Health

What to Do if a Sibling's Jealousy Is Tearing Your Family Apart

Long-simmering childhood resentments, career envy, or misplaced competition can make these relationships feel awful. Here's how to turn things around.
June 22, 2021, 3:00pm
Two women at home, one texting on phone, young woman sitting beside her looking and waiting
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Idgie Stark has never been close with her sisters. From a young age, she remembers feeling excluded from sisterly camaraderie, mainly due to their age difference—her sisters are ten and seven years her senior—but also because Stark, 45, has a different father. As she got older, Stark noticed a resentment brewing. The girls’ mother only further drove a wedge between her daughters, Stark told VICE. Stark’s mother would accuse her sisters of negatively influencing Stark’s behavior.

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“That puts in our heads that one of the other sisters was wrong in some way,” Stark said. “For whatever reason, [my mom] demonized the middle sister. She was always the scapegoat for everything that went wrong.”

Though she moved from Tennessee, where the girls grew up, to Pennsylvania as an adult, Stark would continue to visit home once a year. Every time she mentioned her master’s degree or her career as a writer, or when she and her husband came to town in a new car they’d purchased, she said her sisters would make snide remarks trying to one-up her, or would outright laugh in her face. Stark suspected her sisters, who did not graduate high school and are not as financially secure, are jealous. 

When their mother died five years ago, Stark stopped her yearly visits to Tennessee and cut off communication with her sisters. “In a perfect world, I would’ve been able to say, ‘This is hurtful,’ and they would’ve apologized and we would’ve been sisters like everybody thinks sisters could be,” Stark said. “I don’t think that would’ve ever happened.” Unfortunately, the contemptuousness was just too much.

Roommates since birth, our siblings are, in the best of scenarios, the people with whom we’ll have the longest relationship. Because of the physical closeness during childhood and adolescence, squabbles and feelings of envy are bound to arise. Sibling jealousy is often attributed to adolescents, with kids vying for their parents’ attention. In fact, in one 2008 study, 103 of 105 children surveyed reported feeling jealous of their sibling at least one time when parents gave gifts to their siblings, took their sibling’s side in a conflict, and gave their sibling attention related to their talents. However, adults can feel jealous toward their siblings too. While family studies experts acknowledge the lack of research on adult sibling jealousy, a 1982 study found that nearly half of adults studied felt a sense of rivalry toward a sibling. Either long-simmering resentments held over from childhood or envy about a sibling’s job or romantic life can cause rifts. 

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Over time, this envy can eat away at the relationship, with building tensions finally reaching a head. If that’s happening in your family, and you feel like your sibling’s jealousy is making it impossible to have a relationship with them, there are active steps you can take to address and mend the issue.

Things to consider on a day-to-day basis…  

Address inequities. 

It’s important to recognize where your sibling’s jealousy is coming from, psychotherapist Avidan Milevsky, an associate professor of psychology at Ariel University in Israel, who studies sibling relationships, told VICE. Instead of assuming it’s your sibling who’s developed an unhealthy obsession with your achievements, acknowledge that your upbringing may not have been totally fair. While you shouldn’t blame your parents or try to get your sibling to turn against them, someone is likely responsible for the dynamic between the two of you. Even if you’re just acknowledging this to yourself or during a casual conversation with your sibling, it’s important to show that you’re aware of potential familial imbalances. “Be honest about how your parents played a role and how your parents are still comparing you with your sister,” Milevsky said. “These comments that parents often say create animosity toward the siblings. The sibling is not what created these animosities. And be honest about that.”

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By addressing these inequities, you validate their reality in an unkind or unfair household. “In AA they call it making amends,” Matt Lundquist, the founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy, told VICE. “Recognizing that we’ve all harmed each other in the world, even if that harm was done when we were 8 years old in an environment where there were forces that led us to do that. I think there’s kindness in naming and acknowledging that.”

Melinda, a woman in her 50s who asked not to share her last name, wishes her sister had acknowledged how differently their parents treated them growing up. “Anyone who says people who grow up in the same environment have the same experience, they’re wrong,” Melinda told VICE. “The same two people can grow up with the same family and have a very different experience.”

Her sister, Melinda said, was a star student and was favored by their parents. But Melinda believes her sister was jealous of her attractiveness in childhood, and later, of her academic success after earning a doctorate in her 40s, as well as her husband’s career as an entrepreneur. “The only time she called me was when I was upset at Penn State and I was thinking about leaving after my master’s degree,” Melinda said. “She said, ‘You don’t have to wait until after your master’s degree, just leave now.”

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Over the years, Melinda felt her sister made concentrated efforts to turn her nieces and nephews against her. When their father died in the early 2000s, their father’s will was changed to a trust, with all inheritance left to Melinda’s sister’s children. She asked her sister if she’d at least make a donation in her name to a charity of her choice, but Melinda said her sister refused. Eventually, Melinda stopped speaking to her sister after their mother died in 2018.

“They say you can't pick your realties… you can,” Melinda said. “I wrote my sister [an email] and I told her I don’t think I'm comfortable being associated with you and I want to break off our relationship. She never answered me back and she never apologized for anything she’d done to me.”

Do what you can to let your parents know their favoritism makes you uncomfortable.

