Why Adult Siblings Can End up Severing Ties

In To Kill a Mockingbird, author Harper Lee famously wrote, “You can choose your friends but you sho' can't choose your family.”

Image by Bessi from Pixabay


When it comes to siblings, you’re thrown together on an intense roller coaster that takes you from birth through adulthood and beyond.


A study completed in 2015 suggested that approximately 40 percent of Americans experience a parting of ways with family at some point in their lives

That’s why many people consider it one of the longest relationships people can have, even if they didn’t sign up for it. You share secrets and stories. You experience life’s ups and downs together. Even if you outgrow your sibling rivalry days and develop a sweet, close relationship, one thing remains true: No matter how old you both get, there are likely very few people that can get under your skin quite as your sibling can.


It’s not unusual for siblings to have rocky relationships and hiccups along the way. Some of the common complaints that people have ranged from not liking their sibling’s partner to feeling stuck in their childhood roles to disagreeing about how to care for their aging parents. Despite conflict being a natural part of the sibling experience, most adults continue soldiering on and trying to peacefully coexist.


That approach doesn’t always work. Although it’s rarely talked about, sibling estrangement does happen. A study completed in 2015 suggested that approximately 40 percent of Americans experience a parting of ways with family at some point in their lives. Although the estrangement doesn’t always last, it is typically driven by toxic behaviors.


Damaging Effects of Toxic Relationships


Expert Dr. Lillian Glass, who wrote Toxic People, defines toxic relationships as one between people who aren't supportive of each other. These relationships are filled with conflict, competition, and disrespect. It's consistently draining for the people involved, with negative experiences. In extreme cases, these relationships are marked with harassment and violence. More often, the signs are more subtle. Persistent unhappiness is among the chief warning signs.


Many siblings put up with toxicity because they believe that family should stick together. But over time, toxic relationships can damage your mental health, increase stress, and impact your physical health. Research shows that being in negative relationships can increase your risk of heart attack, decrease your pain tolerance, and even slow the rate at which your body heals wounds.


Reasons to Sever Ties


Most people won't write their siblings off after just one argument or incident. Typically it happens after prolonged periods of mistreatment. You might find yourself gradually pulling away or you might react to a situation by abruptly cutting off all communication. From making everyone miserable to being sworn enemies, there are a myriad of reasons to cut ties with an adult sibling.


You’re Sworn Enemies


Results from a survey conducted by Oakland University showed that only 26 percent of 18 to 65-year-old participants had highly supportive relationships with their siblings while 16 percent reported having an outright hostile relationship and 19 percent had a relationship built on indifference. The remaining 39 percent reported having good relationships.


For those struggling with a hostile relationship, the issues might be rooted in childhood dynamics. They can spill over into adult lives, manifesting as a toxic form of resentment that feels like you’ve always been enemies. Or, something might have happened that one sibling simply can’t forgive.

Specific Behaviors Trigger Separation

Sometimes it's easier to move on with your own life separately from your sibling instead of continuing to cope with behaviors that are torturous and troubled. Some of the behaviors that commonly lead to severing family ties include:

  • Mental, physical, or sexual abuse

  • Drug or alcohol abuse

  • Betrayal

  • Mental health problems

  • Disagreements, typically over issues like romance, politics or money

Issues Caring for Aging Parents

Adult siblings are inevitably faced with caring for their parents or deciding on long-term care options, and settling the estate once their parents pass away. These stressful situations can take a relationship that's already strained and act as a tinderbox igniting an all-out conflict. For example, one sibling might be a hands-on caregiver while the other is MIA. Or one sibling could take all the valuables from their parents’ home while the other is left feeling betrayed.


Drifting Apart


Relationships of all types, including sibling relationships, are like a garden — they need tending. Years of barely keeping in touch and an accumulation of one or both siblings’ lack of caring can lead to a gradual decline in the relationship. Then, there may come a day when it just doesn’t make sense to even try anymore. For example, if the parents have passed away, these siblings might not see the point of even getting together for holidays.


Severing ties with an adult sibling isn't easy or something to take lightly. Depending on the rest of your family dynamics, you might still see each other from time to time at weddings or other gatherings. Ultimately, the decision should be based on what's best for you. If you decide to try one more time before cutting all ties or if you’re thinking about reconciling, consider getting some professional help to navigate the challenges so you can move forward in a positive way.


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