We, obviously, do not choose the family we are born into. Yet, if anything shapes us and affects who we will be as people, it is precisely our families – including our siblings. They bring a distinctive value to our lives. They also come with unique challenges. Unfortunately, some are so hurtful that they could even be described as toxic siblings.
Most of us are raised to believe that having a sibling is a blessing by the norm. And it often is. They ought to provide friendship, support, and a source of care and love for a lifetime. We share memories and family bonds. They are a part of who we are.
However, sometimes this simply is not the case. In the same way, as any other relationship could be unhealthy, siblinghood is also a potential source of pain and toxicity in your life.
This article will show you how to recognise if your sibling is toxic and how to deal with the fact.
How we relate to our siblings is strikingly less researched compared to relationships between parents and children. Still, their significance is not to be underestimated. Theoretical reviews conclude that those relationships are fairly complex. They impact us on various levels, and a myriad of factors affects their quality, from individual to cultural.
For example, the family’s overall cohesiveness and expressiveness will influence how children behave towards each other. Moreover, the father’s actions and attitudes, as well as the siblings’ temperaments, were found to either contribute to a healthy relationship or produce toxic siblings.
In some instances, the combination of factors produces a relationship so dysfunctional that it can be named toxic. Here are some of the features of toxic siblings’ behaviour:
Toxic siblings are often abusive. Same as in any other relationship, this can range from delicate manipulation, through the shades of psychological abuse, to downright physical aggression. Criticism, looking down on you, bullying, invalidating or gaslighting, and physical intimidation or abuse – all of it happens in toxic sibling relationships.
You may be so accustomed to how your sibling has been treating you all of your life that you take it as a given. Nonetheless, it still is abuse – and it is a trait of toxic siblings.
Some toxic siblings tend to ruin your relationships. Although those are anecdotal accounts, I am aware of quite a few such cases. Sometimes it is possessiveness or jealousy. Other times, the sibling pair transfers the dynamics with the parents to other relationships. So, the toxic sibling works on becoming the favourite (usually unconsciously). In any case, it is not uncommon that a sibling goes on and wrecks their brother’s or sister’s relationships.
Some toxic siblings will actively work to undermine your romance, friendships, or even professional relationships. How do they do it? The means range from getting angry or fussy through various forms of manipulation to direct requests for you to end the other relationship (“…or else…”). They could stir up trouble, be difficult, or demean you in front of your partners, friends, or business associates.
Childhood dynamics between siblings tend to transfer to adulthood. No matter what age you might be, if your sibling was always shifting blame onto you, this pattern probably persisted. Toxic people, in general, do not own up to their actions and the influence they have on others.
“Criticism, looking down on you, bullying, invalidating or gaslighting, and physical intimidation or abuse – all of it happens in toxic sibling relationships.”
The same goes for toxic siblings. Being unfair or hurtful is one thing. It can even happen unintentionally. Not accepting the responsibility for it is, however, a sign that your sibling has not developed the level of maturity needed for you to have a healthy relationship.
Toxic siblings will often take advantage of you.
They might exploit you emotionally. For example, they could manipulate you into serving their own psychological needs. They could be counting on your assistance with whatever and whatever. In that way, they are disrespecting your time or other obligations. Finally, they might exploit you financially.
In any case, where there is a lack of reciprocity, there is no talking about a healthy relationship.
An extensive meta-analysis based on data from nearly 13,000 siblings confirmed the massive impact of sibling relationships. The conclusion was rather simple – more conflicts between siblings equals more mental health problems.
Ideally, one would want to mend the relationship and enjoy the benefits of having idyllic siblinghood. Sadly, that is not always possible.
In the first sentence of this article, it was said that we do not choose our family. However, as adults, we choose our relationships. In other words, you will probably not change your toxic sibling. You will definitely not change the fact that you are related. You cannot alter the past and how they affected you so far. But you can transform the way you relate to them.
Here are some ways to deal with toxic siblings. They are aimed at protecting you from further hurt and potentially opening the path towards creating a healthy relationship.
When our sibling is mistreating us, we might feel somewhat forced to put up with it. They are our family, after all. However, if you want to restore your well-being and break free from the cycle of maltreatment, you need to start focusing on yourself.
