If “The Brady Bunch” were a reflection of real life, siblings wouldn’t have any troubles worse than slight jealousy and the rare football-throwing mishap.
But as you may have noticed from your lack of bell bottoms and end-of-day cheesy life lessons, “The Brady Bunch” lands quite some way from the truth (sorry, Brady people, but you’re not in the hard-hitting HBO drama you once thought).
On TV, sibling relationships are treated as a special, unique, unbreakable bond that can never be broken. In real life, however, you’re simply different people that have wound up living in the same house through no choice of your own, sometimes making it cooooooomplicated.
Shared parents, living spaces, and begrudging holiday snaps don’t mean that your sibling relationships will or even should be close. Sometimes, a sibling may even wield a harmful influence on your life.
So what can you do?
We spoke to psychologists in search of the best ways to recognize toxic behavior, mend broken relationships, and learn when it’s time to cut ties completely.
“Sibling relationships are complex,” says licensed social worker and therapist Shannon Thomas. “Society expects that we should be besties with our siblings, especially if they are the same gender. If we don’t have a close relationship, we often feel embarrassed to admit it to friends. We think, Who doesn’t like their siblings? Many people, actually.”
Thomas says that many of her clients experience guilt over sibling relationships that are less than perfect, even though it happens all the time.
(There are also plenty of misconceptions about people who don’t have any siblings.)
In a survey about family estrangement in adults from the University of Cambridge, 68 percent of participants felt stigma and shame after detaching themselves from a family member.
Out of 807 participants, 361 people were estranged from a sister, 362 parted ways with brothers, and 118 split from both. Though a difficult relationship with a sibling feels especially hurtful and personal, it’s more common than it seems.
But when does a relationship go from unpleasant to toxic? And how do you know it’s time to call it quits with someone you’ve shared so much of your life with?
Estrangement can be bittersweet, but it’s sometimes the best thing for you.
“Toxic siblings cannot only be a burden to you but can create pain for the rest of the family,” says Kristen Fuller, MD.
“There is no black-and-white line of when an individual should cut their siblings out of their life, but there are many questions you can ask yourself when attempting to decide whether or not your siblings are too harmful to hold a valuable presence,” Fuller advises.
Consider these queries when dealing with the family member in question:
- Have you considered going to therapy specifically to figure out how to help your sibling?
- Have you talked to other family members about this situation? If so, what did they say?
- Was there ever a point in your life at which you were close with your sibling? If so, at what point did you start to drift apart? And what caused it?
- Has your sibling ever physically harmed you or broken the law?
- Does your sibling make you feel unsafe?
By answering these questions, you’ll get a clearer picture of the relationship you have with your sibling. And if you can seek consultation with a therapist to answer these questions, all the better.
(Parents can also be the source of some relationship anxieties — here’s how to work out if you have a healthy connection with them.)
A therapist will be able to give you an objective view of the situation and provide tools to deal with a sibling who’s probably going through problems of their own.
Now, if the sibling has threatened or physically hurt you, Fuller says it’s best to remove yourself from their life right away. It’s not worth risking your own safety for a family relationship.
But, if the relationship isn’t directly threatening, there are ways to try to make the relationship work.
It can help to know the signs of toxic manipulation — we put together a guide to doing so.
“Hey, sis. How’s it going? You’re making my life miserable, and I don’t want to see you anymore. I thought you might like to know.”
OK, fine, maybe that isn’t the best way to start a conversation about how your sibling has impacted your life, but it’s important that you share your feelings with honesty.
In the Cambridge survey mentioned above, most respondents wished they could have a more positive, loving sibling relationship with less judgment and criticism.
“If we find ourselves anxious before or after seeing them, or their behaviors cause us to seriously doubt ourselves and life decisions, we need to take a step back and assess if the relationship is more harmful than beneficial,” Thomas says.
So if your sibling has let you down time and again, constantly judges you, or seems to use you like an ATM instead of a family member, you need to let them know, Fuller says.
They may not respond positively to your honest talk. But openness gives you both a chance to air out your grievances and potentially start healing.
If they’re particularly passive aggressive, here’s how to deal with communication.
After you’ve expressed your feelings, it’s time to put actionable steps in motion to try and change the relationship for the better.
“Create a time-limited plan that includes quantifiable, observable outcomes that can help to guide your efforts and course-correct as needed,” says Lindsay Trent, PhD, a Bay Area psychologist.
So can you just say “stop being toxic” and call it a day? Sadly, no. That is almost guaranteed to make things worse. Instead, you’ll need to give your sibling firm rules and take note of how your relationship changes.
Trent recommends putting everything down in writing, so you have a tangible log of the steps you took to make the relationship work and your sibling’s response.
