If The Brady Bunch were a reflection of real life, siblings wouldn’t have any troubles worse than slight jealousy and the rare football-throwing mishap. But as you may have noticed from your lack of bell bottoms and days that don’t end in cheesy life lessons, The Brady Bunch is pretty far from the truth. On TV, sibling relationships are treated as special, unique bond that can never be broken. In real life, however, sibling ties are just like every other relationship—complicated.
Just because you share parents and memories of holidays past doesn’t mean your sibling relationships will be close. But when a brother or sister becomes a toxic influence on your life, what can you do? I spoke to psychologists to find out the best ways to recognize toxic behavior, mend broken relationships, and discover when it’s time to cut ties completely.
Not All Siblings Are Close
“Sibling relationships are complex,” says licensed social worker and therapist Shannon Thomas. “Societal expectations are placed on us that we should be besties with our siblings, especially if they are the same gender. If we don’t have a close relationship, we often feel embarrassed to admit it to friends. We think, Who doesn’t like their siblings? Many people, actually.”
Thomas says that many clients suffer from guilt over sibling relationships that are less than perfect, even though it happens all the time. In a survey about family estrangement in adults from the University of Cambridge, 68 percent of participants felt a stigma from detaching from a family member. Out of 807 participants, 361 people were estranged from a sister, 362 parted ways with brothers, and 118 split from both. Though a difficult relationship with a sibling feels especially hurtful and rare, it’s more common than it seems.
But when does a relationship go from unpleasant to toxic? And how do you know it’s time to call it quits with someone you’ve shared so much of your life with?
Assess the Damage
“Toxic siblings cannot only be a burden to you but can create pain for the rest of the family,” says Kristen Fuller, M.D. “There is no black-and-white line of when an individual should cut their siblings out of their life, but there are many questions you can ask yourself when attempting to decide whether or not your siblings are too harmful to hold a valuable presence,” Fuller says.
Consider these queries when dealing with the family member in question:
- Have you considered going to therapy specifically to figure out how to help your sibling?
- Have you talked to other family members about this situation? If so, what did they say?
- Was there ever a point in your life where you were close with your sibling? If so, at what point did you start to drift apart?
- Has your sibling ever physically harmed you or broken the law?
- Does your sibling make you feel unsafe?
By answering these questions, you’ll get a clearer picture of the relationship you have with your sibling. And if you can answer these questions with a therapist, all the better. They’ll be able to give you an objective view of the situation and provide tools to deal with a sibling who’s probably going through problems of their own.
Now, if the sibling has threatened or physically hurt you, Fuller says it’s best to remove yourself from their life right away. It’s not worth risking your own safety for a family relationship. But, if the relationship isn’t overtly threatening, there are ways to try to make the relationship work.
Communicate Your Feelings
“Hey, sis. You’re making my life miserable. I thought you might like to know.”
OK, fine, maybe that isn’t the best way to start a conversation about how your sibling has impacted your life, but it is important that you share your feelings with honesty. In the Cambridge survey, most respondents wished they could have a more positive, loving sibling relationship with less judgment and criticism. “If we find ourselves anxious before or after seeing them, or their behaviors cause us to seriously doubt ourselves and life decisions, we need to take a step back and assess if the relationship is more harmful than beneficial,” Thomas says.
So if your sibling has let you down time and again, constantly judges you, or seems to use you like an ATM instead of a family member, you need to let them know, Fuller says. They may not respond positively to your honest talk, but it will give you both a chance to air out your grievances and potentially start healing.
Make a Plan
After you’ve expressed your feelings, you can put actionable steps in place to potentially change the relationship for the better. “Create a time-limited plan that includes quantifiable, observable outcomes that can help to guide your efforts and course-correct as needed,” says Lindsay Trent, Ph.D., psychologist and cofounder of Basis.
So can you just say “stop being toxic” and call it a day? Sadly, no. Instead, give your sibling firm rules and take note of the outcome. Trent recommends keeping everything in writing, so you have a tangible log of the steps you took to make the relationship work and how the sibling responded. This way, you’ll more easily see how things are improving or have proof that they’re getting worse.
