally expressive.
So I’m. Optimistic that men are moving in a good direction in terms of being able to play a more central emotional role and not just the functional financial roles that they sometimes play in family caregiving as parents age.
Brett McKay: Returning to the parents’ influence on a childhood sibling relationship and maybe how that affects the relationship in adulthood, you mentioned some factors. Parents, maybe their birth order may influence how they treat different kids. So if your parents are middle child, maybe they’ll focus more on the middle child. The parent’s job and kind of what’s going on in their life can influence the relationship. Any other things that parents do that can cause either the siblings in a relationship to draw closer together or to have conflict? Any other things you found in your research?
Geoffrey Greif: Yeah, that’s a really important question and this continues throughout life. So we found pretty clear data that if you are raised in a household where someone is favored much more than someone else, that obviously has an important impact both at the time and later. And we found strong connections between people who believe one or the other of their siblings themselves or the other sibling or siblings were favored and how close they were into adulthood. Now, of course, we’re looking at only siblings in adulthood, but we asked them to reflect back and we didn’t define in any great way what being favored meant. It was sort of a feeling. So if there is a favored sibling, there are two sides of that. Being favored can be of course really pleasant, but it can also be very unpleasant depending upon the way that the being favored plays out. Now there are some families where it was played off. It wasn’t a big deal. If there are a bunch of siblings and dad likes to hunt and I’ll say a son, it could be a daughter likes to hunt, everybody can sort of joke and say, oh, we know they really love each other.
They just go off all together all the time and hunt. And it’s not seen as necessarily being dismissed as a child. It’s just a public and comfortable acknowledgement that a parent and child really enjoy usually an activity together. So that can work out very well. Obviously, when favoritism comes to the feeling that someone is being neglected or not loved or not supportive, that’s also a very, very dangerous and more painful kind of experience for someone to have. So favoritism is a big thing and it can continue on into adulthood. There are of course, the other thorny issues around child rearing. If I have two children and one of them is born with a disability, I may have to spend more time and do more with that child. And in those families, there should be a great deal of communication about that. But you often get families where someone may have a hidden disability, a hidden challenge, a hidden disability where it’s sort of talked about, but not talked about, and maybe a child needs more support and more time and the less disabled or less challenged child doesn’t get quite as much attention. And that’s a really difficult thing for any family to balance.
So favoring is one issue. The second one is parental interference in the relationship. And again, parents should, if they can, let their children work out issues to the extent that they can without being interfered with. There are of course, times when parents, and we have a few chapters in the book on this, where parents have to step in and have to protect one child from another. There was a chapter where we interviewed a guy in his 60s who talked about having been physically abused by his older brother. Parents naturally had to step in there to protect them. But parents should be trying to stay out of their kids’ lives when they need to work things out, because if children are left to work things out as children, they’ll learn how to work things out as adults. So favoritism and interference that begins in childhood does affect how close children are when they become adults and how close they are with their siblings.
Brett McKay: Something that’s also interesting with favoritism is that there’s research that there’s more tension with adult siblings when there’s the perception that the father favors one of the siblings more, but the perception of a mother’s favoritism isn’t predictive of sibling tension. And something else that’s interesting about favoritism is that the child who feels like he or she is the unfavored one, their tendency for depression goes up and that tendency for depression carries with them into adulthood.
Geoffrey Greif: Yeah. Yeah. I think if you grow up thinking that you are not favored by your parents, then you are going to maybe be more likely to struggle with connections when you get into adulthood. You’re sitting in a classroom and the teacher doesn’t call on you, but your hand is up. That’s kind of a revisiting of what happens when you’re at home or you go to a fraternity party, a sorority party, a dance, and people are not sort of willing to dance with you or approach you or talk to you. You may think to yourself, here it goes again. I’m sort of being overlooked. That’s why some of these things that can begin as a kernel can sprout and continue to grow into adulthood.
Brett McKay: With the favoritism thing, it seems kind of tricky because there is a big subjective element to that. One child could feel like, “Well, mom and dad favor the other kid,” but it subjectively feels like everyone else looks like, not really. That’s, I guess, another factor. If just one child has a propensity to kind of have a negativity bias about everything, that can affect the relationship between siblings.