If you’re at a family gathering and you hear one of your parents putting down your sibling, you should come to their aid, call out your parent directly, and change the subject, Lundquist said. You could say “Mom, that’s not a very kind thing to say. Michelle, do you want to help me clear the table?”

Beyond that, don’t ask (or let) your parents get involved when you and your siblings are having a conflict. Even if you feel like they might be effective mediators, leave them out of it. When parents are brought into the conversation, “that brings us back to the old childhood family system,” Milevsky said. “Often those early unhealthy sibling dynamics play out in much more intense ways when parents are involved.” 

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Call out your sibling’s snide remarks in the moment.

When you hear your sibling making nasty remarks, call it out in the moment, but always do it in a way that de-escalates the situation, licensed counselor Suzanne Degges-White, a professor at Northern Illinois University, told VICE. If your sibling tends to gripe about how you were always your parents’ favorite or other memories from the past, try saying “Yeah, it makes me uncomfortable when Mom brags about me in front of the entire family, and I’ve asked her to stop. But I don’t want to dwell on the past and the things that used to get between us. What if we let that go and focus on the relationship in the present?”

Other responses Degges-White recommends are “Sure, I’ve worked really hard in my career. But maybe you don't realize how much I admire the way you're able to handle balancing school and work,” or “I’m really lucky I’m able to travel. It's always good to be reminded of how fortunate I've been. Now, tell me what's been going on with that new [job/puppy/person you’ve been dating].”

Make sure you use “I” statements, like “I feel uncomfortable when…” Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the co-author of “Adult Sibling Relationships,” told VICE. Just remember to tread slowly, Greif said, because you might not get the reaction you’re looking for right away, as your sibling may respond combatively. 

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Or, you can be blunt. Lundquist said it’s totally fine to tell your sibling to knock it off when they come at you with jealous remarks. This can be especially empowering if you’ve never stood up for yourself with them in the past. “The emotional work here is learning to stand up for oneself, perhaps with a sibling with whom that wasn't easy or even safe in childhood,” he said.

Be supportive.

Instead of battling each other with put-downs, make a genuine attempt to spotlight your jealous sibling’s strengths. This could be as simple as re-posting their achievements on social media or attending their events, no matter how small. Make a genuine effort to be a part of their life—ask about their job, friends, significant others—and integrate them into your life by talking them up to your friends. 

These little things show our siblings that we value them, Degges-White said. “It’s that sense of value and validation that as kids we didn’t get enough of,” she said.

If you want to have a conversation with your sibling about their jealousy… 

Identify your intentions and expectations.

If jealous remarks have been brewing for some time, you may want to address the overall problem. Before you talk to your sibling about how you’re feeling, think about what you hope to get from the conversation. If your objective is to make amends and move forward in your relationship, you’re on the right track. If you’re fueled by anger or agitation and mainly want to point out how their jealousy has complicated the relationship, take some time to reassess your game plan before approaching them. 

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When you feel confident that your goal is for a more functional relationship, reach out to your sibling and ask if they’re interested in a discussion. Lundquist suggests telling them you’d like to talk about difficult topics from childhood with the intention of working through it. Say something like,“I’ve been feeling a lot of tension between us lately and thought it might be good for us to get together to talk about how to make our relationship stronger” or “It bums me out that we don’t have a close relationship and I’d really like to work on rebuilding trust and working on how we communicate. Is that something you’d be interested in?”

Be sure to outline the logistics you envision. Will you meet at a coffee shop? In therapy? With partners as support? Lay some ground rules and let your sibling know what to expect, so they can either agree to chat or decide they’d rather not. If they do agree to talk, make a commitment to pause the conversation if anyone starts to feel hurt or uncomfortable as the discussion progresses. “It’s knocking on somebody’s door but before you step in, being invited in,” Lundquist said. “There’s clear affirmative consent to have the conversation.”

Keep in mind that your memories of the past may be different than your sibling’s. Lundquist recommends giving your sibling the first opportunity to talk by saying, “I want to talk to you about issues from our past. But first I want to see what your experience of this is. What’s your lived experience of what happened with how our parents treated us?” Listen to what they have to say, and do your best not to get defensive or argumentative.

Consider your family communication history.

Every family has their own way of communicating. Maybe your family frequently worked through issues as they arose; perhaps yours was a less forthcoming brood. Be prepared for your sibling to potentially be closed off if you come from a less transparent clan. “That’s going to be hard because you’re asking them to not only traverse into a topic that is potentially uncomfortable, but you’re also asking them to go against a family way of communicating,” Greif said. 

Know when to walk away.

Unfortunately, your sibling may respond combatively to your attempts to mend the relationship or continue to make jealous quips. If it’s negatively impacting your mental health to be in the same room as your sibling, it’s OK to take some space from the relationship, Degges-White said. You don’t have to continue to attend Sunday dinners with your parents if your sibling ensures you’ll have a miserable time. Make plans to see your parents separately and don’t feel like you have to subject yourself to a barrage of nasty remarks just because they’re family. Ultimately, it’s up to your sibling to acknowledge their jealousy and to want to mend the relationship—but let them know your door is always open. 

Follow Allie Volpe on Twitter.