I Nearly Gave Up on Having a Relationship With My Sister—But Sibling Therapy Gave Us a Fresh Start

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Growing up, my relationship with my sister Allia was far from what I imagined a sibling bond should be. Braiding hair, sharing our deepest darkest secrets, laughing until our stomachs hurt...I wanted what the Halliwell sisters had on Charmed. But as the middle child sandwiched between my older sister and my younger brother—two years between each of us—our sisterly dynamics felt less like a cheesy WB show and more like a losing game of "The Floor Is Lava." No matter what cushion I hopped on, I lost.

Despite my best efforts, my sister and I could not get along. Even when we shared a school, it felt like we were worlds apart. She was introspective, athletic, brainy. I was loud, dramatic, sensitive. We disagreed on everything, down to what to make for lunch or watch on TV. For me, it felt like nothing I could do was ever good enough for her. I desperately wanted to be her friend, be let into her inner world, and she wanted to get as far from me as possible.

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As we grew up, the distance only grew. Instead of bonding over shared coming-of-age experiences, it felt like everything I did annoyed her. Anytime I asked her questions about her personal life, she would ignore me. To her friends, she was open, carefree, and happy. But around me, she was tense, grumpy, and constantly “over it.” But I never stopped trying to win her affections, well into our adulthood.

This was the first time that it felt like she truly wanted to see me for who I am as an adult, not just a kid with undiagnosed mental health problems.

It wasn't until a particularly tumultuous Thanksgiving a few years ago that the reality of our fractured relationship hit me with full force. We were all gathered in Palm Springs as a family, and there were little things here and there that made me feel like I couldn’t be my authentic self; little jabs or jokes at my expense. I felt judged and alone. I was tired of trying to be her friend while it felt like she was constantly looking down at me. I left that visit not wanting to spend time with her anymore. Meanwhile, Allia told my dad that the gathering made her energized and hopeful over our relationship. It was clear my sister and I were on different pages. And this hurt.

My dad told my sister how I was feeling, and she called me to talk about it. She said that she had no idea that I was feeling that way and that she wanted to work on our relationship. She presented the idea of going to therapy together, at the advice of her own therapist, to help her understand me better. I have borderline personality disorder (a mental health issue that affects my ability to manage my emotions), anxiety, and depression, and she wanted to know how this impacted our relationship. Her offer made me emotional, because this was the first time that it felt like she truly wanted to see me for who I am as an adult, not just a kid with undiagnosed mental health problems.

Inspired, I asked my therapist if my sister could join us for a few sessions and she said yes. Together, we embarked on a transformative journey of sibling therapy, guided by my therapist who has experience in navigating familial dynamics.

The unique sibling therapy experience

Similar to other forms of family or couples therapy, sibling therapy offers a safe and structured environment for exploring and resolving relationship issues between siblings. “We don't realize it, but there's a lot of injuries—bruises, if you will—that can happen in childhood in our sibling relationships,” says Amanda Craig, PhD, LMFT, and author of Who Are You & What Have You Done with My Kid?: Connect with Your Tween While They Are Still Listening. “When we can work through some of that stuff, we actually find a healing relationship that we can get closer and lean into, which helps for those relationships longer term.”

Unlike individual therapy, which primarily focuses on the individual's experiences and emotions, sibling therapy acknowledges the interconnectedness of sibling relationships and addresses them within the therapeutic space, says Jennifer Lytle, LMFT. “Therapy can be extremely beneficial for anyone who is ready to put in the work. But when a pair of siblings comes in, the healing actually happens at a quicker rate than if they went on their own.” This is because through facilitated communication and guided interventions, siblings can gain insights into their relational patterns, learn effective communication strategies, and work towards resolving past conflicts. This is exactly what my sister and I set out to do.

Depending on the therapist, sibling therapy utilizes various methodologies tailored to the specific needs and dynamics of each sibling group. For example, Lytle likes to use narrative therapy to go back to the point of trauma or pain and allow each individual to experience that event again as a way to gain insight. This type of therapy empowers clients by separating themselves from their problems, creating space for them to see these challenges as external forces, not defining characteristics.

In the first session, my sister asked me a question that she thought would help kick things off: “What was your experience like with our parents’ divorce?” She had assumed that we had a shared experience of our parents divorce, but a friend’s experience with divorce helped her realize that people may experience things differently. It was a good place to start, as my therapist also agreed that this was a pivotal moment in both of our lives since it happened to us at such a young age (I was in first grade and she was in third).

"Through this process, the siblings can begin to heal old wounds and rebuild their relationship on a foundation of mutual respect and empathy." —Jennifer Lytle, LMFT

For my sister, her experience of the divorce was there was a lot of yelling and then suddenly there wasn’t anymore. She got her own room and life moved on—and didn’t understand why I couldn’t, too. For me, the divorce was a traumatic experience that made me feel abandoned and likely contributed to my borderline personality disorder and anxious attachment style. Talking about these wounds helped her understand that when I am craving love and attention from her, it's because my brain is conditioned to think that everyone who knows me is going to leave me. (And then when my attempts at friendship or connection are rebuffed, that rejection is extremely painful for me.) By acknowledging each other's perspectives and emotions, we were able to develop a deeper understanding of the underlying dynamics contributing to our conflicts.

