How To Navigate Difficult Sister Relationships

Updated April 10, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

For some sisters, a connection is formed early on, and it brings them closer each day. This is the perfect description of a loving sisterly bond, but not all sisters have this type of relationship. There may be a rift that occurred when you were young. Or it’s possible that as you grow older, you realize that there was never much between you from the start.

Whatever the scenario, it can be saddening to know that when something major happens in your life, you can’t pick up the phone and call your sister. If the relationship with your sister is one that seems beyond repair, you may wonder if terminating the relationship completely is the answer to your sibling issues, or if you should keep trying to reconcile. 

Determining what went wrong

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Do you fear your relationship is toxic?

What could happen in life that’s so bad that it causes stress or strain on a sibling relationship? Of course, the answers to this question could be endless. Relationships can be difficult to manage, even between or among sisters. Numerous circumstances can lead to disconnect or a break in the relationship, causing sister issues.

It is common to hear of sisters or older siblings becoming estranged. Some sisters admit to leading happier lives without communicating with their sister because they prefer to avoid the drama of a strenuous relationship. Most psychologists agree that putting an end to the relationship entirely shouldn’t be the first step, though. Attempting to make the relationship work is preferable unless the connection has become too toxic to remain in.

When sisters are born, parents usually prefer that they grow up loving and caring for each other with healthy family dynamics. They would like to think that there won't be any sibling rivalry between them. However, personalities, social skills, likes, and dislikes may make this goal difficult and nearly impossible for some to reach. Although the ideal is for sisters to be best friends, this isn’t always the reality.

The foundations of sister rivalry

One of the biggest culprits in sister rivalries is family. Intentionally or unintentionally, parents may treat their children differently. Perhaps in the parent’s eyes, each child is different and needs to be loved differently. While parents may mean no ill intent, this difference in treatment can have unintended consequences. For example, if a child feels that her parents show favoritism to one sibling over the other, it can cause resentment that grows over the years, eventually leading to difficult sister relationships.

Abuse is another foundation for strained relationships between sisters. If one sister is overly aggressive or abusive towards the other, it may harm the relationship permanently. It’s difficult to maintain a relationship with toxic people that were mean to you or bullied you as a child. It may stay with you and can affect your relationship with others. It could also have ill effects on your own self-esteem or self-worth. If you’ve been the victim of abuse of any kind, consider speaking to a professional for guidance. Living with the pain of being mistreated can make it difficult for you to maintain healthy relationships.

Grief is one of the most common denominators in division among siblings. The loss of a parent or other sibling could cause one or more sisters to become withdrawn. It may also cause some deeply embedded emotions to surface, which could spark animosity among sisters. In many families, the parents are the glue that holds the siblings together. Sisters may feel there’s no need to continue the sibling relationship if the parents are no longer around. Grief from the loss of a parent can be traumatic, especially if one sibling feels that others didn’t do their part or care for the parents as much as they did. Consider that grief is a time for families to come together and support each other. 

Personal struggles can also cause a rift among sisters. If there is a problem with drugs, alcohol, or similar issues, it can destroy relationships, even among siblings. In most cases, sisters go above and beyond to make things better or help their siblings through times like these. After many failed attempts, though, one or more siblings may walk away because they feel there is no hope. It might begin to put a strain on their personal life and cause chaos at home, work, and in their social circles. In these instances, walking away may be the best option.

Facing difficult sister relationships

Once the relationship with your sister becomes too difficult to manage, estrangement may present itself. This is the process of outgrowing each other or going your separate ways. Estrangement can be painful when it arises because of conflict or distress between sisters. The decision to walk away is usually reached when one person finds it impossible to move forward in the relationship. Long story short, there could be some things that push the bar or cross the line to the point of no return.

Crossing the line may be the result of saying hurtful things, making cruel remarks, behaving negatively towards one’s spouse or children, refusing to take prescribed medication for mental issues, or associating with questionable people. All these factors are concerning and understandably damaging to a relationship. However, they don’t have to be the downfall or end of the sisterly bond.

Managing difficult sister relationships

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo

If you are in search of ways to manage a difficult relationship with your sister, it means that you have hope that the relationship can be salvaged. In that case, there are a few things you can do to restore or initiate a healthy bond with your sister. 