Geoffrey Greif: Yeah. It kind of opens up the question and maybe something I should have started with, a statement that no two people grow up in the same family. Yes, I’ve got an older brother and older sister and we grew up together, but I never had the experience of having me as a brother. So… And having the same configuration, we all are going to have different narratives on what our family history is like and what an event is like. No two people can agree a hundred percent on anything that they observe because they’re coming at it from a totally different perspective with a different person in the room than themselves. So the notion of a family narrative and I was favored, no, I was not favored, no, I was favored, no, I was not favored from one sibling to the next, or I was favored here, but I remember six months later you were favored there. Those are all narratives that families are going to have to work through.
Brett McKay: You also talk about in your research that a parent’s relationship with their own siblings can also influence the relationship their own children have with each other. What does the research say there?
Geoffrey Greif: Yeah, very interesting. What we found and we had to think about it for a while, we asked both sisters and brothers, in this case, mothers and fathers also, siblings that were parents, if they were close, if they perceived their parents as being close, I should say, with their own siblings when they were growing up. So if I grew up in a household where I saw my father being close with his siblings, I was more apt to be close with my siblings. So to be more succinct, father closeness or the perception of father closeness with his siblings would often tend to make somebody more close with their own siblings. And about a third of the people we interviewed said that they believed their father was close with his siblings. When it came to mothers, 80% of the people we interviewed said their mothers were close with their siblings, and that did not have the same effect. So, mothers were seen as being much more close in general, as we’ve said, with siblings, where it was in the minority that fathers said they were close with their siblings. So in those cases, having a father and growing up in a home where a father put a lot of value and was close with his siblings would tend to improve one’s own relationship with one’s own siblings.
Brett McKay: So just to recap here, kids who have a father who’s close with his siblings tend to be close themselves, but a mother being close to her siblings doesn’t seem to influence the closeness of her own children. Though what’s interesting is that there’s some research out there that shows that if a mother had a negative relationship with her siblings, her children are more likely to have positive relationships with each other. And the thinking is it’s because those moms try to correct for things that went wrong in their birth families. And so they’re intentionally trying to cultivate with their own kids a sibling experience and bond that they didn’t get to experience themselves. We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. So as you said earlier at the beginning, our sibling relationship is the longest relationship we have. And this is a person that’s in our lives that we, I don’t know, we kind of compare ourselves to them, like how we’re doing. In your research, do you find that children and then even maybe adults like shape their own identity in order to differentiate themselves from their siblings?
Geoffrey Greif: Yeah, not so much my own research because I didn’t do a lot on children. But yeah, from what I’ve read, it seems to be that siblings have to sort of find their own place in a family. And if your brother or sister is a great cellist, you may then decide to pick up the violin instead. So you’re not directly competing with the older and at least the beginning, the more competent player. Now, if you pick up the cello, as did your older sibling and you’re much better immediately, you may continue along with it. And these kinds of hidden or not maybe always overt forms of competition or choosing a different path can of course continue throughout life. And those can lead to all kinds of feelings. And one of the themes of the book about siblings and from our research is that these relationships are defined in our book as being a combination of great affection, but also often affected by ambivalence and ambiguity. That when we talk to people about their relationships and you talked about it initially, about how your sibling may be your best friend and the person to whom you’re closest in the world or your siblings.
And a lot of people said, I trust my siblings. I’m very close to them. They’re my best friend. I love being with them. There were also the minority of people that said that I’m mixed about my sibling. I haven’t been close to him my whole life. We grew up, we moved apart. Maybe we’ve come back together now to take care of mom and dad. And that’s been a struggle. So there might be a lot of ambivalent feelings. And just as we can all remember, maybe the million complimentary things we heard from our father or mother, maybe we can also remember the one or two, at least less complimentary things and those loom large. We have so many communications with our siblings that of course, some of them are likely to be negative and maybe those stick with us longer or perceived as being negative. And those can affect how we feel. Yes, I want my brother to do well in life, but do I want him to do as well as me? Or do I want to sort of say, aha, I won because that’s the way we used to compete as brothers when we were young.
