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Get rid of rivalry: Improve sister relationships

Do you have a sister relationship that is not the stuff of fuzzy greeting cards? You're not alone -- a large percentage of women have high-conflict relationships with a sister. Vikki Stark, author of "My Sister, My Self," shares simple techniques to help feuding sisters better communicate.
/ Source: TODAY

When we hear the word “sisters,” we often think of the wonderful bond between two women who’ve been close since they were playmates in early childhood and who would do anything for each other throughout their lives, no matter what. 

But what about sisters whose relationship is not the stuff of fuzzy greeting cards? What about sisters who don’t pick up the phone when the display says another sister’s name and who put off returning her call as long as possible? Research has shown that 10 percent of women have high-conflict relationships with a sister and an even larger percentage just have mixed feelings about her. For those women, the word “sisters” has a totally different connotation than what is typically thought of as ideal.

Why do these star-crossed sisters keep trying? Because to have a sister and not get along well with her is even worse than not having a sister at all! Women keep hoping that things will improve so that their sister relationship can get closer to the one they’ve always dreamed of, but they often don’t know what to do to make that change take place.

The first place to start is to take an honest look at your own contribution to the conflict. As an older sister, do you find that you just can’t stop yourself from giving unsolicited advice, even though you know she hates it? As a younger one, do you keep expecting your big sister to come up with brilliant solutions to your problems, even though she’s having a hard enough time dealing with her own life? As a middle sister, does your jealousy of the relationship between your older and younger sister stop you from even trying to be close?

Sometimes women keep getting hurt because they’re expecting something from their sister that she is really either unable or unlikely to give them. When you find you’re butting your head against the wall, perhaps it’s time to lower your expectations. What if you just stopped wishing that she would remember your kids’ birthdays or include you in her social life? What about if you turned a deaf ear when she makes those comments about your clothes? Or if you just shook your head and chuckled to yourself when you notice that she is once again trying to prove that she’s better than you? 

If you stopped taking her so seriously and developed a more “zen” attitude about her, you would stop being so disappointed. Then you could start to learn to value whatever it is that she does give to you. The idea is to turn your focus from what is lacking in the relationship to whatever it is that you do enjoy in the relationship.

Here are some simple techniques that you can use to start to give your sister relationship a new lease on life:

One small thingFigure out the smallest change you could make in how you typically relate to your sister and try to make that change the next few times you see her. The important point in this is not to do anything too ambitious that will be hard to stick with. An example would be, if you’re the one who always rushes to get off the phone, be patient and let her be the one to end the next phone call. When she sees you doing something differently, she may want to reciprocate!

Tai chi technique
You can avoid arguments with your sister by refusing to be drawn into endless discussions of things you or she did wrong in the past. Instead, stay focused on the problem at hand. For example, if she says she’s upset because you waited till the next day to find out how an important job interview went, don’t respond defensively with something like, “Oh, yeah? What about the time I had that doctor’s appointment and you never called at all!” Once you both start pulling a lifetime of past hurts out of the hat, the present issue will never be dealt with properly. Avoid using the past as evidence and stay focused on solving the issue at hand.

Amnesia techniqueImagine how you would relate to your sister if she were a stranger whom you were meeting for the first time and you had no memory of anything that went on in your past relationship. To give your relationship a new chance, look at her with fresh eyes. Clear your mind of those past hurts — they can’t help you create a more positive future.

Once you stop measuring your real sister relationship against that idealized on in your mind, you may find out that there’s a lot to celebrate in the sister you have today!

Vikki Stark, M.S.W., is the author of “My Sister, My Self: Understanding the Sibling Relationship That Shapes Our Lives, Our Loves and Ourselves.” Visit