Not all sibling relationships are healthy. A toxic sibling relationship is an unbalanced relationship. It may be complicated by a history of abuse and dysfunctional sibling rivalries. Often this develops out of problems within parental relationships, or parental psychological problems.
We might have an idea that having a sibling is a magical thing, or if not magical then at least beneficial. For some of us that is true, but for others, a sibling relationship brings tensions, jealousies, and complicated dynamics into play. Dynamics that are hard to navigate and live with well.
Toxic Sibling stories form some of our oldest and most enduring cultural narratives.
In the Old Testament, we have the fratricide of Cain and Abel (Genesis), the competition between Jacob and Esau (Genesis), and Joseph and his eleven brothers (Genesis). The New Testament might advise us to love one another, but, going by these stories is often easier said than done.
Sibling relationships didn’t get much attention in earlier accounts of psychotherapy. Freud was originally focused on how the individual develops, and what their drives (instincts) were. Later his position shifted and he took account of family relationships, but even then, with the development of the Oedipus complex, they focused on fathers and sons and were limited in terms of how they considered the other people in our family lives.
Freud may have preferred not to think about siblings given the resentment he had to bear from his own, seven, younger siblings.
Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels take an unflinching look at the effects of growing up within a toxic family.
Toxic Siblings and Object Relations
Melanie Klein, and later object relations therapists such as Winnicott shifted the balance further, but were particularly interested in mothers and children.
Attachment Theory and Toxic Siblings
A route into thinking about other family relationships emerged through the work of attachment theory. Again the theory is focused on the bond between mothers, fathers (to some extent), and children. But we can use the ideas from attachment theory to think about what might account for poor or toxic sibling relationships.
The more we can understand the emotional baggage of our earliest relationships the easier it may become to live with our emotional burdens. Our families are where we all learned how to love and live with other people. If that was a bad experience full of what felt like unpredictability, inconsistent boundaries, and mistreatment, then our sibling relationships may well have become toxic.
Jane Eyre, raised by her aunt and uncle, was tormented by her cousins, the basis of which was her aunt’s hatred.
How Toxic Sibling relationships develop
Unless you are an only child, at some point you will have had to adapt to your siblings and their impact on you and your family environment. For all of us, a new sibling brings different possibilities and complications.
In an ideal position, the way we were introduced to our siblings would be paid attention to. If introduced in a helpful way (it might be difficult to know how that could have worked given the quality of your parents’ relationship), an older sibling would help the younger sibling feel at home.
Equally, in the ideal world, a younger sibling would be introduced in a way that didn’t make the elder sibling feel that she has had everything, like her parent’s love, taken away from her.
But in life things don’t tend to work on an ideal basis, and a new sibling might be seen as a threat. A mother with narcissistic wounds might struggle to know how adapt and love, equally, a new child. This can become the basis of toxic sibling relationships.
In DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Mrs Morel has an interfering and obsessive love for her sons, particularly Paul. She exerts a dominating influence on him and sabotages his relationships with his girlfriends.
Alternatively a parent, troubled by their own insecurities may inflame the toxic sibling possibilities by treating the siblings unequally. They may favour one over the other, they may play the siblings off against each other.
We are lucky if our parents possess the emotional security to help us settle into the world. If that didn’t happen then at some stage we have to take responsibility and find a way to settle ourselves.
Harry Potter, raised by his maternal aunt and uncle is treated badly at home, is bullied by his cousin and is made to live in a cupboard.
Do you suffer from Toxic Sibling syndrome?
One way to understand ourselves and our sibling relationships is to look at how well we manage to function in groups. How do you get on with relationships with friends? Are you quick to feel unsettled, that you are being pushed out, do you commonly feel that others are competing with you?
Toxic Siblings and Retroactive Jealousy
Do you suffer from obsessional problems like retroactive jealousy? Often the basis of our feeling threatened by our partner’s former lovers lies not in our current relationship, but in the way we felt we were put out and abandoned by our parent’s love for a new sibling. If we felt we were pushed out by our sibling, in later life we maybe vulnerable to feeling pushed out by our partners’ former partners.
All of these ways of relating may date back to our early attachment experiences, and to the sense of object constancy in our early homes. In toxic sibling relationships the relationship lacks a sense of being mutually beneficial, it feels exploitative. We can’t relax with other people now, because in the past, we never knew what our siblings would do next.
It may be that most toxic sibling relationships come down to inequalities in the way our parents treated us. Perhaps they blatantly favoured one sibling and let another sibling carry the burden of their own disappointments.
Whatever the case maybe it is not too late to explore it now, and by doing so find a better resolution. That may not mean that you will develop better relationships with your siblings, but it may dilute some of the toxicity in your own mind. It may be the basis of you learning to live with yourself and other people better.
Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is often key to developing a clearer understanding of our sibling relationships and our emotions. It can provide a place to learn more about the origins of our emotional lives.
By giving yourself a safe space to look at these things you may start to discover a greater sense of possibilities, and this may be the beginning of developing a greater sense of understanding how to relate to yourself and your siblings.
The chance to reflect on ourselves, our feelings and experience can be powerful and transformative. Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how you and your sense of your problems have developed.
I have been working with people on issues such like this for more than twenty years. My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live.
Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.
Mobile: +44 7980 750376