Siblings: Love 'em? Hate 'em?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Siblings can be our best friends or our worst enemies, and sometimes getting along with our brothers and sisters can be a huge challenge and can shake up the whole family. Philip Galanes, New York Times Social Q’s columnist (who has 2 brothers), offers his sage advice on how to deal with siblings—rivalries and all. 

Parents can play a major role in how siblings interact with one another, both as children and as adults. “Based on the letters that come in to me, I see that the more mothers and fathers try to intervene [between their kids], the weirder and the more complicated the competitiveness and anger gets.”

Several listeners called in about their estranged siblings. Galanes notes, “There are so few people who will know us like our brothers and sisters and it’s a sadness not to have them in our lives.” But that doesn’t mean that you should always pursue a relationship with a tricky sibling. “If they only represent pain and they only represent…feeling less than every time you’re with them, why subject yourself to it?” 

Whatever problem you’re facing with your brother or sister, Galanes says it helps to keep this in mind: “It’s never the family you wished for…and yet somehow we have to persist and live with them.”

Galanes is the author of Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today


Philip Galanes

Comments [50]

Frances from uptown

This is such a painful subject for me. I have a sister who does not talk to me. She recently told our mother she doesn't even know me. I have to admit there have been years when we did not try to be in each others life. I recently asked our mother why she never tries to help us mend our relationship. Her response is why should I help two adults fix their problems. I am so hurt. What should I do?

Apr. 09 2014 11:47 PM

My parents had 8 children and encouraged us to be very competitive in academics, sports... whatever someone could excel in. They praised us for doing well and consoled us for 'defeats.' We often had to compete with each other (ugh). But no one got special treatment for 'winning.' There was only one rule with dire consequences if broken - NO HITTING - (NO touch but gentle touch); the folks would never get involved in verbal fights. Somehow it all worked well because all 8 are are good friends today.

Apr. 09 2014 01:36 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

Louise and Seth - You're both right, of course. Ironically, I used to pester my mother about holidays and her "family only" policy for invites. I grew up in the 70s/80s, and my parents were all for we four children to do whatever we wanted; no one was forced to play with or otherwise share with the others. As time went on, most of us--but not all--chose to be friends, but it's been challenging. You can't, as parents, enforce "togetherness," even though it seemed like some of the happy-clappy friends I had benefitted from that with their siblings. As a result, my definition of family is definitely wider than my mother's. Many here make a good point about the fact that we can simply choose--and not agonise over siblings that don't encourage a good relationship. Perhaps it's best to mourn and move on.

Apr. 09 2014 01:35 PM
fuva from harlemworld

What about when your siblings CAN'T help you? When they just don't understand, etc., whether they want to help you or not, yet they are forever running to you with things and you are always there?

Apr. 09 2014 01:14 PM
Lisa from Hoboken

I have two college-age boys who get along really really well. I attribute that in great part to advice I heard when they were toddlers: Don't get involved in their disputes.
If they have a fight, and come running to you to settle it, just say: "I didn't see it; you'll have to settle it yourselves."
The real magic of this: When mom's attention can't be achieved through a fight, there is way less incentive to have a fight in the first place.

Apr. 09 2014 12:45 PM
becky from nyc

MUST shout to the hills or from the tallest high rises, MY siblings are FANTASTIC! As the middle of 5, these 4 dear best friends will always, always be there for me. So will their spouses & children, so will my many cousins for that matter.
We never had money growing up & we all have our own states since growing up but regardless, we love each other all, foibles & all, unconditionally; can hardly imagine anyone feeling otherwise.

Apr. 09 2014 12:41 PM

My brother and I are very close. We spent a lot of time together because our parents went out every weekend and left us alone so we developed our own relationship.
Though we both always say, that we would never be friends if we were not related because we are completely different in every way.

Apr. 09 2014 12:40 PM
Rachel from Ramsey nj

I am the mother of 3 boys who for the most part get along well and I just want to say this is a very valuable conversation to listen to from the perspective of a parent. I am one of 4 children (all of whom get along well to this day) and never appreciated how much birth order and sibling relationships shape our lives until I had my own children.

