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5 Reasons Adult Siblings Fight

Prince William and Prince Harry aren’t the only relatives with conflict

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It’s not often average Americans can say they relate to royalty. ​

But with the media buzz surrounding Prince Harry’s fiercely anticipated memoir, Spare, many with sibling rivalries are feeling a kinship with the Duke of Sussex. The book recounts his sometimes rocky relationship with older brother Prince William, including his allegation of a physical assault during a 2019 confrontation about Harry’s wife, Meghan Markle.​

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Even though siblings are some of the longest-lasting relationships, intense loyalty and intense conflict often go hand in hand — and the hurt can run deep.​

Research published in a 2020 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology found that sibling conflict among older adults in part was associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety, hostility and loneliness.​

Here are top reasons for sibling rivalries.​

1. Birth order

Firstborn children often are viewed as — and sometimes required to be — the responsible ones, expected to follow the rules, serve as role models and watch over younger siblings. Younger children, who can feel overshadowed, tend to be seen as more outgoing and carefree — and, as a 2020 study on second-born children by MIT economist Joseph Doyle suggests, rebellious.​

Those traits “carry over as we become adults,” says certified life coach Krystal Conner, based in Atlanta, Georgia. “We settle in and think, ‘This is the role I have to play.’ We don’t question it, particularly as we get older because we’ve been doing it for so long.”​

2. Aging parents

The birth order dynamic routinely plays out once parents need increasing assistance.​

“There might be pressure on the older sibling to take on the role of caretaker, and there can be some resentment about that,” says licensed mental health counselor Jody Mykins, from Irondequoit, New York. Meanwhile, “the younger sibling may struggle to know how to help.”​

Gender also comes into the mix. The Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 report, the latest available, showed that the majority of caregivers — 61 percent — who make medical appointments and otherwise provide care to a parent are women.​

3. Jealousy

If siblings feel there is a limited amount of something — such as love, support, affection or basic resources — they may feel as if they need to compete to win what is made available to them over their siblings, especially if their parents weren’t particularly generous with love, affection, praise or support, says Conner.​

For those “who grew up in difficult eras and recessions, this may be even more pronounced when it comes to tangible resources,” says Conner.​

One study from Cornell University revealed that 70 percent of mothers in their 60s and 70s felt closest to one child over another.​

4. Personality differences

Biological siblings share genes, but not usually personalities, and that can cause rifts.​

Mykins says extroverts are more likely to have strong opinions, be social and be externally motivated, which can come across as domineering. Introverts are more likely to be internally focused, putting a lot of thought into opinions that may not be expressed, which can come across as disinterest or lacking emotion. An ambivert has features of each.​

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It’s like when “one sister is the cheerleader and the other is the bookworm, or one brother is the football star and the other is the science geek,” Mykins says. “This doesn't necessarily change with age.”​

Siblings can still get along and respect each other’s differences, but sometimes it causes conflict. ​

5. Estates/wills​

Buried wounds frequently resurface along with emotions that arise from grief and loss, and this increases the possibility of a power struggle, notes Conner. When one sibling is the executor of a parent’s will, for example, another may feel less loved, or that they have less control. In addition, the way a parent has left money, property and other resources to children can cause siblings to disagree about how those resources should be doled out. 

According to research from Ameriprise Financial, when siblings quarrel over finances, it’s usually about their parents (68 percent of the time). The main issues concern how an inheritance is divided.

A neutral third party can minimize the strain by making sure the intended desires of the will are realized. Siblings entitled to the same assets but unable to agree may decide to liquidate them and split the proceeds.

​​Strategies for coping with sibling rivalry

Be proactive 

Mykins, 56, suggests having open discussions with siblings about unhealthy relationship patterns before a crisis arises. ​

“Don’t wait until your dad is in the hospital, or your mom needs nursing care, and you need to figure out quickly what to do,” says Mykins. Waiting only increases stress, which can increase tensions.​

The conversations may not be easy, but there are ways to mitigate damage.​

“Be honest, open, willing to listen to the other person and willing to consider making a change,” says Mykins.​

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Look inward​

Siblings often get caught up in playing the blame game, Conner says. ​

“We very rarely challenge the things we believe to be true about ourselves,” she says. “Whatever we spend decades thinking, we just accept as fact. To break out of that, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is that true?’ or ‘Is that true all of the time?’ ”​

Even better, ask yourself if that’s who you want to be. “It's important to know how you want to show up in your relationships,” she says. ​

Conner advises taking control of how you act, regardless of what anyone else says or does. If you have a reaction, understand that the reaction comes from your own thoughts and not someone else's words or behavior.​

She has personal experience with this as a middle child.​

“I could be mad at my older sister, and think, ‘I’m angry because she said these words to me,’ but the truth is, I'm angry because of the thoughts I have about the words she used,” Conner explains. “The reason it's important to attach feelings back to thoughts because that's literally the only thing we can control.”​

Set boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries with a sibling isn’t about handing down an ultimatum. Think of it as an act of love to buoy your bond.​

“Oftentimes we don't set boundaries because we fear they will make us look bad or rock the boat, but we end up getting very upset because the person violates an imaginary boundary they don’t know exists,” says Conner. Instead, boundaries “are a sign of love and create a healthier relationship.”​

If you don't want your sibling talking negatively about the family, an example of a boundary would be to get off the phone or walk away — after you’ve made clear what you will and won’t accept, of course.​

Then follow through. Says Conner: “A lot of times we don’t do it, but that’s the important part.”​

Be open

“A sibling rivalry is optional,” says Conner. “You might be in a healthy relationship, or in one that doesn't need to be very close. You get to make that decision.”​

Because family issues frequently get messy, it can be good to have a therapist listen to conversations and weigh in.​

Says Mykins: “It may be an opportunity to heal some very old wounds.”​

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