Counteract any form of abuse with self-compassion and self-care. Watch out for any “should”s and “must”s. That is, examine if you feel obliged to meet your toxic sibling’s needs – and then ditch the feeling of coercion.
Take care of your needs, and build up your sense of self-worth towards a sovereign Self.
The other side of the self-compassion coin is to practise compassion. Not even toxic siblings are necessarily all bad. They might be going through tough times personally or professionally. Even more likely, they might not have learned how to behave in a healthy, mature way. They might perceive the situation entirely differently from yourself.
Could you show compassion for a toxic sibling? shutterstock/pixelheadphoto digital skillet
There is no excuse for maltreatment (especially abuse), but have you tried to understand them? Or did you also merely continue your childhood dynamics?
In Jung’s words:
“We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate; it oppresses.”
― C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul
Even if you were repeatedly hurt and betrayed, try to find it in you to forgive them. If nothing else, forgiveness is good for you. A meta-analysis of over 100 studies involving over 26,000 participants from 17 countries confirmed that forgiving results in improved mental (and some aspects of physical) health.
That does not imply that you are supposed to let your sibling trample on you. It merely means not holding a grudge and moving on from past hurts.
Sibling relationships are often one of the longest in our lives. If it is an unhealthy bond, we tend to accept it as a chronic problem. Meaning, we rarely seek help for such an issue. Nonetheless, if you want to change the situation, no matter how long it lasts, reach out.
“Even if you were repeatedly hurt and betrayed, try to find it in you to forgive a sibling. If nothing else, forgiveness is good for you.”
You could talk to a close family member and explain what you have been going through. If this sounds too delicate, consider speaking to a supportive friend. Quality social support is one of the best tools to alleviate the adversities of distress and trauma. Having someone to rely on and talk to makes you resilient to stress, possibly via neurological and endocrine pathways.
Last but not least – contact a professional. Seek out a psychotherapist’s assistance in untangling the conscious and unconscious ties and beliefs that keep you bounded within the toxic relationship with your sibling.
If you find yourself being pushed around by toxic siblings, you probably need to brush up on your assertiveness skills.
Family relationships are usually the most challenging for practising assertive communication. We feel too close and too exposed to suddenly become firm in setting our boundaries. We are too accustomed to the ways of our relationship to change how we communicate. Yet, it can be done. Your parents’ and families’ principles should not automatically be your own.
When you start reprogramming how you communicate with your sibling, you are also creating a new reality for your relationship to evolve. You are building a new Self that is based on self-respect and healthy boundaries. Assertiveness means to regard both your and theirs obligations and rights. As a result, your toxic siblings will eventually realise that they have no choice but to follow the new (healthier) rules.
In order to change how you relate with toxic siblings and the past relationship’s aftermath, there is one last thing you need to do. It is to let go of the past, as well as your hopes for the future. Put to rest past hurts, and dismiss any anticipation of what is to come. Abandon both bitterness as well as visions of a happy future.
This piece of advice is not about pessimism. On the contrary. It is about a philosophical distance from whatever your expectations might be. Simply put, it is about keeping an open mind (and heart).
Why do I recommend this? To neutralise the Pygmalion effect, or the self-fulfilling prophecy. It is particularly strong and difficult to discern in interpersonal relationships. And even more so if we are emotionally invested.
So, whatever the course of your relationship might have been thus far, and whatever the future may hold, dismiss anticipation. It will give you the best chance for an optimal outcome.
Dealing with toxic siblings can be one of the most challenging situations in your life. It is probably chronic, deeply rooted, and highly burdensome to change. However, if there is one message that I would like you to take from this article, it is that one always has a choice. You do not need to spend your entire life tolerating maltreatment.
You may choose to mend your relationship and open the doors to a new, healthier siblinghood. You could also decide to end the relationship – forever or for now. You could modify when and how you meet with your toxic sibling. You could decide to let them carry their own load and stop being constantly on call.
However, even beyond these practical acts – you always get to choose how you perceive and react to a situation. Whatever happens – you decide whether and to what extent you will allow it to affect you.
Main image: shutterstock/Antonio Guillem
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Stanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and well-being.
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