Thicker than Water
How Your Sibling Relationships Affect Your Health
No other family tie endures so long as the sibling relationship, and since about 80 percent of Americans grow up with a sibling, about 80 percent of us must decide what to make of that enduring tie. Brothers and sisters spend more than a third of their time together in the early years, much of it fighting over toys, vying for a parent’s attention, jockeying for the first turn in the shower and the comfiest spot on the couch. When they do so, they are honing building-block skills for getting along, getting by, and even getting ahead skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives: at work, school, marriage, and everywhere in between.
Because our relationships are so deeply tied to our mental and physical health, it’s important to do our best to nurture them and make good choices about them. That’s a medical known, but the idea of having choices about whether and how to be in a relationship is often wrongly associated with only lovers and spouses. You can’t, as they say, choose your family. Consider this instead: you can choose what kind of work you put into your sibling relationships. Research tells us that working on them has more payoffs than you might realize.
The Effects of Positive Sibling Relationships
Positive sibling relationships can improve:
- Overall health
A Swedish study showed that people in their 80s have better health and a higher sense of morale if they have living siblings. Not even friendships or relationships with adult children showed a higher correlation with health and morale at this age. Warm sibling relationships, often forged during childhood during stressful times such as divorce or a parent’s untimely death, can offer a sense of resilience and safety that may be tapped into throughout life. The sum effect—less stress—is known to improve things like heart health and blood pressure.
Shared trauma is hardly the only way to glue siblings. Simply having a common enemy can do the trick, as many adults can attest when recounting the offense of having to fold mom’s beige underwear or endure dad’s lectures on proper grass-cutting techniques for years on end. For both blood and adoptive siblings, that connection, the shared history, and common roots, could add strength and many years to their lives.
Shhhh. Now, here’s a secret: some of the health benefits of having a sibling don’t require enjoyable (or, in some cases, any) interaction with the sibling. For example, research shows that elderly men with sisters experience more emotional security than those without sisters, whether or not the siblings interacted.
The Effects of Negative Sibling Relationships
Negative sibling relationships can cause:
- Weakened immunity
If positive relationships are good for your health, it follows that negative relationships are bad for it, and toxic sibling relationships are no exception. One 2007 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that men who had experienced poor relationships with even one sibling before they turned 20 were significantly more likely to become depressed by age 50, no matter how well they got on with their parents. (Women weren’t included in the study.) Studies have also shown that such stress-filled relationships weaken immunity. Yes, brothers or sisters who are deceitful, verbally abusive, or otherwise chronically tax your emotional reserves are bad for your health!
Everlasting Hope for a Stronger Connection
While adult siblings can choose to be close, distant, or entirely part ways, the guaranteed mortality of their parents also guarantees they’ll endure a rough ride together someday. Under stress, in little hospital rooms or austere legal offices, siblings in taxed or broken relationships have an opportunity to make peace with another or draw closer as friends. Maybe that’s because parents never stop wanting what’s best for their kids, and a strong sibling connection between siblings is as good as gold.
If you believe there is hope for a good or better relationship with your adult sibling, pursue it today. If the relationship is already strong, that’s cause for celebration. Strong connections with siblings are great for your health!
Founded in 1995, Beaver Dam Women’s Health (BDWH) is a women’s health clinic dedicated to providing the Dodge County community with personalized and accessible women’s health care that caters to their specific medical needs. Call 920-885-6090 for more information.