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Don't Complain about Siblings to Spouses

“Ethan never takes me seriously,” Bryan complained to his wife about his older brother, the CEO. “I’m the Vice President of sales, for God’s sake. I should be able to negotiate prices with the customers. But no ... I have to clear everything through Mr. Control-Freak.” His spouse said nothing, but she touched Bryan’s hand and her soft eyes communicated understanding. Besides, she was reminded of Ethan’s “take-charge” style at plenty of family occasions. Her brother-in-law always seemed to take control — and while the results were usually positive, the process could become really tiring. “I can’t imagine having to work with him every day,” she said supportively.

When siblings say bad things about each other to their spouses, bad things can happen. Spouses may begin to think less of their in-laws, developing animosity as an extension of sibling disagreement. Through the natural and positive process of offering sympathy and support, a spouse can magnify conflict and further destabilize sibling relationships.

When this destructive dynamic occurs, parents will often blame their in-laws rather than their children. “The boys got along so well together in the old days,” a mother recently observed. “But their wives are ambitious. They have their own agendas.” While the spouse may not be blameless, the siblings usually produce and legitimize discontent. And the destruction is not limited to the sibling relationship — harm can occur to relationships with spouses and children, too.

When a sibling complains to his or her spouse about another sibling, the spouse usually sides with his or her mate. Sometimes, however, the sibling reacts to the spouse’s affirmation by switching messages and defending the sibling previously criticized. Because sibling relationships are normally mixtures of conflict and love, such mixed messages are also “normal.” However, the spouse is often confused by the switch from complaint to protectiveness, and may become angry at a mate who seems to be rejecting loyalty and support. A spouse may even become jealous or resentful of the siblings’ mutual love. “She’d never be so forgiving of me,” a husband might think of his wife’s relationship with her brother. More damage can be done to the children. If the parents’ dissatisfaction with their siblings and in-laws is overheard by their children, the kids may learn not only that sibling unkindness is acceptable, but that involving third parties in disputes offers comfort. Eventually such lessons affect their own relationships. The cycle continues.

Siblings in business together often develop a Code of Conduct that defines how they intend to relate to each other and treat each other. Part of the code can be a pledge not to complain about each other to spouses. Refraining from such behavior is an important exercise of interpersonal behavioral hygiene leading to healthier family dynamics.




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