Apr. 09 2014 12:39 PM
Tina from Brooklyn

I've never realized how grateful I should be to be an only child.

Apr. 09 2014 12:39 PM
Ellen from Manhattan

I'd like advice about sibling rivalry as a Mother to her 3 children. I have boy-girl-boy and oldest boy is mean / jealous to his sister. We are constantly trying to get him to treat her better, be nicer, stop torturing her. She fights back smartly and it's just constant! Our daughter and youngest son get along wonderfully (and normally).

Apr. 09 2014 12:38 PM
L from NYC

As a kid my older brother and his friends sexually abused me. As a teen I blocked the memory out with drug abuse but managed to still have a 'sibling-like' relationship with my brother. Now that I am an adult, (no longer blocking memories with substance abuse) I can't be in the same room/space as my brother, I get nauseous, my heart rate goes crazy, and my breathing gets strained.. But, when I speak with my brother over facetime/skype now that he lives in Europe I don't have any physically negative response, I wonder if I will ever be able to speak with him in person the way I can over the phone.

Apr. 09 2014 12:37 PM
fuva from harlemworld

Hold up...the sister in the adoption dilemma is protecting a father whose new family doesn't know about HER EITHER? And she feels obligated to keep his secrets? She may need to help him, by telling some of the too many secrets he keeps...

Apr. 09 2014 12:36 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Could the caller whose sister was put up for adoption ask her (their) father about telling her who he is? If he knows he's not likely to live much longer, he might change his mind.

Apr. 09 2014 12:36 PM
Judie Chorba from Hamilton NJ

How do you deal with a sibling who has mental illness? Over the years, I have tried to reach out and become closer, but inevitably, my sister may stop taking medication and our relationship just goes as a result. Each time, it is as if she dies somehow, I god through a sort of grieving process and it starts all over. I really feel sorry for her, but I have reached the point where I don't want this type of roller coaster relationship. I also disagree that siblings know you best. She makes no effort to really know me - she can't know herself.

Apr. 09 2014 12:36 PM
louise from NYC

I disagree with the guest taking the position that "it's worth it" when siblings have what clearly are super toxic relationships. As an artist living in NYC for over 20 years, I have re-created my family. Blood is only that-- if the sibling isn't "there for you" now-- why would there be any expectation of that changing in the future? The definition of insanity. . . . I took care of my dying mother while my sister and her husband generated excuses for not helping. I cleaned out her house, sold her belongings, paid her bills-- ALONE. This is not something that we can get together and an apology happens and then we become a happy family. This is an example of accepting that this person who I am related to is damaged and is never, ever going to be supportive. TO the guest: why would I keep going back to that?? For anyone out there with a toxic sibling-- LET THEM GO. It is NOT worth it. It is okay not to have a relationship with a blood relative!!!!!

Apr. 09 2014 12:36 PM

I have had a difficult relationship with my sister
what do you do when a sibling forgets/ignores your child's birthday?
do the same to their child?
(especially if you cannot discuss anything with the sibling as they are always right and I am wrong)
it seems best to ignore the antic?

Apr. 09 2014 12:35 PM
Marie from Brooklyn

I'm married to the oldest of four boys who range in age from 60-53. The four boys were quite close growing up but relationships have been strained over the past ten years. The wives/girlfriends have nothing in common and don't live near each other. The mother of the four boys will leave a mess when she dies as the will is weighted towards the eldest who is caring for her. This will not sit well with the other brothers who are not aware of the situation. I'm afraid these strained relationships will become toxic then non-existent after the mother's death. The mother, who is 92 and still sharp, has no interest in discussing emotions or relationships. How can a family fight be avoided?

Apr. 09 2014 12:35 PM

I love my sibling but the relationship is consumed by his issues. Granted he has many and I hope to be of help by listening and giving advice when possible, but at times it is too much. I often feel overburdened and there is little reciprocity. I don't wish to be selfish but are there limits?