  • Be compassionate with your sister and attempt to consider her perspective along with yours. It’s easy to assume that your sister is mean or deliberate in their actions. Sometimes, anger may set in prematurely because a person misunderstands another’s intentions.
  • Have a conversation explaining how you feel and why you feel that way. Sometimes it’s a matter of misunderstanding what the other person is going through. You may need to talk with your sister to find out why they’re behaving the way they are. Tell your sister what problems you have with her and talk them over. You might be surprised at what can be accomplished just by having a simple conversation.
  • Take a step back. Instead of cutting your sister out of your life completely, consider giving them a little space. Don’t call as often, for example. Reduce visits to once or twice per month. Make it clear that you’re available if she needs you, but let her know you’ll be taking some time for yourself. Send an occasional text or email to check in on her. This allows you to experience your true feelings without your sister’s constant influence. Then ask yourself: Do you miss her? Is it hard not seeing or talking to your sister often? Do you catch yourself picking up the phone to call her? If so, the space you’ve taken may be helping you to realize that you value the relationship with your sister more than you thought.

The cost of walking away

If you’ve decided that enough is enough, you may decide to walk away from your sister. Unless you’re completely disengaged, walking away may not be easy, and it could come at a cost.

Before you say goodbye to your sister for good, think about your efforts and the outcome. Consider your role in the downfall of the relationship and what it says about you as a sibling. Are you comfortable knowing you’ve walked away from family? Is cutting your sister out of your life the best and only way to cope with the pain you’re experiencing? Are your feelings toward your sister the result of a deeper issue you’re dealing with in your life?

Once you walk away, it’s as if you’re saying that you’ve done and said everything possible. Think long and hard about the decision you make to end a relationship with your loved ones because sometimes, it can be difficult to reestablish a relationship that you turned your back on.

How to rebuild the relationship

Getty/AnnaStills
Do you fear your relationship is toxic?

If you know that there is hope for the relationship, consider working to re-establish the bond. There are steps you can take to make the relationship better.

Consider the following:

  • Talk to other people in the family to get their perspective on the relationship between you and your sister. There may be something you’re missing or misunderstanding. Hearing what others think may provide insight that you haven’t considered in the past.
  • Make a list of all the things you love about your sister. Take about a week and write down these things as they come to mind. Now spend a weekend imagining a life without the things you love about her.
  • Compose a list of all the things that bother you about your sister. Once the list is complete, take a close look at it and see if any of those things are reflective of your mannerisms or ways. It’s sometimes difficult to see yourself in others. But sisters may be more alike than not. 
  • Have a cordial departure. If you decide to walk away, it’s your decision. However, it’s not advisable to do it with malice or hatred. Instead, try to arrange a cordial departure. Talk with your sister and explain that you’re doing it for the sake of your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Doing this will grant you closure and prevent you from feeling regret in the future. It is often during the closure conversation that the relationship is re-established, which gives substance to the statement that it’s never too late to regain what once was.

Perhaps the most effective approach to reestablishing any relationship is to seek individual or relationship counseling. There may be a misconception that relationship counseling is for couples only, but it can be helpful in family situations as well. Taking the initiative to seek counseling shows that you care enough to save the relationship between you and your sister. Even if the relationship isn’t salvaged, you may experience individual healing after discussing your issues.

You might feel ashamed of your issues, for example, or hesitate to talk negatively about your sister outside of the family. In such circumstances, online counseling may provide a better alternative. Many people report feeling more at ease discussing these sensitive issues in a web-based environment. 

Online therapy is backed by scholarly research in the field of mental health. A recent study demonstrated the effectiveness of counseling delivered via videoconferencing, not only for individuals but for families as well. 

Counselor reviews

“Dr Brown has made a significant impact in our lives. She is always giving honest advice and we feel she genuinely cares about our family. She is a valued treasure that we are grateful for in our lives :)”

“Ivy has helped me find a way to relax. She also helped me understand what was going wrong with myself and my relationship with my family. Thank you, Ivy!”

Takeaway

Some experts believe that sisters who have a strong network of family and friends live happier and healthier lives. Therefore, it may be important to try to rekindle difficult sister relationships whenever possible. Try to think of ways to make the relationship better before you walk away completely. If you need support or are considering counseling to mend the relationship, contact Regain for assistance. 

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