Toxic siblings and well-being
Being family doesn’t mean toxic siblings should get an automatic pass into your life. They still have to earn their place there.
We often hear about toxic friendships, toxic romantic relationships, and toxic workplace relationships, but rarely do we hear about the torture supplied by narcissistic siblings, abusive siblings or bullying siblings.
No, those toxic relationships fly well under the radar. Yet, they’re more common than you may think.
Toxic siblings can be a nightmare because they’re not as easy to prune out of your life.
Sometimes the only solution is a huge geographical distance, and even then, as reported by some of my clients, you are still at the mercy of those unhealthy relationships when circumstances force your family to unite, such as the illness, wedding, or death of another family member.
Blood is thicker than water they say. Sure. But in the same vein, the toxicity levels can be higher.
Toxic narcissistic siblings
Particularly difficult can be narcissistic siblings.
First born children have a higher chance of narcissistic traits compared with second-born children, as discovered in a study of first and second-born offspring of 600 parents (i.e. 1200 children in the study) .
The way narcissistic siblings will manipulate everyone else in the family, try to turn not only the family, but even the world against their chosen victim, is egregious. And often, their bullying, coercion and outright abuse, is steeped in jealousy.
And if their victim should have the audacity to escape, well, the toxic sibling will damn right ensure they cannot get away that easily. They may lie low for a while, they may feel confused about how they ‘lost control’ of their little victim, but after a while, they’ll be back to create more chaos.
Feeling the burn of defeat, they will also enlist the help of others in their circle so that they can once again forge forward in an attempt to prove that you cannot escape their control. They may try to shame you, humiliate you, blacken your name, cry the victim for the thousandth time, and try to corner you once again.
It is no wonder so many people cut ties and move as far away as possible from that toxic sibling, worn out, and desperate to regain their right to their health and happiness once again.
Experiences reported by adult victims of toxic sibling relationships
In a qualitative study on estranged siblings where the researchers note – ‘The fact that siblings both can and do become estranged challenges commonly held assumptions about family relationships, confirming that they are not necessarily or always life-long, significant or supportive’ – numerous experiences and scenarios are brought to light .
Participants described experiences of conflicts, alliances, and estrangements and most of the respondents focused on how their sibling’s traits and behaviours were challenging or disappointing.
The respondents all identified themselves as being estranged from a family member and all had sought support for it. They disclosed information about their relationship with a genetic brother or sister. No step or adoptive siblings featured in this study.
Below are some notable comments from the 291 respondents in the study as well as the authors of the study.
Regarding the variety of responses
“There was a great deal of variation in the nature and quality of respondents’ estranged relationships with their siblings.”
For some, the relationship was one of ‘hate’ or described as ‘toxic’. They felt they had better psychological and physical health “when they did not engage in an active relationship with their sibling: ‘I have had to draw a line for my own mental health’ (White female, early 40s, UK).”
“Others described the relationship as ‘complicated’ or ‘stressful’, whereas others described their relationship as being distant, with some describing their sibling as being like a stranger: ‘I don’t really know my brother’ (White female, late 30s, UK).”
Regarding feelings about the estrangement
“…some felt sad, hurt, frustrated, exhausted or devastated ‘…this is the most painful, bewildering and grief-stricken experience of my life. I have been through divorce and loss of a parent but this is worse that both of these’ (White female, early 50s, UK).”
“‘I just find it very sad and it has made me depressed, but I have now come to an acceptance of this is how it is and it will not change’ (White female, early 40s, UK). Others described missing their sibling and loving them: ‘I love my estranged brother, but he is not capable of being trustworthy’ (White female, late 60s, USA).”
Regarding the behaviours of the estranged sibling
“Some described their estranged sibling as being jealous of them and/or competitive, whereas others described their estranged sibling as being untrustworthy and as having betrayed them or stolen from them or a family member.”
“‘My brother has treated me with a lack of respect, in a second-class sort of way, ever since being with his wife. She is quite manipulative. My brother has changed from the kind person he was to a stressed, angry man’ (White female, late 40s, UK).”
“Siblings were also described as being unaccountable for their actions, rarely, if ever, admitting that they had done something wrong and/or taking responsibility for their actions. Other negative qualities included a sibling being critical, bullying, controlling, manipulative, attention seeking, secretive, patronising, grandiose and a trouble maker: ‘she has the ability to press buttons in people and loves to revel in mayhem she has caused’ (White female, late 60s, UK).”
Toxic siblings form at different ages
The researchers found that sometimes it was the parents that had created the rift between siblings from early in their childhood due to things like favouritism and abuse; in other cases the choices the siblings themselves had made, made relationships difficult in adulthood.