“Inviting your sibling to collaborate on a plan is a great way to help you co-create shared goals,” Trent says. “Their willingness to participate in this process can also serve as an indicator of how invested they are and if it is worth your time and effort.”
So, if you want to be closer, try to find ways you both can make that happen. Or if you’d like to be criticized less, let your sibling know that your conversations cannot revolve around judgment. Maybe if a sibling is too needy or always asks for money and favors, set limits on the amount of time and resources you spend on them.
Then use positive reinforcement to help you both reach your goals, Trent says. It’s easy to gloss over the little moments when a sibling tries to change their behavior. So whenever you see a change for the better, recognize it and thank your sibling for the effort. By focusing on the good, the sibling has incentive to change, and you’ll also feel better about the relationship as a whole.
Unfortunately, not all siblings want to make things work.”If you have shared your feelings with them about how they have harmed you, and they have responded poorly and no change has occurred, at the very least, it’s time to set boundaries regarding your interactions with them,” Williamson says.
For example, if a sibling is always asking you for money, there comes a point when it’s harmful to you and your sibling to keep doling out cash. By enabling their lack of financial responsibility, they won’t change, and you will continue to feel used. By establishing clear boundaries, you can regain your sanity, while your sibling has to face the reality of their choices, according to Williamson.
“Maybe this means you only see them at large family gatherings. Maybe this means that you let them know you are no longer engaging in conversation with them when they start to say harmful things to you,” Williamson says. “If you have helped them in the past financially, and they only interact with you when they need money or a place to stay, it may mean it’s time to tell them that you will be happy to talk with them when they are no longer calling with a need.”
Boundaries can be extremely hard, but it’s the best thing for the both of you. “It’s important to remember that setting boundaries is not unloving,” Williamson says. “When we don’t set boundaries and people walk all over us, we typically end up harboring resentment, even if it’s not shown externally at first.” If you don’t deal with that resentment, it builds up and tears apart any chance for a relationship.
Instead of lashing out from bottled up rage in the future, set boundaries now. Though you might limit your time with your sibling, you aren’t cutting them out of your life completely. But you are making it clear that you won’t continue to be used, and their negative behavior can’t overtake your life.
When You Have to Let Them Go
At a certain point, you may need to cut ties with a sibling. When you’ve tried to mend fences, and they keep knocking them down, it’s best to put your mental, physical, and financial health first and let the sibling go… at least for a while.
“You have the option to take a break from your sibling,” Fuller says. “Encourage them to seek help and maybe potentially become close again after enough time and healing has passed.” You can leave the door open for future reconciliation when your sibling’s behavior has changed, but in the meantime, limit contact.
Again, maintain your boundaries. If you feel guilty for cutting them out of your life, look back on all the things you did to try to fix the situation. Trent says to look back on your notes to see the list of all the actions you took to make things right. This won’t heal your pain immediately but should give you some peace in knowing that the effort was made.
At this point, all the experts recommend going to therapy. A mental health professional will be able to help you maintain the boundaries you’ve set up, deal with any family related guilt, and guide you through the negative memories of the toxic relationship. Williamson also recommends groups like Al-Anon to get support in maintaining boundaries and recognizing other toxic or codependent relationships in your life.
Fortunately, most sibling estrangements don’t last a lifetime. The Cambridge survey found that only 36 percent of participants thought they could never have a relationship with their sibling again (compared to 56 percent of people who were positive they’d never have a relationship with their mother).
Sibling connections are complicated, but when you set boundaries and prioritize your own health, you’ll be able to live a better life—with or without your sibling. “Walking away from a toxic relationship does not mean that you are completely shutting a door,” Fuller says. “It means that you are giving yourself enough space to heal.”
Amber Petty is an L.A.-based writer and a regular contributor to Greatist. Follow along as she shares her weight-loss journey in her new bi-monthly column, Slim Chance. Follow her on Instagram @Ambernpetty.