“I realised this on a recent trip to visit him and felt pretty crushed. I hadn’t been down to his place, which is just a couple of hours from where I live, in at least five years—probably more, to be honest. I had hopped on the train with one goal: to help him redecorate his living room (he was desperate for help). Furniture shopping kept us occupied and gave us something to talk about. Still, there were a lot of awkward silences. “So, what did you think of that leather recliner at Pepperfry?” I asked during lunch, even though I already knew he liked it. That night, I joined him and his friends for drinks, and it hit me: I don’t even know the name of his best friend. I was introduced to a dozen people that night, and I had never heard of any of them. In my head, I blamed him. ‘Why hasn’t he ever told me about these people?!’ Then again, I reminded myself, it’s not like I ever asked. I look at most of my friends, and they see, call, or text their siblings all the time. Sometimes multiple times a day. I’ve watched as one of my friends answered a call from her sister, laughed for several minutes straight, then just said, ‘Crazy! Okay, call me tonight’, leaving me baffled by their secret language. A co-worker of mine couldn’t go a week without meeting up with her younger brother. I’m half jealous of their relationships and half weirded-out by their freaky codependency. And they look at me like I’m the worst sister ever when I tell them I usually see my brother only at family functions. I got married recently, and it wasn’t until after my husband’s bachelor party that I realised he should have invited my brother. I’ve received all sorts of shock, pity, and dismay, and it’s easy to understand why. “It’s evolutionary to want to keep the family together,” says relationship coach Jeannie Bertoli,PhD.
The momentum we developed in college has slowed to a
substance-less crawl. We’ll text once in a while—
usually about his dog.
“We fear that without our family, we might not be okay. It’s a survival instinct.” Straying from our family ties, as I have, upends that. Even more: study after study shows just how much child siblings can affect one another as they grow up (they may informally teach us social skills, help shape our personalities, and influence our paths to success or failure). “To most people, it seems nuts to have a sibling go from being so instrumental to so inconsequential,” Bertoli adds. It seems the most nuts to our mother. She’ll ask every week, “Have you spoken to your brother?” and I can hear her disappointment when I say no. I get the updates I need from her, so why does she care so much? “Typically, parents think of brothers or sisters as an automatic network for each other once the parents pass away,” says Laurie Kramer, PhD, a professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It may come from the belief that family members (blood relations) are more likely to help one another than would someone outside the family, like a friend.” I know my mother loves and trusts my husband, but in her mind, my brother is the only one who is truly, unalterably obligated to be there for me when my parents die.
As much as people freak out when they hear about my relationship with my brother, I know we aren’t the only siblings to work this way. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of data on the ‘typical’ relationship for adult siblings. Karl Pillemer, PhD, a professor of human development at Cornell University, estimates 20 to 30 percent of siblings have a relationship that’s “congenial but distant”, like mine. “They may not be in contact that much, but there’s no estrangement or conflict,” says Pillemer. “They’ve just dropped out of touch.”
Jia, 26, a public relations specialist in Mumbai can relate. Despite living just about three hours from her brother in Pune, they see each other only when they’re at their parents’ house. And even then, those meetings don’t get past basic pleasantries. “I often tell people my brother feels like the most opposite version of me,” she says. Looking back at our childhood, my relationship with my brother seems pretty textbook. We were three years apart, so we had our own friends, but sometimes they’d mix together, and we were happy to coexist at the same party. Although I don’t remember having any heart-to-hearts, we spent plenty of time together and he’d always help me with homework or vouch for me when I wanted a later curfew. Sure, we’d bicker, but none of it ever seemed to exceed the appropriate amount of sibling arguing. When he went to college, we surprisingly grew closer, which goes against what researchers sometimes find. I had tonnes of questions for him about college, I’d complain about being left with our parents, and he’d invite me and my BFF a few times a year to check out the party scene. When I started college, he’d visit me once a semester.
Now that we’re in our 30s, the momentum we developed in college has slowed to a substance-less crawl. Our jobs are very different (I’m an editor and I’m not sure what he does—think Chandler Bing), and our interests are even more so (I like to bake and he likes to climb dangerous mountains). We’ll text once in a while—usually about his dog. Pillemer explains that there are two major things working against us: our age and the fact that he’s not my sister. In terms of sibling closeness, there’s what Pillemer calls the hourglass model: “You see your siblings a lot when you’re living together, and then you often reconnect when your own kids are grown,” he says. In between, it’s natural to have less contact: “So much of your energy is focused on figuring out a career, establishing independence, and making other relationships,” Kramer says. If my brother were my sister, Kramer agrees things might be different. Studies have found that sibling sets made up of two sisters tend to be closest, although obviously there are exceptions.
Studies have found that sibling sets made up of two sisters tend to be closest, although obviously there are exceptions.
What if I did want to strengthen our bond? The good news is that experts say it’s never too late. They suggested I pick up the phone and give him a call—regularly. (I realise basically no-one talks on the phone anymore, but this still feels somehow plausible.) Knowing that’s in my back pocket, I feel better. And for siblings with real hostility—as in deep-rooted issues or an extremely hurtful falling-out in the past—there’s hope there too. You can still work on those bonds, even if you’ve been out of touch for years. “With siblings, people usually have a greater willingness to try harder,” says Bertoli, comparing the relationship to friendships that have fallen by the wayside. Be sure to preface a call or e-mail by saying, “Hey, just thought of you and wanted to reach out.” You know, so their first reaction isn’t wondering what terminal disease you have. For me, I’m fine with things as is. I appreciate that my brother will be my longest relationship in life. He’s the only one who can completely understand what it was like to grow up in our city, with our parents, in that specific house. He was there for our nightly dinners, when our grandmother died, and through every punishment I ever got. I can recount those stories for my husband and show him photographs, but he wasn’t there. I know that if I really needed my brother for something, he’d have my back—and vice versa. And he is there for the ‘big-deal’ things, like my wedding. He’s just not part of my day-to-day.
“Our relationship works for us,” my brother said when I called to tell him about this story. (I texted first to see if he was free to talk, and he fittingly responded by asking if everything was all right.) “We’re both just really busy,” he said, “but you’re right, we’d be there for each other in a bind.” Ours is an increasingly normal state of affairs, Bertoli says, as people wait longer to marry and build close friend squads that fill in for sibling relationships. For now, we’ve found a system that works for us. And that’s okay.”