(This may also help with romantic relationships — it’s not a cure-all, but it can help you reconnect with people who play all kinds of roles in your life.)
This way, you’ll more easily see how things are improving. On the flipside, you’ll have proof that they’re getting worse if your sibling isn’t acting in line with what you agreed.
“Inviting your sibling to collaborate on a plan is a great way to help you co-create shared goals,” Trent says. “Their willingness to participate in this process can also serve as an indicator of how invested they are and if it is worth your time and effort.”
So, if you want to be closer, try to find ways you both can make that happen. Or if you’d like to receive less in the way of criticism, let your sibling know that your conversations cannot revolve around judgment.
It’s also important to learn how to take criticism — a bad relationship doesn’t only work one way.
Maybe a sibling is too needy or always asks for money and favors. In these circumstances, set limits on the amount of time you spend with them and resources you provide for them.
After setting goals, use positive reinforcement to help you both reach your goals, Trent says. It’s easy to gloss over the little moments when a sibling tries to change their behavior.
So, whenever you see a change for the better, recognize it and thank your sibling for the effort. By focusing on the good moments, the sibling has incentive to change, and you’ll also feel better about the relationship as a whole.
If the relationship is salvageable, positivity is going to reshape what you have for the better.
It can be hard to stay positive around negative people. However, it’s important for getting through life.
Unfortunately, not all siblings want to work through their hang-ups.
If you’ve shared your feelings with your sibling about how they have caused harm, and they have responded poorly without changing their behavior, it may be time to set boundaries with them.
For example, if a sibling is always asking you for money, it will eventually become harmful to you and your sibling to keep doling out cash. By enabling their lack of financial responsibility, they won’t learn how to manage their money, and you will continue to feel used.
By establishing clear boundaries, you can start to re-balance your headspace, while your sibling has to start facing the reality of their choices.
This may mean you only see them at large family gatherings, or that you let them know you will no longer engage in conversation with them when they start throwing personal insults at you.
If you’ve helped them out with cash in the past and only get contact when they need money or a place to stay, it may be time to tell them that you’ll be happy to talk with them when they no longer need something from you.
Boundaries can be extremely hard to maintain, but it’s the best thing for the both of you. It also doesn’t mean you don’t love them
Letting people use you as a doormat can lead to feelings of resentment. If you don’t deal with that resentment, it builds up, ruining any chance for a relationship.
And harboring resentment isn’t good for anyone.
Instead of lashing out from bottled up rage in the future, set boundaries now. Though you might limit your time with your sibling, you aren’t cutting them out of your life completely.
However, you are making it clear that you won’t continue to be used, and you won’t let their negative behavior overtake your life.
In extreme situations, you may need to cut ties with a sibling.
When you’ve tried to build bridges, and your sibling just keeps setting fire to them, it’s best to put your mental, physical, and financial health first and let the sibling go. At least for a little while.
“You have the option to take a break from your sibling,” Fuller says. “Encourage them to seek help. You can maybe potentially become close again after enough time and healing has passed.”
You can leave the door open for future reconciliation if and when your sibling takes steps to change their behavior. But in the meantime, it may be better for both of you to limit contact.
(You also shouldn’t apologize for how you feel.)
Again, maintain your boundaries. If you feel guilty for cutting a sibling from your life, look back on all the things you did to try to fix the situation.
Trent advises that you look back on your notes to see the list of all the actions you took to make things right. This won’t heal your pain immediately, but it may help you make some peace with your decision.
At this point, all the experts we spoke to recommended going to therapy. A mental health professional will be able to help you maintain the boundaries you’ve set up, deal with any family related guilt, and guide you through the negative memories of the toxic relationship.
Groups like Al-Anon for support can also help people maintain boundaries and recognizing other toxic or codependent relationships in your life.
(These and many other support groups, however, are currently not running a full service due to COVID-19, so check whether they’re operational in your area.)
Fortunately, most sibling estrangements don’t last a lifetime.
The Cambridge survey found that only 36 percent of participants thought they could never have a relationship with their sibling again (compared to 56 percent of people who were positive they’d never have a relationship with their mother — yikes).
Sibling connections can be complicated. But when you set boundaries and prioritize your own health, you’ll be able to live a better life — with or without your sibling.
“Walking away from a toxic relationship does not mean that you are completely shutting a door,” Fuller says. “It means that you are giving yourself enough space to heal.”
Sometimes, we can also feel a distance grow between ourselves and the family we meet along the way — our friends. Here’s how to heal when that happens.
Amber Petty is an L.A.-based writer and a regular contributor to Greatist. Follow along as she shares her weight-loss journey in her new bi-monthly column, Slim Chance. Take singing lessons from her via Sing A Different Tune and follow her on Instagram @Ambernpetty.