But you can initiate a process of change, even if your sibling isn’t on board. The ideas here come from a well-established practice called Family Therapy With One Person, and with mindful thought and careful action, you can implement them on your own.
Explore the root cause of your sibling dynamics
This work begins with your deliberations and reflections, proceeds to taking action and ends with having conversations with your brother or sister.
To gain insight into the problem, assume the role of “anthropologist.” Your dynamics today are most likely traceable to your family of origin, so you need to review the inter-generational “culture” of brothers and sisters in the household in which you grew up.
Often, without realizing it, parents assign certain roles to their children: the smart one, the funny one, the beautiful one, the ditzy one. Although the roles likely contain some elements of truth, nobody is that one-dimensional. Furthermore, these roles “imprint” us, and unconsciously we all start to manifest more and more of those qualities and interact with our siblings from these childish starting points.
Some of these models for sibling relationships go back to our parents’ relationships with their brothers and sisters. As you dig deeper, you may discover, for example, that your mother and her younger sister had a relationship characterized by one demanding and the other appeasing — and that that’s exactly what happens between you and your sister. Or maybe your father and uncle were in business together and one was a methodical thinker and the other a dreamer, just like you and your brother today.
Once these patterns come into view for you, you can begin to act differently to break a vicious cycle and inaugurate a “virtuous” cycle.
Here’s the full nine-step method for making that switch:
1. Determine your repetitive sibling pattern. Once you decide you genuinely want to improve a relationship that is distant, contentious, agitated or empty, the first step is figuring out the underlying emotional and behavioral pattern. Some examples: Your brother provokes, you seek harmony. Your sister demands, you placate. One of you is a giver, the other a taker. One aggressively confronts, the other meekly submits. These patterns are less linear than circular in nature: Each action elicits the same response. Trying to figure out “who started it” is fruitless. Blame is pointless, we’re in this together, and the work it takes to change is worth it.
2. Identify your place in the pattern. What do you do over and over again in response to your sibling? We’re all good at noting what other people do, but what’s your role in the interaction? This non-blaming recognition will help you to decide what you might change in your own behavior. Relationships improve when we stop trying to change others and take responsibility for our own actions and own a new role.
3. Plan one small and manageable change. If your usual dynamic with your sister is that she always needs support and you always provide it, try sharing a struggle you’re having and ask for her help. Be specific about what she can do. Relationships are not transformed all at once, but rather with thoughtful steps.
4. Anticipate “openings,” or moments in family life when change is more likely. These include times when other shifts are occurring, like the death of a parent, children leaving home, retirement, divorce or the birth of grandchildren. At such moments, people are more emotionally available and the dynamics are more fluid.
5. Consider who else will be affected. Whenever we change a pattern with one person, other relatives are often affected. If you and your mother are especially close and you begin to confide in your brother for the first time, how might your mom respond? If you and your partner have long discussed your brother’s unavailability and he starts to show up, expect some changes in your relationship with your partner. Also, because we tend to play out these same roles in other situations (at work, with friends), you could experience some changes there too.
6. Be prepared for positive and negative reactions. Moving out of a familiar pattern can be highly disconcerting to others. Don’t be surprised if your sibling’s initial response is to try to pull you back to the tried and true. If you have always been the helper in the relationship and now you are asking for assistance, watch out for a new call for help.
7. Maintain your new position. Pay attention to the pull to familiar patterns of anger and defensiveness — and resist. Think about ways to repeat your new place in the pattern, and start doing it. If your older brother has always been demanding and you have always placated, your refusal of a demand will likely not be met with applause initially. Calmly let your brother know how he might help you — or himself.
8. Watch for your sibling’s new responses. When you take a new and unexpected action in the relationship, observe how your sibling begins to behave differently. Stay determined and flexible.
9. Initiate a deeper conversation with your sibling. What changes would each of you really like to see going forward?
When your sibling relationship becomes less bound by old patterns, more real and open to allowing the differences between you to peacefully exist, your lives will become richer and more meaningful. Authentic connections with people who share your history and mythologies, who speak your special family language and can laugh at common foibles, are worth their weight in gold.
Evan Imber-Black is the program director of the marriage and family therapy master’s degree program at Mercy College and the director of the Center for Families and Health at the Ackerman Institute for the Family. This article has been edited for style and republished with the permission of our content partner Next Avenue.
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