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Rachel – “Don’t let the needs of your brother/sister come before your own happiness in relationships”

I met my partner at my local library where we were both volunteering over the summer. Three months previously, I had split with my ex-girlfriend and quit a teaching job that was impacting my mental health – I was definitely not looking for a relationship! He struck me instantly as a kind, genuine person and we spent the summer falling in love.

Out of the relationships I have had, I found it easiest to talk to my current partner about my sister’s autism and learning disability. One reason for this is because my partner is an understanding person and a good listener, so I can have sensitive conversations with him. I had already come out to my partner as bisexual when we first started seeing each other and this did not bother him at all. Another reason is because my partner has his own complicated family history. His parents had both unfortunately passed by the time he was in his early 20s, before we met, so he was used to being seen differently for his family circumstances and I think could relate more to me having a ‘non-typical’ family.

I mentioned a few times while we were getting to know each other that I live with my sister and that she has autism and a learning disability. My partner was familiar with the terms but I don’t think really understood what they meant. I had talked to my sister about my partner and she was happy and excited to meet him. I introduced them outside of the library we volunteered at, and they seemed to get on right away. My sister is older than me and said that she thought my partner would be good at looking after me. I was pleased that she was happy.

My sister struggled to get used to me being in a relationship. Up until I met my partner, I had been single and unemployed for a while so I had a lot of time to spend with my sister. Shortly after I met my partner, I started a new job and was spending a lot of my free time with him. My sister was unsettled by the change, and I felt guilty for the time I was spending away from her. My top piece of advice for siblings is to not let the needs of your brother and sister come before your own happiness. It is hard to take this advice because we are so used to living with our needs being secondary to our sibling’s needs. However, it is really important that you tend to your own relationships – whether these are with a partner or with friends –  and be an individual outside of the context of your sibling relationship. This will help you to feel more supported in your relationship with your sibling, and will make you feel happier because you will have more to your life than just being someone’s brother or sister.

One way I managed this situation was by planning structured time with my partner and sister so they could get to know each other a little better. This didn’t always go to plan. For example, a few months ago a day out together ended in my sister having a meltdown and my partner feeling extremely guilty about it – even though it wasn’t his fault. Another piece of advice I have for siblings is just to embrace the possibility of things going wrong. My sister has a disability, her disability sometimes impacts her mood and reactions to events, and that’s fine. It’s not her fault, my fault, or my partner’s fault. It just is. Sometimes, days out will end in disaster for my sister for whatever reason. I kept trying to include my sister, and this led to her and my partner building a more positive relationship and my partner becoming more aware of her needs. More recently, we had a more successful, positive day out together making bath bombs. I even found out a few weeks ago that my sister and my partner text each other!

My partner is a very understanding person but has needed reassurance from time to time that he hasn’t upset my sister, or been the reason for her having a meltdown. I understand that he won’t have the same perspective on my sister’s disability as me, because I’ve never known a world without my sister. He is still getting used to her behaviour and because he is accepting, kind to her, and willing to learn, I am happy to support him with that. To any siblings looking to begin relationships, my advice is to be honest about your sibling’s disability and answer any good-natured questions that come up. A lot of us unfortunately have been bullied, excluded, or otherwise mistreated for our sibling’s disability, and it can be easy to become defensive. However, people can’t understand us without asking questions, and if someone is interested in you they will want to know more about your family. Introduce the person you’re seeing to your sibling when it feels right, too – making your brother or sister feel included and important can lessen any feelings on their side that you’re abandoning them, and your partner can get to know the person your sibling is beyond just their disability.

Generally speaking, dating nice people will make this experience easier! If someone is kind to you and to other people, interested in your life, likes spending time with you, and is thoughtful, the likelihood is that this will extend to your sibling situation too. If you already have a bad feeling about your relationship, or, even worse, you have told them about or introduced your sibling and they’ve lost interest, that relationship probably will not have added value to your life anyway.

The role of a partner is to be a supportive person. To any partners of siblings out there, it is important that your partner can talk openly to you about the positives and negatives of their sibling role – without judgement. It is a unique and sometimes very lonely experience of life to have, and being empathetic even if you do not fully understand what it is like can go a long way. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. In my opinion, partners should communicate and ask about what they don’t understand. This will help bring you closer together and will help you to understand our siblings’ needs better. Sometimes, even little adjustments can feel like big kindnesses to siblings. For example, my partner knows that my sister hates fast driving, so when she’s in the car with us he will drive slower around roundabouts. It is small but it is something he is doing to help her feel more comfortable, and I really value that. Make sure there is someone you can talk to about your partner’s sibling status, too – whether this is a supportive group of friends, colleagues, or your own family.


Would you like to help other siblings by sharing your own story? Please get in touch.