You Can Stop Trying To Befriend Your Partner's Sibling

Photographed by Bianca Valle.
Charming a partner's parents is cake compared to dealing with the wrath of a very judgmental sibling. Best case scenario, you get along well enough with their siblings to hang out together at family parties, or exchange gifts around the holidays. Worst case: You actually kind of dislike your partner's sibling, and wouldn't be their friend if you met in the real world. If you feel this way, well, it's too bad — but it doesn't have to have any bearing on your relationship with your partner, according to Esther Boykin, LMFT, a relationship therapist in Washington, D.C.
There's an unconscious societal expectation that when you're serious with someone romantically, you have to also like their family, she says. "That doesn't really fit for a lot of people and their family dynamic." As you might've guessed, if you've ever dealt with a toxic brother or sister, this is especially true when it comes to siblings.
Often people feel defensive when their sibling enters into a romantic relationship, because it usually means that the family dynamics are about to shift. "There's a protectiveness: Is this person going to be good for my sibling?" Susan McHale, PhD, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University told Refinery29 in July. "Then, in some ways, it's self-protection: How is this relationship going to affect what my sibling has been giving to me?" Naturally, things can get tense.

That closeness with a sibling doesn't have to mirror the closeness you have with your partner, and that's where people get stuck.

Esther Boykin, LMFT
If you're partner's sibling is close to your age, you may feel "that's kind of your in or window into being really indoctrinated in the family," Boykin says. But this can put a lot of undue pressure on yourself, so it's important to talk to your partner about what their expectations are for you and their siblings, she says. Keep in mind that everyone is different: Some people call their siblings every day, and others have a much less active role in each others' lives.
If you aren't sure how to approach the relationship, just ask your partner in a no-pressure situation (as in, not right before going to the family Rosh Hashanah dinner together), Boykin suggests. For example, you can say, "Part of me feels like I should be making more of an effort in nurturing a friendship with your brother or sister. Does that even matter to you? What would make you happy in an ideal world?" And keep in mind that "just because they want [you to have a relationship] doesn't mean that's going to happen," Boykin says.
Not to sound like a downer, but there are also practical reasons why you shouldn't jump into a close-knit relationship with your partner's sibling, Boykin says. "Sometimes that pressure [to be friends] comes from the expectation that this is the relationship that's going to last indefinitely," she says. You have every right to be somewhat guarded when entering in a relationship with your partner's sibling, because there's always a chance that you break up.
Ultimately, you should approach a relationship with your sibling's partner with the same sort of boundaries that you would with any person, Boykin says. "That closeness with a sibling doesn't have to mirror the closeness you have with your partner, and that's where people get stuck." So, don't feel like you have to ask your partner's sibling to hang out or go out of your way to be nice to them, unless you truly want to. "Allow that relationship to develop on its own natural course, as well; they're two separate things."

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series