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By the time you reach middle age, your relationships with your siblings probably have gone through plenty of ups and downs. Maybe you were hair-braiding besties growing up, but drifted apart once spouses, kids and 50-hour workweeks entered the picture. Or maybe you resented each other back then, but now that you’re living in separate households it’s easier to get along — if only those households weren’t 500 miles apart.
“Part of growing up is getting some separation from your siblings and parents, yet also trying to stay connected,” says Geoffrey Greif, coauthor of the book Adult Sibling Relationships. “It can be normal to have mixed feelings about your siblings, even if you love them.”
Still, your brothers and sisters can have a profound impact on your well-being — even now. Loads of research shows that people with strong social ties, which can include those with siblings, are happier and healthier. Studies have also shown that older people in particular are happier when they feel close to a brother or sister. And these relationships become even more crucial as parents (or siblings themselves) grow old or become sick.
“At some point you’re going to have to come together and work as a team,” says Francine Russo, author of They're Your Parents, Too!: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy. “If siblings can repair or restore relationships before the parents’ situation slips into crisis mode, it can help avoid a world of trouble.”
If the ties that bind you and yours have loosened in recent years — or if you never repaired them during a difficult period of caregiving — consider these five ways to tighten them up.
1. Talk about what you want
The best way to try to bridge a gap is through communication. “Very often the problem is that different people have different ideas about what the relationship should be,” says Greif, also a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Ask how your sib feels about seeing each other more, or talking more frequently. But experts don't advise trying to resolve any complicated childhood issues in a single, air-clearing chat — especially if you weren't raised in a family that tended to hash things out on the spot. And keep in mind that you may have to occasionally adopt an "active avoidance" approach, by not talking about things like politics or religion that you know you disagree on. Overall, while you may never have the picture-perfect relationship you dreamed of, you likely can make it quite a bit better.
2. Meet their friends
Letting go of the past is hard. One way to make it easier is to get out of your parents’ house, where you tend to revert back to your childhood roles, and meet on their turf instead. “Try hanging out along with their friends or colleagues,” says Greif. “Your sibling’s peer group can help show you how others see them as an adult.”
3. Take a siblings-only trip
If you generally get along but the relationship has stalled, a big bonding experience — especially if it's officially "siblings only" — can be an effective kick-start. “It does really help you talk to each other if you’re the only ones there,” says Russo. “Plus, there are sometimes negative dynamics around spouses or partners.” However, Greif says keep your expectations in check about what your glamping or fishing weekend will accomplish. "You can’t rebuild 50 years in 48 hours.”
4. Make time for one another
When it comes to prioritizing relationships, your siblings may have dropped to the bottom of the list, after your kids, your spouse, your boss, even your dog. And if your parents have already passed away, so too may have some of the family traditions that formerly brought you together. Rekindling the relationship can be as simple as penciling in regular quality time. “Maybe you decide to go for a hike together on Sunday mornings, or video chat a couple of times a month,” says Russo. “It may take some patience, but if you’re consistent it can pay off.”
5. Find common ground beyond mom and dad
Improving your relationship isn’t just about more frequent contact, but more quality contact. “Instead of limiting your conversation to ‘How is mom?’ try asking ‘How are you?’ ” says Russo. If you feel like your sibling is a stranger, think about what you would you ask them if you just met at a cocktail party. “You need to invest in creating a real relationship with this person as an adult.”