So I think that’s a normal thing that we’re trying to help people to understand that it’s okay to have ambivalent feelings and still love your sibling. And that affection is a very strong feeling and it tends to grow over time. The other word to get in here is of course, the ambiguity. A lot of siblings we interviewed did not understand why their brother or sister did certain things as an adult. Why did she marry that idiot or why did he marry that jerk? I can’t understand it. I can’t understand their behavior. I don’t know why they continue to treat me like I’m 12 when I’m a competent adult who is navigating the world. So all these sorts of things, and I can’t understand why they’re close to dad or mom after all the horrible things he or she has done to them. So there’s the three A’s, the affection, the ambivalence, and the ambiguity that really, if you think about it and step back, I think characterize a lot of adult relationships. And again, we’re trying to say in the book, these are normal. Don’t think it has to be a Norman Rockwell kind of loving family.
There’re going to be ups and downs in families across 40, 50 years of family life together or 60 or 70 years of family life together or even longer now. So expect ups and downs, but try and focus on things that are working on the love that should be shown in many families.
Brett McKay: Staying in childhood and we’ll move on to young adulthood. I think a lot of research talks about how the parents influence children and shape children and sort of teaching them and whatever. But there’s other research that says, actually kids probably spend more time with each other, with their sibling than mom and dad. So what sorts of things are we learning from our siblings in childhood that carry with us into adulthood?
Geoffrey Greif: Well, we learn of course how to share the bathroom, how to share the kitchen, maybe how to share a bedroom or in some families even have to share a bed with a sibling. So there’s a lot of very, I could almost say forced physical closeness that comes along depending upon the size of the house and the number of children. And those can form a blueprint for how one forms intimate relationships as an adult. In some cases, it doesn’t mean you can’t change the way you were raised, but it will certainly influence what you are thinking about, how you feel about women and men and closeness. So I think all those early experiences do set the stage for, but do not have to be the final act on what happens when one comes into adulthood.
Brett McKay: Okay. So when you’re a kid, you probably spend a lot of time with your siblings, especially if they’re close in age to you. That’s like, it can be like the first 18 years of your life. You’ve got this person that you’re just constantly in contact with. How does the relationship change as siblings shift into adulthood?
Geoffrey Greif: Yeah. I think one of the greatest tasks in life is to figure out how to grow up, move away from home, perhaps with a partner, perhaps not yet still stay connected to the family. So that’s where the struggle comes in. How do we all grow up, perhaps get married, perhaps have kids yet still stay loyal or connected to our family? And so many people do grow up. They do leave home. They move out of town. They move away and they’re balancing their lives. They’re balancing maybe their partner or their spouse’s lives and families. And they’re trying to figure out how to stay close to both sides of a family in adulthood. And then as they age and their parents age and become ill, they then as siblings have to come back together as a group to figure out how to do the caretaking of parents, and how to negotiate if the parents die, when the parents die, how to negotiate the estate. And there may be well-meaning parents that will call me into the room and say, “Geoff, I want you to have that painting on the wall after I die.”
And I say, “That’s great. I’ve always loved that painting. Thanks, dad.” And then my brother comes in or my sister comes in and my dad tells my brother or sister the exact same thing because he forgot that he told me, well, my father dies. And then we struggle over who’s supposed to get that painting. And how parents divide up their estate. And of course, some siblings need more than others. Siblings may marry people that are school teachers and not earning much money or marrying people in business that are earning a huge amount of money. So there are always those things that maybe start to reverberate down to, well, here’s the favoritism again that happened when I was six. Or here I thought I had grown up and separated from the family and established myself as a competent adult, but I’m back again, dealing with the same issues I’ve always had to deal with the family. There they go again, repeating these patterns of favoritism or my being dismissed or my being favored. And I don’t want the burden of taking care of my other siblings. So there’s so many factors that can affect that.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, it sounds like when you shift into a young adulthood, that relationship with your sibling could drift apart, especially if you move out of state and you move far away from them. And then also you’re just getting busy with life, raising your own family, work, et cetera. And then as you shift into middle age and your parents get older and you have to be concerned about their health and helping them out, that’s when siblings are likely to come back together again.