Toxic siblings do have a different trend for brothers and sisters
It was found to be most common that relationships that had become estranged from brothers was due to their choice of spouse or romantic partner, citing that their brother’s wife had become between them in some way, whilst estrangement from sisters more often came down to jealousy or betrayal regarding romantic partners.
Everyday stories about toxic siblings
So whilst those findings came from a qualitative psychological study, what does the general public say about experiences of toxic siblings? Well, I had a look at a BuzzFeed article which shared some of the authors picks from a Reddit thread (under the Subreddit, Ask Reddit) and below are some of the examples shared .
“Pretended to be pregnant (she was a teenager at the time) the night before my siblings’ big school exam finals and my 21st birthday. Presumably because the attention wasn’t on her, as a school dropout with no job at the time.”
“Tried to burn the house down with me in it. I found out through the police blotters in the newspaper because my parents thought it would upset me.”
“My older sibling defrauded my family out of $300,000 to fund their weight-loss surgery, then got addicted to prescription drugs to cope with the pain, developed a hoarding problem, and had to get forced into rehab.”
“My brother attempted to ruin my life because I wouldn’t stay quiet about our father being a pedophile. He rallied the family to harass me into silence.”
“Found out my brother and his wife were not separated and getting a divorce — something he’d been telling the whole family for over a year and she knew nothing about, until I inadvertently said something to her.”
“My younger brother threatened to murder me and my mother with a hammer he found after he couldn’t find a bat. He started a countdown from 10… Thankfully, since he’s had major blowups most of his life, I’d begun recording them shortly before this one. We’re alive, and he’s in jail.”
Okay! Definitely a few unlucky siblings out there!
Maybe that list makes your toxic relationship feel more bearable…or maybe it just makes you realise you are not alone. Either outcome is a positive one so long as you don’t allow those stories to exacerbate your own problems.
For example, this shouldn’t give you a victim mentality, your own situation is the thing to focus on. This also shouldn’t make you exaggerate in your own mind what is going on in your relationship with your sibling, you need to evaluate your own situation to work out where you go from here.
Is maintaining contact with toxic siblings worth it?
Some respondents in the aforementioned psychological study had no contact with their sibling in question whilst others had intermittent contact.
So what’s best for you to do? Maintain regular contact, have intermittent contact to maintain some level of normalcy, have contact only when absolutely necessary, or cut them out of your life altogether?
It’s a very personal decision given the effects of toxic sibling relationships on one’s:
- mental health,
- physical health,
- other relationships,
- public reputation,
It’s when people realise that there is no resolve that they distance or cut those people from their lives, or ‘pause or prune’ them (Happy Relationships).
There comes a point when there really is no choice left but to pause or prune them because the other party refuses to change, something also noted in the research.
Of course, those with narcissistic siblings will be especially familiar with this, though it usually takes years to even realise that their sibling is narcissistic (perhaps especially so because they are a communal narcissist or a covert narcissist).
Forever excused for their bad behaviour by usually well-meaning family members, forever dancing between their facades, narcissists are known for being master manipulators and so it can take years to come to terms with the fact that the sibling is indeed narcissistic, and consequently, has an underwhelming likelihood of changing.
A narcissist doesn’t usually think about changing. Sometimes it’s because they gain too much from their bad behaviour to want to change, and usually they will delude themselves into believing their behaviour is justified, and that nothing they do is unfair or immoral even when it is clear from detached onlookers that they lack decency.
Narcissists do not play by the same rule book. Their major goal is to protect their self-image, their lifestyle and their reputation (one that is often smoke and mirrors for what sits behind them).
So, do you benefit from being around people who lack empathy, morals and a desire to treat you right? That’s for you to decide. But I do know that the answer isn’t always that straightforward because of the numerous factors you might have to consider.
For example, how it might impact your children and their children, how it might impact your parents, how resilient you currently are, how they might set out to further destroy your well-being, circumstances that may force you to cooperate frequently such as caring for a sick parent or running a family business, and much more.
1. Shafti S. S. (2017). Comparison between first-born and second-born children regarding prevalence of narcissistic traits: an appraisal of adler’s conjecture. MOJ Addiction Medicine & Therapy 4(3):182-186. DOI: 10.15406/mojamt.2017.04.00078
2. Blake, L., Bland, B., & Rouncefield-Swales, A. (2022). Estrangement Between Siblings in Adulthood: A Qualitative Exploration. Journal of Family Issues, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X211064876
3. LaConte, S. (2021). ‘People Are Calling Out The Most Toxic Things Their Siblings Have Ever Done To Them, And It’s Really Dark’, USA: BuzzFeed. https://www.buzzfeed.com/stephenlaconte/toxic-sibling-relationship-stories-reddit
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