Apr. 09 2014 12:34 PM

I used to have a lot of sibling rivalry with my older brothers. Most of it was in my own mind. They all had talents that came natural to them and I was very jealous. Once I found my own natural talents and became more confident in myself, my relationship with them got a lot better.

Apr. 09 2014 12:34 PM
Mia from Manhattan

Dear Leonard,

I LOVE these Philip Galanes episodes. Please, please, please consider doing a future one with him about office etiquette and behaviors.


Apr. 09 2014 12:34 PM
lin from NYC

My brother passed away 7 years ago. WHen he passed away I wanted to read
books on grieving a sibling and was shocked to find only ONE book specifically
addressing siblings. Despite the importance of siblings it is quite amazing
that society at that time anyway didn't think the death of a sibling was as important
top address as the death of parents, etc.

Apr. 09 2014 12:34 PM

I think parents have a responsibility to make sure siblings don't disparage each other. Parents often create or aggravate the sibling rivalry, by agreeing with a sibling that disparages another, or by failing to intervene when one sibling is unfair to another. I don't agree that parents should be hands-off in situations when there are difficulties between siblings -- they should foster a good relationship between them by discouraging this.

Apr. 09 2014 12:33 PM
Scott from Maplewood

Why all the angst? If your siblings make you uncomfortable or you just don't like them, why are you obligated to maintain the connection?

Apr. 09 2014 12:33 PM
Emily from Queens

My sister and I have a great relationship, with one exception. Since she became a born-again Christian, there are certain topics that we can't discuss. She wants me to become a Christian, but I do not. I try to be respectful, but I feel like my beliefs are not being accepted.

Apr. 09 2014 12:31 PM
Mia from Manhattan

I discovered after the death of my last parent that I actually have an older half-sibling out there somewhere (likely in NYC). As I try to find this person to at least ask for some basic information about the father I never knew (this person grew up with "our" father, I never knew him, never even seen him in pictures) and about any family health issues on that side of the family, do you have any tips for how to approach this person?

I was raised by a single mother because I was the result of an affair "our" father had with my mother, and my mother proceeded to take the man to court to force him to admit paternity, which he reluctantly did. I am sure this situation caused a lot of grief between him and his wife, so I am anticipating the half-sibling (possibly an only child like me) may not be thrilled to meet me.

Thank you.

Apr. 09 2014 12:31 PM
Randy deutsch from Riverdale

My son married a woman who had a child. Now he and she have a 16 month old toddler and their other son is almost 9. I'm an only child, as was my son. I'm wondering what kind of issues can be predicted - good or bad - from this large age divide.

Apr. 09 2014 12:31 PM
M from NYC/FL

Better to be skeptical and question motivation and be the stand offish
person than the stupid good hearted person who lets most people in.
I dont have the answer to this dilemma. Ive been devastated by so called

Apr. 09 2014 12:30 PM
Seth from UWS

There's no law that says you have to love your family. Give it up! It was an uncontrollable twist of fate that you got stuck with a bunch of neurotic wackos.
Who cares? It's so ridiculous. You can't make siblings like you any more than you can make strangers like you.
Family is overrated. if you need a friend, just buy a dog already.

Apr. 09 2014 12:30 PM
Estelle from Brooklyn

After reading all the difficult sibling relationships in this comment page, I have to add a happy note. My sister is 12 years older than me and she helped bring me up. Well, she can get bossy still, but it's because she cares. We joined forces caring for my my mother with Alzheimer's. Now we are elderly and we both think of each other as best friends.

Apr. 09 2014 12:28 PM
tom from astoria

So far your conversation hasn't mentioned the biggest trend I see out there in families, including mine: INDIVIDUALISM and selfishness that allows children to neglect the normal responsibilities of children toward older parents. In traditional society a great deal of patience and respeat is due to parents. In our society, very often the parent is shut away in a home for the convenience of mid aged kids.

