A 6-year study in Germany explored sibling estrangement, i.e., cessation of contact or loss of emotional closeness between brothers and sisters in adulthood. They found that 28% of respondents had at least one estrangement episode with a sibling, while 14% had multiple estranged siblings.
The risk of estrangement was greater in siblings with lower level of genetic relatedness (e.g., half-siblings vs full siblings) and those who did not grow up in the same household. Estrangement episodes were often temporary. The study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Brothers and sisters remain an important social resource to each other over the whole life course, in spite of considerable ambivalence and conflicts that often occur in these relationships. However, “siblings both can and do become estranged, [challenging] commonly held assumptions about family relationships, confirming that they are not necessarily or always life-long, significant or supportive.”
Estrangement between individuals can be physical and emotional. It is seen as a choice or decision made by at least one of the involved parties. It is “a process in which at least one family member voluntarily and intentionally establishes or maintains distance from another because of an on-going negative relationship.”
Another definition sees estrangement as “managing unresolved emotional problems with family members by substantially reducing contact or remaining in physical contact but maintaining emotional distance.” But how often does sibling estrangement happen?
Aiming to answer this question, researchers Karsten Hank and Anja Steinbach analyzed data from four waves of the German Family Panel research study, a large longitudinal study of three age groups in Germany – those born 1971-1973, 1981-1983 and 1991-1993. The study authors analyzed data from participants who participated in the 2012/2013 data collection for this study (Wave 5) and reported having at least one sibling aged 18 or older. This amounted to data from 5,729 participants and a total of 10,374 sibling pairs.
The researchers inferred about estrangement by having the participants report either non-contact with the sibling (i.e., responding with never to ““How often are you in contact with your [sibling], adding up all visits, letters, phone calls, etc.?”) or that contact happened less than once per month and that they were emotionally distanced (answering 1 or 2 on a 5-point scale on the question “How close do you feel to your [sibling] today emotionally?” about the particular sibling).
The researchers also collected data on the level of genetic relatedness with the sibling, on how long they lived in the same household before the respondent’s 18th birthday, siblings’ gender composition (whether they are brother-brother, sister-sister or a brother-sister pair), their birth order, and the respondent’s total number of siblings.
They also collected data on life course influences on sibling estrangements that included whether respondents’ parents live as a couple, have separated/divorced or died, and on the existence of previous estrangement episodes from the sibling in question.
Results showed that 28.1% of respondents had at least one episode of estrangement from at least one sibling during the observation period. About 14% experienced multiple, up to four, episodes of estrangement from siblings. Estrangement was more likely from half-siblings or step-siblings with whom the respondent lived in the same household for less than half of the time till the age of 18.
“Non-biological siblings who lived together for at least half of the time till the respondent’s 18th birthday still exhibited a significantly higher probability to experience estrangement from each other than full siblings, but nonbiological siblings with little or no history of childhood co-residence clearly were at the highest risk of estrangement,” the researchers wrote
Additionally, sister-sister pairs (but not brother-brother) pairs were slightly less prone to estrangement than brother-sister pairs. Younger siblings were a bit less likely to report estrangement from older siblings and the risk of estrangement was very slightly higher in respondents with a higher number of siblings. Disruptive family events, particularly divorce or death of a parent were associated with an increase in the probability of estrangement.
Respondents who already experienced estrangement episodes from siblings were more likely to experience them again. Sibling estrangement was found to often be a temporary phenomenon.
The study makes an important contribution to the knowledge about dynamics of sibling relationships in adulthood. However, it should be noted that study participants were all from Germany and results on other cultures might not be the same.
The study, “Sibling estrangement in adulthood”, was authored by Karsten Hank and Anja Steinbach.