Geoffrey Greif: Right. And of course, if they stayed in touch and stayed close, then that’s not a struggle for them. But if they moved away and they felt the need to establish an identity strongly different from their family identity, that may make other siblings somewhat resentful of them all of a sudden coming back into the fold if that person has drifted too far from the family.
Brett McKay: So let’s speak about that sort of young adulthood period. I guess the factors that influence whether siblings stay connected through that sort of young adulthood period, like 20s, 30s, maybe early 40s, is if they had a good relationship when they were kids and maybe they saw their parents had a good relationship with their siblings, that pattern is likely to follow through with them, correct?
Geoffrey Greif: Yes, it is. And of course, who they marry is important too. If they marry someone that values family life and staying connected to everybody on both sides of the family, they’re more likely to stay in touch and to be a force for pulling the family together. Some people grow up and are attracted to people that will help them separate from their families. Others are attracted to people that will help them to stay connected to their family. So there are all these different factors that come in play as you grow up and begin to establish a work life, establish a partner life, and then have children that maybe pull the family further apart or help the family to stay together.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it’s always interesting to kind of survey your friends about their relationship with their siblings. And like, some friends are like, “Yeah, I talk to my sister every day. We FaceTime each other.” And then there’s some other people that’s like, “Yeah, we call each other on Christmas and say, Merry Christmas. And that’s about it.” And it’s not like they’d hate their siblings. It’s like, “well, we’re just busy and it’s just not a priority for either of us.”
Geoffrey Greif: Right. Probably the seeds for that could have been sown in childhood or maybe they were sown in adulthood. Maybe they met somebody or have married somebody who is pulling them in a certain direction or maybe doesn’t even like the family all that much too. There are so many different factors that can come into play when people move away and have to go away to school for a special program or have to take a job on a different coast. So many of these factors can affect what happens with these relationships across the lifespan.
Brett McKay: And you mentioned another one early on, gender can play a factor. Sisters typically do more work to stay connected with siblings. Brothers, not so much.
Geoffrey Greif: Right. And of course, traditionally when taking care of older parents, the women would be the ones doing the physical care and sort of checking in while the brothers might be handling the money. And that’s at least historically because men were more likely to be in the workforce than women. That of course has changed with women taking much greater role in helping with the finances and men feeling more comfortable and helping with the physical care, the driving, the cleaning up around the house. So all these things are becoming more, I guess, intermixed and less specific to any one gender.
Brett McKay: So returning to this idea of classifying sibling relationships as affectionate, ambivalent and ambiguous. So you said the research shows in your surveys that most people, they have like an affectionate relationship with their sibling, but then also even those affectionate things can be sort of pocketed with ambiguity or ambivalence. And then some of them might just be completely ambivalent. I’m curious, how do two people who spend so much time together for perhaps two decades end up feeling completely ambivalent towards each other? How does that happen and what does an ambivalent sibling relationship look like?
Geoffrey Greif: Well, we grow up and we witness somebody else doing things that aren’t very nice to other people or to themselves. You may be in high school with your older or younger sibling and you don’t like their behavior. And that sort of begins a narrative in your head or continues a narrative in your head that my sibling wasn’t very nice to me when we were young and I see he’s not very nice to other people too. And yeah, he’s my sibling and mom and dad said we should always be close, but I don’t feel all that close to him because he’s just not the kind of person that I enjoy being around. So there are paths that people can take and there are ways that people can sort of not connect that may help to build a narrative that maybe has existed in the family for a variety of generations ahead and it’s getting played out. You hear your parents talk about not liking their own siblings or you don’t trust Uncle Joe or don’t trust Aunt Millie. And so you begin to be cautious around family and that can sort of feed into this narrative of I don’t really like this person but I’m stuck with them.
Brett McKay: And then also, yeah, you see your siblings how they treat your parents. Maybe they just cause a lot of stress and problems for your parents and you kind of resent that and you’re like, geez, I just don’t want anything to do with you because you’re causing mom and dad just so much grief.
