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The pitfalls of adult sibling relationships

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'Adult Sibling Relationships'
'Adult Sibling Relationships' by Geoffrey Greif and Michael Woolley
Courtesy of Columbia

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Do you get along with your siblings? Do childhood experiences still sting?

Was your brother the favorite? Did your sister torture you?

Adult sibling relationships are an endless source of fascination for Geoffrey Greif and Michael Woolley. The two, who are professors at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, studied more than 260 siblings over the age of 40 for their new book, "Adult Sibling Relationships."

What did they find?

Greif joked that the full title of the book could have been, "Adult Sibling Relationships: Affectionate, Ambivalent and Ambiguous."

The book showed that family drama can carry into the later years, Greif told MPR News host Kerri Miller. "Seventy percent of our sample of almost 300 people said that there were times when they had fallen out or had some distance from at least one — if not all — of their siblings."


You're in it for the long haul

"Remember that we're with our siblings longer than anyone else — longer than our parents, longer than our children, longer than our partners," Greif said. "We have to understand that it's normal to have ups and downs over the course of a lifespan."

Can you predict if siblings will be close?

Parents who exhibit closeness with their siblings can pass that behavior along to their children, Greif said. But it's the father's relationship with his siblings that mattered most to the people Greif studied.

"When our respondents perceived their fathers as being close to their siblings, they tended to be closer to their own siblings, whereas the mother's closeness, which is much more common, had no impact."

Favorite children have their own burdens

It's difficult to not be the chosen child in a family that plays favorites, but "it can also be dangerous to be traveling through life as the most favored," Greif said.

Forget that picture perfect holiday card

People should "not think that we have to have a Norman Rockwell-esque view where everyone gets together and smiles," Greif said. "That happens in some families, and it may happen in every family at some point," but it's not the average experience of most respondents.

Go ahead, dish about your parents

Siblings joking about their parents' behavior is "a normal survival skill," Greif said.

When spouses and partners enter the picture, things can become complicated

"When siblings marry or partner, sometimes that partner does not fit in with how the family wants to construct itself," Greif said. "It's hard for families to accept new people and still stay close."

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation