Figuring Out Our Sibling Relationships

by | Feb 15, 2012

“Siblings are, for better and for worse, each other’s ultimate fellow travelers. Whether their bonds are comfortable or uncomfortable, or a little of both, they are co-voyagers in a world without many enduring reference points,” says Stephen Bank and Michael Kahn who co-wroteThe Sibling Bond, Basic Behavioral Science.

Families are complicated social systems. Demographics show that most children grow up with siblings. The variability of these relationships is due to multiple factors including gender, temperament, birth order, and age differences. These relationships are also influenced by parenting behaviors and parents\’ marital relationship, and any other family conflicts. Sibling relationships can often cause just as many good and bad feelings as any other relationship while they help us develop ourselves as individuals. Relationships with siblings are often the most enduring that we will experience in our lives, since most children outlive their parents and these relationships start earlier than those we initiate with friends or significant others.

There is an association involving perceived parental favoritism and antagonistic relationships between siblings. Siblings often can and do recognize that being treated fairly does not necessarily mean being treated equally, however, when actual preferential treatment occurs, sibling aggression, rivalry, and avoidance may result. Dr. Deborah Gold in the book, The Encyclopedia of Adult Development by Robert Kastenbaum, described five classes of sibling relationships based on their association with each other.

The Five Classes of Sibling Relationships

  • Intimate: are very close and dedicated. Both siblings value this relationship above any other.
  • Congenial: are friendly, remaining close and caring but putting other (i.e., marriage and parent-child) relationships in higher regard.
  • Loyal: are based on shared family history. They are in regular contact, attend family functions, and support each other during critical times but nothing further
  • Apathetic: have no strong feelings toward each other, either way, and are not in contact much, if at all.
  • Hostile: these relationships develop out of feelings of rage, bitterness, and other negative emotions.


Rivalry is the basis of the majority of sibling conflicts. In a normal family, each child wants and will fight (literally or figuratively) for the attention the others receive. Small children do not understand; they only perceive another child (a competitor), and will try even harder to garner more parental notice. Rivalry occurs in conjunction with other dimensions of control, conflict, and even friendliness. Some studies show that the siblings who exhibit the most rivalry are often more likely to collaborate, and show affection and support.

Although most researchers agree that sibling relationships change as children reach and progress through adulthood, they disagree about the changes. Some describe an hourglass-shaped sibling relationship, in which closeness and interaction gradually decrease in early adulthood, are low in the middle adult years, and rise again with advanced age; while others feel that frequency of contact decreased with age in early adulthood, stabilized during middle age, and declined sharply in later adulthood. Still other researchers find that sibling rivalry decreased and feelings of closeness increased with advancing age. Interestingly, each individual considered their sibling a close friend throughout the life cycle.

There are two hypotheses that help explain why many sibling relationships continue throughout adulthood. One is based on the rules that parents teach their children: e.g. be loving, kind and helpful toward your brother and sister. The second theory is that siblings feel comfortable in their relationships. Familiarity is important; real or threatened separations upset them.

Much of our adult emotional and social influence can largely be attributed to the quality of our sibling relationships early on. A sibling is instrumental in teaching us how to act in social situations.

Sibling relationships often last an entire lifetime. Whether good or bad to begin with, all relationships change over time and may be eliminated, reinforced or altered by later experiences.


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