Apr. 09 2014 12:26 PM
Kira from Brooklyn

I lost my older sister suddenly in 2011 and it made me realize how big her influence was on me and how I had taken her presence in my life for granted and in many ways sabotaged our relationship by holding on to old childhood behaviors and wounds. I wish I had matured faster and realized how important she was to me before I lost her.

Apr. 09 2014 12:26 PM
Luis Carlos from Brooklyn

My brother ANTAGONIZES me all the time. I love him, but it is ridiculous.
He seems to do do everything backwards at time.

The antagonizing is competition and an effort to "show me / impress me".
I'm 3 years younger; we're only two of a broken marriage.
And I guess you can say I'm the successful one.

I told him once about this antagonizing, he is always CAUGHT embarrass.
He doesn't acknowledges and with time, he just starts doing it again.


Apr. 09 2014 12:26 PM
Mike from NY

I am a younger brother now in my mid forties. I am very much treated as the incapable, "kid brother" by my brother and my parents as well. I have to disagree with Philips idea of talking to family members individually. Instead I have come to realize that there is not much I can do about their perception of me outside dealing with them as the adult that I am. Same as in all of my other relations.

Apr. 09 2014 12:25 PM

Does it really matter?

Apr. 09 2014 12:25 PM
CJ Bayside from Bayside

I lived with our Mother and my younger sister and 2 older brothers lived far out of state. When our Mother required emergency surgery and then hospice care at least one of my sibs was always at my side. I have taken her death very hard and my sibs have given me unconditional love and support. I didn't know how lucky I was to have such a wonderful family until now.

Apr. 09 2014 12:24 PM
Miriam from Long Island

I have one sister who has a difficult personality to deal with-- she knows everything, asks way too many questions of everyone, and is controlling. I love her and try to see her one on one. How to deal with the fact that my husband and kids do not enjoy spending time with her and her family (basically just don't want to spend time with her)? We try to avoid having them over too often, but I feel caught in the middle.

Apr. 09 2014 12:24 PM
Sprite from NYC

for the brothers who don't get along, in Kaballah they would say the older brother's Tikun is to look after the younger brother. the fact that the brother is sooo difficult towards the older sibling may hint at a past life transgression between the two and in this lifetime the older brother must make up for it by looking out for his younger, ungrateful brother.

Apr. 09 2014 12:20 PM
Judie from Saratoga springs

I was the youngest of two girls in our family. My sister and I fought like boys...punching, kicking, rolling around on the floor. She insulted/ridiculed me at every opportunity. My mother told me not to worry as one day I would be bigger than her and then she'd be sorry. As teens we just stayed out of each other's way. When she married, I cried for a week. I actually mourned her loss. We became very close as young adults, a relationship I will forever cherish. She died unecpectedly at 29 yrs and my heart was broken. I'm 69 now and still feel that loss. It's incredibly difficult when I hear others talk about their siblings as a cross to be born. Fights, injustices, anger. I only wish id known how short our time together was.

Apr. 09 2014 12:20 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

I am close to two of three of my brothers now, but growing up, I was closest to my youngest, the third brother. We were closest in age, and shared many friends. He's now lost to all of us, since entering into a second marriage with a woman who has kept him, at first, from family gatherings. Now that she moved him to FL, to be closer to her aging parents, he has all but cut everyone off. Even my mother, who has been staunchly standing for his return to contact with us, has given up.

I know that he has never had the best relationship with this second wife; they have been in counseling most of their marriage, and there have been some huge blowups in their history, according to my mother, the last of us to have contact with him. I have sent him letters of support, offers of a kind ear, and all have remained unanswered. I can't imagine being cut off from him for the rest of my life, but it's looking like I can do no more.

I am working on processing the loss of our connection. Is there nothing else we can do--as individuals or a family?

Apr. 09 2014 12:18 PM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

Philip, what do you think of when parents try to force close relationships between siblings on to their kids? I was very, very different than my sister as a kid - I was studious, she was a wild child - and I honestly didn't like her when we were teenagers, as we had nothing in common; I was the oldest. Yet, my mother constantly hounded me about how we should've been "best friends." I found that dynamic very difficult, because of the guilt attached to it. Thoughts?

