It's OK to be Ambivalent about Your Siblings During the Holidays

Adult Sibling Relationships

“It is during the holidays … that the specter of disharmony looms.”—Geoffrey L. Greif and Michael E. Woolley

For many of us, the holidays inevitably bring us together with family. This, of course, has its upsides and its downsides. This is particularly true for adults when they get together with their siblings. Affection and warmth are part of the equation but so can ambivalence and lingering difficulties from childhood.

In a recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, Geoffrey L. Greif and Michael E. Woolley, authors of Adult Sibling Relationships describe the two-sided nature of this dynamic:

Siblings are with us throughout life, longer than our parents, our partners or most friends. They can be our best friends, people with whom we share our greatest joys and our deepest sorrows. In adulthood, siblings can hold an extended family together after the incapacity or death of parents and help pass down a heritage of Hallmark closeness to future generations.

However, siblings can also cause hurt feelings and emotional estrangement, leaving us wondering how we could have possibly grown up in the same home. Why struggle to stay close with someone who may have hurt us when we were young and may continue to cause us pain by having few boundaries, acting unkindly, or being too withholding or too dependent?

In the piece, Greif and Woolley describe how their research, including interviewing hundreds of adults about their siblings, reveal the ambivalent feelings many of us have had at some point in our life regarding our siblings. These sometimes ambiguous if not hostile feelings toward our siblings come to the fore during holiday gatherings and Greif and Woolley offer the following guidance:

Though relationships are often perceived as loving and supportive, some are accompanied by mixed feelings (jealousy, anger, competition) toward one or more siblings or by affection for one and distrust of another….

Such relationships can be tolerated during most of the year, when the bugle call to muster the family is muted. It is during the holidays … that the specter of disharmony looms. For those who put a high value on togetherness, pressure may be unrealistically placed on people to harness these lifelong relationships with affection. To ease the burden, we want to shine a bright star on a more realistic view of sibling relationships as not only affectionate but also as potentially, and acceptably, ambivalent and ambiguous. Too high expectations can tamp down the opportunity for siblings to get to know each other anew as adults.

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