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Ask Sahaj: My sibling and I aren’t close. How can I change that?

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)
5 min

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy and a mental health professional, is answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for her, please submit it here.

Dear Sahaj: My older brother and I have our own unique relationship. We’re rather quiet people in general and have unspoken rules in our relationship. For example, our mom makes us hug and say “I love you” on Christmas, and we usually give each other a look of embarrassment because we know we love one another but this doesn’t need to be said or shown with a hug.

He’s five years older than me and there are gender differences in how we were raised as Mexican Americans. As the firstborn male, he had more freedom and got away with a lot more, while I was held to different standards as a daughter. This causes me to feel a bit of resentment, but more toward my parents.

Sometimes I think we’re so stuck in our reserved dynamic that it feels difficult to get out of it. We used to go out for burgers and talk. I’ve tried to say directly and indirectly that he doesn’t take me out anymore. He’s usually unresponsive or shrugs and that’s how he is with everyone around him. It’s hard to tell if he notices my bids to connect. It’s just hard when it involves two awkward people that never communicated well to begin with.

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Now, we’re adults with full-time jobs, friends and hobbies, and he has an infant. Life is busy for us both, but I want to get back to where we used to be of having burgers and catching up. I know nothing about him as a person any more and he probably knows nothing about me too, and this hurts sometimes.

How can we go back to being siblings who engage with one another without the discomfort and awkwardness of breaking our silence?

— Silent sibling

Silent sibling: Sibling relationships are often overlooked yet incredibly important relationships in our lives, so it makes sense that you’ve been thinking a lot about you and your brother’s dynamic.

The reality is that siblings can grow up in the same environment and be completely different people in the ways they show up with others. This can be because of gendered socialization, genetics, birth order, childhood experiences and overall differing relationship with parents.

In order to let go of any residual resentment you might have, you’ll need to accept your brother for who he is today. He’s not the same person he was when you were kids, and neither are you. Essentially, you’ll want to approach this as learning about a new person in your life despite having known him forever.

It seems like there were different gender roles that shaped your family system growing up. So it will be important to consider how you yourself have internalized these gendered differences and expectations, too, and how you may consciously or not be imposing these expectations on your relationship with your brother. For example, I hear you say “he doesn’t take me out anymore,” which can imply a level of expectation and reverence that could be causing more distance.

Both people play a part in any relationship dynamic. If things feel unspoken or reserved between the two of you, then it makes sense that you have both been responding to the other’s continued silence and reservation — hence you’re stuck in this feedback loop where nothing is changing.

It’s time to broach this head on. When we don’t communicate what we are thinking or feeling and expect someone else to know, we will always be disappointed in the relationship. It may feel like you have made attempts to connect, but sometimes people need to be told more than once.

It also sounds like something else is holding you back: a fear of vulnerability. But for your dynamic to change, you will have to change the way you show up in it. Start with smaller steps. Maybe you ask more questions about his life and take more of an interest in his kid.

And instead of focusing on how you used to connect, consider new ways. This may look like doing an activity together rather than talking over dinner — that could take away some of the pressure of having to fill the silence or hold a long conversation. You could also try to connect over text by checking in more casually, or by sending funny memes or videos that make you think of him.

Sibling dynamics don’t change overnight, but again, it’ll be less overwhelming to approach the relationship as a new one rather than one you have to completely change. And this shift in thinking might also allow you to view your brother as his own person — rather than an extension of you and your family dynamics.