With siblings, it’s complicated

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Carol Sorgen

Siblings Lee Oppenheim, Iris Ingber and Carl Oppenheim have grown closer with age, as they share the responsibility of caring for their 94-year-old father. Relationships between adult siblings can be a complex amalgam of affection, ambivalence and ambiguity, according to experts.
Photo courtesy of Carl Oppenheim

Our relationships with our siblings are, generally speaking, the longest relationships we have. “They are with us throughout life,” said Geoffrey L. Greif (rhymes with “life”). “They’re like a shadow.”

Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, has been teaching and practicing family, group and individual therapy for more than 40 years, and is something of an expert on siblings.

Apart from having two brothers himself, he also co-authored a book on the topic titled, appropriately enough, Adult Sibling Relationships. His co-author Michael E. Woolley, is an associate professor at the same school and director of research at the Maryland Longitudinal Data System Center.

Their book is based on extensive interviews and surveys with 262 people between the ages of 40 and 90 who had at least one living sibling.

Through their research, Greif and Woolley have observed that most sibling relationships are, as a rule, a mixture of affection, ambivalence and ambiguity. That means if you think your relationship with your siblings is complicated, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re pretty normal.

“Siblings give us sustenance and support,” said Greif, “but they can also cause us great pain.”

The authors found that only 8 percent of the people they interviewed said they were never close to their siblings, and only 22 percent said they had always been close. That leaves 70 percent whose relationships are a mixed bag of feelings, whether all at the same time or shifting through the years.

And that’s OK, said Greif. “There’s so much pressure for us to have a Norman Rockwell-type of relationship, but mixed feelings are normal. Don’t force it.”

Growing closer with age

Baltimore County resident Iris Ingber, who is 67 and a school nurse, acknowledges that there have been ebbs and flows in her relationships with her two younger brothers, Carl and Lee Oppenheim.

“We weren’t close as kids,” she recalled. “We had our arguments.” Though 64-year-old brother Carl, a dentist, observes, “It was just kid stuff…there was no lasting animosity.”

And while they admit that they wouldn’t characterize themselves as “best friends,” their relationships are important to each of them.

Distance has some effect on how often the siblings see each other. Lee and his family lived in England for five years and now live in Northern Virginia, where Lee, 66, works for a government agency.

Meanwhile, Iris and Carl and their families have remained in Baltimore. As a result, Iris sees Carl more often — every Friday night, in fact, as she continues a tradition her parents began of Friday night Sabbath dinners.

The three share responsibility of caring for their 94-year-old father, though both Lee and Carl note that Iris “takes the lead.” “Occasionally I disagree with a decision,” said Lee, “but we always talk about it and work it out.”

For Carl, his relationship with his siblings was fostered by his parents. “My parents taught us to be generous, honest and thoughtful,” he said. “I think of my brother and sister in those terms. They’re good people. They’re people I like to know.”

Sisters Freddye Silverman, 66, and Randy Jacobs, 63, have not always been as close as they are now. With a three-year age difference (and a four-grade difference in school), as youngsters the siblings didn’t socialize with each other and had no friends in common. In fact, Silverman would lord her older sister status over Jacobs. “I’d lock her in the bathroom in the basement,” Silverman recalled with a laugh.

What the sisters did have in common was the experience of living with, in essence, three mother figures at home — their own mother, a grandmother and an aunt.

When Silverman, now an HR technology consultant, left for college, her sister wasn’t thrilled about being left behind to deal with so many people telling her what to do, and not having Silverman there to act as a “buffer,” or at the very least, commiserate with.

Jacobs began visiting Silverman in New York and established an adult relationship that has grown closer through the years.

Jacobs, the director of clinical operations at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, is divorced, but is always included in Silverman’s family activities and even invited to events hosted by her sister’s friends. They socialize together and belong to some of the same organizations.

Still, neither hesitates to admit that Silverman remains “the older sister.”

“Freddye is the risk-taker of the two of us, and will drag me into things,” said Jacobs, “whether it’s to change jobs, try something new, buy a piece of art, or redo my kitchen.”

“I push her a lot,” Silverman agreed. And while Jacobs acknowledges that she often seeks her sister’s advice, Silverman is quick to add, “If she doesn’t, I give it anyway!”

Caring for aging parents

Like Ingber and her brothers, Silverman and Jacobs also share care of their mother, who still lives independently but at times needs their assistance.

“My mother tolerates more from Freddye,” said Jacobs, observing that her sister “sets clear boundaries with our mother on what she will and will not accept.”

The caretaking of parents can be a major stressor between siblings, according to Greif. Old issues resurface — “Mom loved you best!” as the Smothers Brothers’ routine went. And new ones arise as well — relating to how to care for parents, who does what, and even the parents’ estate.

For some siblings, the death of their parents can draw them together. For others, their parents were the glue holding them together.

When siblings are estranged

Not all sibling relationships are so harmonious. One woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, laments the fact that her relationship with one brother is not particularly close, and with the other, virtually nonexistent. “We haven’t spoken since 2009,” she said.

The three siblings had another brother who died as a child. When her two remaining brothers, who were quite a bit older, left home, she became, in effect, an only child. 

She has reached out to her brothers through the years, but with little success. While she misses having a close sibling relationship, she doesn’t miss the actuality of what it was.

“I have wonderful kids and very supportive friends,” she said. “I’ve made a family for myself.”

Would she reach out to her brothers again? Not for the time being, she said. “I’m tired of being an afterthought or being ignored,” she said. “I’ve chased a relationship before…why would things be any different now?”

Which isn’t to say she wouldn’t be open to re-establishing contact. “I don’t resent him (the brother to whom she has not spoken in the past seven years). I’m just protecting myself from further hurt.”

Ways to improve relationships

Sometimes too much has happened to put a sibling relationship back on track. But if you want to rebuild or strengthen your relationships, here are five tips fromAdult Sibling Relationships:

Communicate: Share your feelings and talk openly with your siblings, but realize that you also must be willing to listen to what they have to say.

Forgive: It’s not always easy (and in some instances it may well be impossible), but to strengthen a relationship, you need to let go of the hurts of the past.

Put in the time:Maintaining a sibling relationship takes time and effort. Jobs and family demands may take precedence, but to keep the relationship alive, you must be willing to make the initial effort and then continue the investment to “reignite the relationship and keep it alive.”

Try new experiences: Consider trying new experiences together. “New activities help people break out of their old ways of relating and allow them to take a different view of one another,” the authors write.

Accept the ambivalence and ambiguity: Sibling relationships are not always easy, but “the interdependence, reliance on, and connection to our siblings last a lifetime,” write Greif and Woolley.

“The journey we take with them may not always be easy, but if we know they are riding along with us, we feel safer, the bumps along the way may be smaller, and the ride a lot more fun.”