Apr. 09 2014 12:18 PM
Amy from Manhattan

On the brother who co-owns the house w/his brother, did he say they talked it over (at other times) & his brother said he wouldn't do the same thing but then did? If so, could the caller point that out when it happens again & remind him that he said he wouldn't?

Apr. 09 2014 12:18 PM
Anonymous from B'KLYN

I am female, as an older sibling of two brothers, I was ASSIGNED to "Lord" over my younger siblings by our parents. It is a huge responsibility that follows us into adult hood. As kids I protected them, fought their fights etc..When my brother passed, as an adult, I totally blamed myself for not being with him or having him with me. My younger brother, I let his hand go completely, we barely speak...It is a double edged sword.

Apr. 09 2014 12:17 PM

When I was a volunteer on an Alzheimer Helpline, I often received calls expressing frustration about lack of cooperation among the children of a person with the disease. Frequently, one child (usually a daughter) bore most or all of the caregiving burden; sometimes one (or more) sibling was in deep denial. Often the siblings seemed to have a good relationship until confronted with this incredible stress.

Apr. 09 2014 12:15 PM
Colette from NYC

My then-alcoholic mother hid her pregnancy and placed my younger newborn sister up for adoption. I had no idea that I had a sibling until she found me several years ago. I am sympathetic to her pain and rejection at having been placed for adoption and try to be as kind to her as I can. My mother does not want to meet her, despite my entreaties. My sister demands to know who our father is. I have this information but he also does not wish to meet her and I feel that I should maintain his confidentiality. He is nearly 80, ill and has a wife and children who do not know that I or my sister exist and I feel that such a confrontation would harm everyone. What do you think I should do?

Apr. 09 2014 12:13 PM
Palisades from Westchester County

My half sister has always been envious and not very nice to me; she married a mean man. For years, I worked hard to overlook/forgive/endure their behavior, but when my sister, her husband and their child were repeatedly mean to me and to my kids, I just said ENOUGH. They are not reasonable people, they are angry and easily offended, and I felt that the only way to protect my kids and my self was to minimize contact.
I am tired of feeling judged by people for making this decision - it wasn't easy or quick - and I am firm on it.
Why do people try to encourage me to allow my family to continually be on guard or be bullied by awful people?

Apr. 09 2014 12:12 PM
tb from Astoria

In my 50s, I've almost given up on my sister. She is the only one living near my 86 year old mother and doesn't visit her more than maybe twice a year, not return her calls promptly. Nor get her kids to visit - what a simple joy this would be to my mother. Isn't it normal sometimes to have a distant relationship with a sibling rather than trying to force a closer relationship.

Apr. 09 2014 12:08 PM

For the last 20 years, the only time my sister has contacted me was when she needed money or when she was drunk and wanted to chew me or my spouse out for having a better life. I give her money when I can, and she will inherit half our dad's estate. But she also calls my dad and threatens to commit suicide or become homeless if my dad doesn't give her money (she tried this with me but I cut it off.) My dad's estate is not that large, and he may need it all as he ages alone. My dad feels victimized but is afraid to say no, and feels guilty for refusing her. Is there anything I can I do or say to stop this extortion?

Apr. 09 2014 11:47 AM
Joe from Brooklyn

It seems like once my parents died (especially my mother), my siblings and I have drifted farther and farther away from each other. Is this common? Can it be fixed?

Apr. 09 2014 07:45 AM
sherri w. from nyc

my mother recently died, a couple of years after my father. now, my brothers and I learn that we weren't treated equally in my parents' will. they decided to leave more money to our worse-off brother and less to the rest of us. why is this making me feel so terrible?

Apr. 08 2014 09:44 PM
Danny from Harlem

Any tips for getting past sibling rivalry? It seems like every time I talk to my mother on the phone she tries to make me jealous of my "more successful" sister...

Apr. 08 2014 05:21 PM

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