Another tool that Lytle likes to use with siblings is experience mapping: when you explore the pain points for each individual—oftentimes by diagramming it out on a piece of paper—to identify how your pain originated or how your pain inflictor (maybe the other sibling) was also inflicted upon. “Through this process, the siblings can begin to heal old wounds and rebuild their relationship on a foundation of mutual respect and empathy,” Lytle says. Of course, we talked a lot about our parents’ divorce. But there were some other painful incidents for us to unpack, too. Allia always hated it growing up when I would steal her clothes and then lie about it. She thought it was rude and annoying. But in my head, I knew that if I asked her to borrow something, she would never say yes. Since all I wanted was to be like my big sister, I did it anyway. In hindsight, I probably should have told her that back in school.

Similarly, Dr. Craig likes to use emotionally focused therapy, where the clients unpack their sharedtrauma by understanding the emotion underneath it. In my case, it was abandonment. For my sister, it was sadness. Most times, Dr. Craig says siblings can find common ground by understanding how the environment they grew up in led to some of the disconnect, rather than placing blame on each other. At the beginning of our therapy journey, it was clear that my sister blamed me for a lot of things growing up, like being an attention seeker that in turn made her feel the need to isolate from the family. Because I was so loud and over-the-top as a child, she felt like there was no room for her to shine her light. The truth was a bit more complex; I was an open book when it came to my emotions so my parents responded accordingly. But Allia was the opposite. She never shared, and in turn, it looked like she was fine from the outside. Our parents responded differently to their perception of our individual needs, which contributed to this disconnect.

Finding a new light in our relationship

Once you have gotten to the root of your problems and defined some common ground, it’s time to start rebuilding your relationship. “If the siblings are coming in with all these childhood wounds, we need to focus on building a new foundation rooted in the present,” Dr. Craig says.

To start, our therapist had us reflect on what values we wanted to hold in our new, grown-up relationship. I wanted a relationship that offered authenticity, openness, and empathy, while my sister wanted one that had honesty, compassion, and transparency. Together, we made a list of our shared values that we could then use to build this new foundation, which include elements from both of our lists, in addition to curiosity and respect. Now, every interaction we have is rooted in these values, helping us treat each other in the way we both deserve. If things start to get tense between us, these values offer us a moment to check in and make sure we are communicating in a way that honors them.

Supporting this new foundation were new skills we both learned in therapy on how to communicate and problem solve. Thanks to the guidance of our therapist, we were able to learn and practice effective communication skills, such as active listening and expressing emotions constructively. When conflicts arose—as they inevitably do with siblings—we learned to approach those arguments with empathy, respect, and a willingness to compromise, rather than resorting to destructive patterns of behavior that had held us back in the past like yelling, hitting, and then eventually walking away and slamming the door. One tool that has been extremely helpful for us both is showing up with more curiosity. Instead of making assumptions about why she or I feel a certain way, we ask open-ended questions to better understand the other person’s perspective or experience.

As the months passed, the walls that had once divided us began to crumble, and our relationship began to transform. I felt more comfortable being my silly, goofy, dramatic self, and at the same time, she felt more comfortable being outgoing, joyful, and silly. Six months after our first session, my therapist felt like we were taking charge of our sessions and working through issues without her assistance. It was rare she had to intervene because we were apparently doing a great job at showing each other respect and empathy. Eventually, it was finally time for us to “graduate.”

How to take the first step toward sibling healing

If you have ever thought about trying sibling therapy, start by asking your therapist (if you have one) about it. Some therapists are open to bringing in a family member if it would help with long-term healing and communication, but others might prefer a different relationship. One guideline that my therapist had was that all our sessions were together. Lytle says this is better than each person doing individual therapy because when you come together to do it, each person has an equal opportunity to say how things went down.

If you don’t have your own therapist already, try looking for one that specializes in sibling and family relationships. Typically that would be a marriage and family therapist; they would have a LMFT or MFT credential, depending on what state you live in.

I no longer feel like I am pressuring her to be my friend because that bond finally feels natural. We call each other on a weekly basis; when we see each other in person, we both can be our authentic selves without having to compete for parental attention.

Once you have a therapist lined up, you can ask your sibling if they would be open to coming to therapy with you. Dr. Craig recommends starting small, asking them to start with one session. “One session won’t change everything but if it feels safe and doable, there is a higher chance the sibling will come back.”

Dr. Craig also recommends being honest with your sibling and telling them what your goal is with sibling therapy. "I always encourage people to bring your softer side to therapy. Tell your sibling how you feel, like ‘I miss you, I want to be closer to you, and I don't know how to do it.’" This can help disarm the situation and make it more approachable.

It has been over six months since my sister and I finished our joint therapy and our relationship has definitely changed. I no longer feel like I am pressuring her to be my friend because that bond finally feels natural. We call each other on a weekly basis; when we see each other in person, we both can be our authentic selves without having to compete for parental attention. Now we do puzzles, play board games, and sing and dance together. While we are both in our late 20s, it feels like we have a chance at building the sibling relationship I always wanted. That’s not to say there still aren’t arguments. But they are rooted in a difference of opinion instead of assumptions about the other, and we have the tools to navigate those disagreements in a healthier way.

By addressing underlying issues and fostering empathy and understanding, sibling therapy lays the groundwork for healthier, more fulfilling relationships built on a foundation of mutual respect and support. I'm forever grateful that my sister and I took this step together.

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