Geoffrey Greif: Right. I think that’s a really good point. I think this notion that, and again, this gentleman who was in his 60s who was abused by his brother said in the interview that the brother was such a difficult person that the family never took vacations. They were just so focused on trying to control his behavior that there was sort of no fun in the family. He for whatever reason sucked all the fun out of the family. So I think that things can get going that make being together as a family just not as much fun as it might be if everybody enjoyed playing the same games together on Saturday night. If there’s somebody who was hanging out in his room and not wanting to join the crowd, it’s going to draw down the fun from the family.
Brett McKay: I think another factor that could play into the ambivalence between siblings is there’s research out there that shows that personality wise, two siblings are nearly as dissimilar as two people randomly drawn from the population. So siblings, they might look alike, they’ve got this shared history, but they often just don’t have a lot in common and their personalities just don’t jive. So I think that could be another factor that could contribute to ambivalence. So we talked about ambivalence and then with ambiguity, this is something where your sibling does something where you’re not sure what that meant. So for example, they didn’t invite you to this thing and you’re thinking, “Well, what does that mean?” And that ambiguity can actually lead to greater feelings of ambivalence.
Geoffrey Greif: Yes. I think the two definitely do feed each other. If you don’t understand why someone has acted towards you or towards somebody else, you tend to be a little bit more cautious around them and that’s going to engender more mixed feelings towards that person.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about siblings who just decide to just completely cut off or sever the relationship with their sibling. What does the research say about that? Like what causes those cutoffs?
Geoffrey Greif: People sometimes, again, don’t know why their siblings drift off. And the more siblings there are, if you’re one of five or six siblings, there’s more likely to be somebody who has decided to row his own way through the waters of life. So, it can be because of something perceived or something that happened at the hands of a parent that people want nothing to do with the family. It can be the feeling that I just don’t fit in here. It can be having a relationship with somebody, a partner or spouse that pulls you away from the family. It can be that you’re spinning in one direction and the other family members are spinning in another direction. There’s nothing really to do with anybody, just that you never really connected on any deep level and you may stay in touch every so often, but you really enjoy not being with the family. You don’t want to be put back into a role that’s uncomfortable. You have people that don’t go to their high school reunion 50 years later because they never had a good time in high school.
They didn’t like themselves in high school or they were bullied or not liked in high school. So, why go back to your reunion if it was never a happy time of your life? I think that’s the same sort of pattern that can happen in families. If you just struggled your whole life with connecting to your family members, it’s going to make it less fun to stay in touch and you may need, out of your own protection for your mental health or physical health, to stay away from your family.
Brett McKay: Can those rifts ever be mended? Have you seen people where there was a big cutoff, but then they kind of work together to bring the relationship back?
Geoffrey Greif: Yes, absolutely. And it happened with, again, this guy that I talked about that was physically abused by his older brother. They are now back in touch and this guy just flew out to spend a few days with his older brother who is now in his late 70s and pretty frail. So aside from that extreme example, people can always change. I can pick up a book and read something and change how I feel about someone. I can watch a movie and say, oh, those siblings got closer. Why can’t I get closer with mine? Maybe I’ll reach out. And I would encourage people to write a narrative for themselves that makes them feel good about their sibling relations. Even if you’ve got a sibling who is out of touch and seemingly doesn’t want anything to do with you, you may feel better about yourself if you continue to reach out once a year or once a month with a card or an email. Even if that sibling does not respond, you might like yourself more if you have written a narrative where you’re the one that’s reaching out.
Brett McKay: So returning to the sibling relationship in middle age. So they start coming back together because mom and dad has an issue. How does the relationship change? When you were kids, there might’ve been favoritism and sort of resentment about that. Does that stuff stay there or do you tend to grow out of that as you get into your 40s, 50s, and 60s?
Geoffrey Greif: We found a very clear change across time. People tend to trust each other more. They tend to be less competitive. They tend to like their siblings more across time. I think they tend to value their siblings more with time. That’s the great part about growing old. You become less focused on the small stuff and maybe more focused on the existential stuff. And siblings sometimes, even if they’re married, will turn to each other for care. There was one case that is an interview I did with a group of sisters. One of the sisters had died about a year before the interview I did. And the other sisters didn’t think that she had been well taken care of by her husband as she was dying. So, they sort of got on their horses and were trying to help out a lot and disagreed with the way she was being taken care of by her husband. So those kinds of things can cause people that are close to get closer. And the example of the brother can cause somebody who was very distant and cut off to decide over time, “let’s try and make something meaningful out of this last stage of our lives.”
