I haven’t always been a good big sister.
I’m the oldest of four children. I was almost 2 when my brother, Matt, was born; 5 when my sister Sarah entered the scene; and almost 9 when my baby sister, Bekah, came along.
We were raised in a close-knit, homeschooling family and shared quite a few interests. My sisters and I took ballet together and stormed the stage in community theater. My brother and I took piano lessons and taught backyard Bible clubs together during the summers. We even ended up attending the same college for two years.
My relationships with my siblings have overall been marked by health and closeness, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t experienced our share of dysfunctional moments. Sometimes these moments have caught me off guard. After all, we started out with an ideal family situation.
When I was a teenager, my brother and I had rooms in the basement of our family’s home. I remember many evenings would end with me standing in his doorway, debriefing some of the day’s events. We would discuss the girls in his life, challenges we were going through, even deep spiritual topics.
One time when I told Matt, then 14, that I believed God had preserved my life during a horseback riding accident, he said, “I wish something like that had happened to me so that I would know for sure God has a special purpose for my life.”
I affirmed the potential I saw in him and my certainty that God did have a special purpose for my brother. That was a holy appointment. The kind of encouragement I offered Matt could have only come from someone who knew him the way I did — someone who knew his history.
Unfortunately, the same intimate knowledge we have about our siblings that gives us the power to bless them also gives us the greatest potential to hurt them. Even though I’ve had divine moments with each of my siblings, there have also been times that I’ve failed them.
I will always regret not getting my younger sister, Bekah, a wedding present in time because of my poor planning. I regret being overbearing during times spent with my siblings. And I feel sorry for saying critical words that wounded and made a negative impression on them far longer than I ever dreamed they would. I have done some damage.
No matter what your experience with your siblings has been, when you’re looking to improve your relationship with them, it’s important to first evaluate the health of the relationship.
If you feel distant from your sibling, what is the cause? The culprit may be unresolved wounds or just busyness. You may discover that some serious forgiveness and healing needs to take place. Or perhaps you only need to be more intentional in cultivating the relationship.
Regarding the place of brothers and sisters in our lives, my friend Ivette says:
Our siblings know us in our rawest form and without pretension. That is why they can hurt us deeply. They know our weaknesses. They know how long we were afraid of the dark, they know what riles us, they know our histories — because in many ways they are our histories.
That is the reason relationships with our siblings are so important. They know us — and we know them — in ways that no one else does. The same knowledge that can cause us to wound each other so deeply, allows us to be each other’s greatest advocates.
“Encouragement is the balm,” Ivette continues. “Encouragement reminds us that we’re for each other. It reminds us that even the person who intimately knows our weaknesses, can see hope for us. That goes deep.”
Part of the rut siblings can fall into as adults is forcing one another to maintain the roles they filled as children. For example, maybe the baby of the family was thought of as the fun-loving one who didn’t have anything intellectual to bring to the table. Or perhaps the oldest sibling always got to make final decisions.
Birth order could be an article in and of itself, for there are certainly general characteristics that oldest children, middle children and babies of the family share. I remember reading a Time magazine article that said a majority of U.S. presidents were the oldest child of their family while a majority of actors are youngest children.
My sister Bekah pointed out that birth order can complicate things when a sibling veers outside of his or her expected role. For example, Bekah was the first of us sisters to get married even though she was the youngest. That created a new dynamic in our relationship with her that we had to adjust to.
Though, at the time, four and a half years ago, I was still very single, a friend, who had experienced something similar with her own sister, encouraged me with these words: “May you know that your birthright is the ability to love as only a big sister can. Bekah is so blessed to have your influence and prayers in her life.”
While it’s helpful to take into account the influence of birth order, it’s also important to remember that each one of us is a constantly changing individual. Think about yourself 10 or 20 years ago. How were you different from the person you are today? What interests have you long since abandoned? What aspects of yourself have you discovered during that time?
When we hold onto the expectations we had for our siblings when we were children (or continue to operate in them ourselves), we fail to accept them for who they are right now — who they have become.
My friend Blythe, who shares a special bond with her sisters, says she has appreciated the flexibility they have shown her:
My sisters are super-great at treating me as the person God says I am, not the person they’ve seen me act like at times. Meaning, I am not a 12-year-old bratty girl anymore. They have allowed me space to grow into who God created me to be. They haven’t pigeon-holed me and insisted I be the same person I was, or even have the same interests as when we were little.
To have successful relationships with siblings, I think you have to let go of expectations. You can’t expect your sibling to behave or relate to you in a certain way, whether that’s based on the past or who you assume them to be now. Just like in marriage or friendship, you have to give them room to grow and change and mature, and even make mistakes.
Most people I talked to while researching this article agreed that grace was key to healthy sibling relationships. The other characteristic of healthy relationships that kept rising to the top was intentionality.
My sister Sarah lives in Washington, and I live in Colorado; this has been the case for 12 years. Several years ago, we began setting up a weekly “phone date” just to catch up on one another’s lives. We found that when we kept our weekly engagement, we stayed more connected and were able to build our relationship.
Sarah stays connected with our sister Bekah through a few weekly emails. “I just think some form of regular life updates helps adult sibling relationships,” she says. “And not just Facebook. It’s not intentional enough. Some form of weekly communication that’s meaningful makes it easier to get to a deeper sharing level when we do talk.”
Another friend of mine says she had virtually no relationship with her brother during adulthood until text messaging became popular. Suddenly her brother was texting her updates about his life on a regular basis. She realized this was an opportunity to establish relationship with her brother where there had been none in the past.
Some sisters I know plan a yearly “sister trip” to celebrate their birthdays. They look forward to this event throughout the year and can count on a stretch of quality time to reconnect.
Developing healthy relationships with siblings goes deeper than having fun together and getting along. I like something Ivette said:
Siblinghood has a sacred role to play. Marriage is highly esteemed in the church and rightly so, but Christ has called the body to be brothers and sisters. Too often, we don’t know what that means. Maybe if we modeled it well in our families, we would relate more redemptively in the church.
Being a brother or sister isn’t only a role, it’s a divine calling. God chose you to play an integral role in someone’s story. Doing it well has eternal implications.
Copyright 2013 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.