Everyone expects children to squabble. Remember the DEFCON 1–level tantrum you threw when your younger sister gave Barbie a Grace Jones flattop? But as we grow up, most of us hope to achieve détente or, better yet, a meaningful connection with our sisters and brothers. Unfortunately, that’s not always easy. In researching my second book on family dynamics, I interviewed nearly 100 men and women about how they got along with their siblings and found that most people wanted those relationships to improve—whether they were already pretty close or barely spoke. The trouble was, they didn’t know how to make it happen. Here are ten suggestions on how to forge a more perfect union.
1. Childhood is like Vegas: Let what happened there stay there. Don’t guilt yourself over the mind games you played on your brother, and stop accusing your sister of stealing the sweater you bought in Florence, circa 1992. Make a conscious effort to forgive these childhood misdeeds and they’ll soon be water under the Ponte Vecchio.
2. Make a cameo apperance. Sure you’re going to show up at the obligatory, with a capital O, events: weddings, graduations, and Thanksgiving dinner. That’s part of being a family. But showing up unexpectedly at your brother’s 5K run? Or at the family taco night held by your sister’s Spanish club? Now, that means something.
3. Stop being the family mole. Ever-shifting alliances, surreptitious confabs, stealth reconnaissance—you’d think we were talking about The Bourne Identity and not those other people born to your mother. Sibling relationships are often defined by behind-the-back gossiping, whether that means secretly slamming one sib to the other or listening greedily as your parents decry your brother’s latest over-the-top electronics purchase. As expected, all this duplicitous chatter erodes honesty and makes it nearly impossible for you to be as close-knit with your clan as you would like. So cut it out. And if you’re finding it difficult to tear yourself away from, say, Mom’s gripe-fest, remember that she most likely lets loose about you, too.
4. Mind your manners. Would you ever ask a friend, “Have you brushed your teeth this week?” No? Then don’t speak to your brother like that. You don’t have to be formal with siblings, but a petty comment still rankles, no matter how close you are to them. The brothers and sisters whom I spoke to say digs about weight, grammar usage, and your sib’s choice of friends are especially off-limits.
5. Fight typecasting. Growing up, you may have been pegged by your family with a certain role: the responsible one, the loose cannon, the baby. And no matter how much you blossom as an adult, this role sticks. While many men and women credit happy relationships with their immediate kin to this immutability—the comfort of knowing what’s expected of them—others find it stifling. If you’re in that latter group (and think your sibs may be as well), try this: At the next family dinner, tout the fact that your brother, the brain, climbed Mount Rainier or that your sister, the jock, is writing a book. By acknowledging the way that your siblings have evolved from their childhood roles, you implicitly give everyone the green light to see you differently as well—not just as the mercurial one who once threw a plate of peas at Nana Gladys.
6. B gr8 txt frnds. Occasional hours-long chats are nice, but you’re actually more likely to supercharge your bond by having frequent casual contact, many sibs say. Technology can help. Text messaging from a train platform, commenting on a Facebook update, and pinging on your BlackBerry make it really easy to be the thoughtful sister you are.
7. Quit being jealous of other people's sibling relationships. Maybe your best friend and her sister routinely send each other homemade cookies. Or your husband and his "Let’s have a group hug!" siblings make the Waltons look like the McCoys. When you witness others sharing tight ties with their brethren, it can be easy to devalue your own relationship—if, say, exchanging birthday cards constitutes meaningful contact between you and your sister. Remember, though, that there are different depths to each bond and that somewhere inside that group hug, someone is usually dropping an elbow.
8. Play nice with your brother's (not so nice) spouse. By doing so, you’ll send the message that this woman—despite her honking voice and inability to bring so much as Lipton soup dip to the family potluck—deserves a chance. And to your brother this will prove your loyalty and acceptance. If they break up, it will be an even greater sign of your devotion if you don’t tell him, "I was faking it the whole time." Men don’t like to know about women faking anything, it seems.
9. Get out of the Dodge. Back in the day, a family vacation meant dividing the backseat with masking tape. Now a trip with the sibs means choosing your own destination and, thank God, travel arrangements. Wherever you go, skip the spa (bonding is unlikely when you’re swaddled in banana leaves) and try to eat at least two meals together.
10. Avoid hot-button topics (politics, religious, high-fructose corn syrup). It sounds like common sense, but too many of us don’t follow it and find ourselves at dinner making scorched-earth pronouncements. So if you’re not on the same wavelength as your teapartying brother or, conversely, your Nancy Pelosi–loving sister, it’s smart just to steer clear of mentioning Washington, D.C.