Brett McKay: But as you said, there could be some conflict in middle age too. But it’s usually around mom and dad. Like what are we going to do with mom and dad or how are we going to do the estate? I thought it was interesting. There was some research in the book where you highlighted that in some sibling relationships, they actually start drawing further apart after mom and dad died. Did I read that right?
Geoffrey Greif: Yes, absolutely. So, you know, it’s not surprising, but at the death of the first or second parent, three things can happen in the sibling relationship. You draw closer because maybe mom was keeping people apart or you just never enjoyed the interaction with mom. You become more distant because mom’s house was where you went for Thanksgiving and she was the magnet that drew everyone together for the holidays. Or the death has no impact. My mother died at the age of 98 a few years ago after having dementia for a few years. So, we had already adjusted. We had accepted she was going to die, that she was no longer a force, that we were going to work out how to take care of her, which the three of us did. And her death didn’t change our relationship at all because we had already absorbed her loss into the ongoing relationship that we had prior to her death.
Brett McKay: I’m curious, is there any insight from your work and then maybe the research of others on what parents can do who have kids at home right now to ensure their kids have strong sibling relationships from childhood into adulthood?
Geoffrey Greif: I think when parents show that they are trying to maintain a healthy relationship with their own sibling, first of all, that can be a role model. Secondly, I think discussions around how difficult emotional relationships are handled with others, which happens all the time when people talk over the dinner table about what happened at work or what happened at school or what happened with friends or family, I think all those are a template for children as to how parents might expect the children to handle their own relationships. So I’d be very aware of how intimate relationships, friendships are, and work relationships, and sibling relationships are all talked about because those are going to be important life lessons that children are going to hear and will affect how they see their own sibling. And of course, parents need to be attuned to when siblings need to be given their own identity, their own time with a parent. All those things are important in terms of not forcing siblings together if you can give them some space from each other. And of course, on the other hand, allowing closeness if that’s what they want.
Brett McKay: What about people who’ve got adult siblings and they want to strengthen those relationships? Anything from the research or your work there that can help?
Geoffrey Greif: Reach out to them. Most of the requests I get for help, I get people who read the book and say, “Can you help me with a relationship I wish I was closer”? Is usually what we get. The other side of that is that, “I don’t want to be as close as this sibling wants to be with me.” So it’s usually around someone has drifted away and I want to reestablish a relationship. One approach I got from somebody a few years ago was that something happened between my sister and me many years ago, and she will never forgive me for that, yet I’m trying to get this relationship to work. And she thinks the sister sort of made more of it than she wanted to make of it. So there can be a lot of things around how close to get to a sibling that bring people into treatment. And again, I think to work that out, you’re going to want to have to have both people willing to change or open up a little bit about what they want the relationship to be and drop what the relationship was. That requires maybe some level of forgiveness, depending upon who feels they need to forgive.
And that’s going to be a willingness to move forward. The important thing to remember is that how those relationships get worked out in adulthood, send a powerful message to your own family. So if I’m not close to my siblings, am I sending a difficult message to my own children about how important I think their relationship is? And that’s where you can attempt to change the narrative and say, I’m going to try and reach out, even if she doesn’t respond to me, even if he doesn’t respond, I’m going to feel better about myself if I want to continue to try and build a positive, healthy relationship. And that’s how you should handle other relationships in your life is the message to give your kids.
Brett McKay: Well, Geoffrey, this has been a great conversation. Is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Geoffrey Greif: I guess aside from going to Amazon and looking at the book, and that’s where sort of most of the information will be, will be in the book.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Geoffrey Greif, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Geoffrey Greif: Thank you, Brett. This was great.
Brett McKay: My guest there is Geoffrey Greif. He’s the co-author of the book, Adult Siblings. It’s available on amazon.com. Check out our show notes at aom.is/siblings, where can you find links to resources, where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you could do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLY as a checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review of our podcast on Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to AOM Podcasts, but put what you’ve heard into action.