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Siblings sometimes find that their relationships with their disabled brothers and sisters negatively affect their relationships with their partners. This might be because there are pressures placed on couples and families about the amount of time spent supporting the disabled person and/or ageing parents, or it might be because of unresolved issues from the past about their sibling role.

Sometimes partners feel resentful and angry at the dominance of the disabled brother or sister in a sibling’s life. Sometimes the disabled brother or sister is jealous of his/her sibling having an independent life or has been used to a lot of sibling companionship, which then changes when the sibling is in a relationship; these may lead to the sibling feeling guilty about spending time with a partner.

If you want your partner relationship to work you will need to nurture it and make choices about how you use your time.

Nurturing partner relationships

  • Spend regular time together doing things you both enjoy – a walk in the park, going to the cinema or a meal out – this can sustain relationships that are under pressure.
  • Express appreciation for your partner – acknowledge the small things that you admire and are fond of about your partner on a daily basis.
  • Communication is at the heart of all relationships – make time to talk things through regularly and to listen to each other.
  • Siblings may know all the small details about their disabled brothers and sisters lives and not know much about their partner’s life – take time to learn about your partner’s work, interests, views and feelings.

Balancing responsibilities

  • Set clear limits for your brother or sister. For example, if your disabled brother insists on ringing every night when you both get in from work, try to find alternatives – talk to care staff or other family members about what works better for you.
  • Try not to let your relatives dominate both of your lives – make sure you spend time with your partner’s family too. It might be that other relatives could take on some of the support or care or that more services are needed. Is what you are doing realistically manageable with your other responsibilities?
  • Is there a role for your partner in supporting your brother or sister? Sometimes partners feel they have little to offer in supporting your brother or sister and don’t know him or her like you do. They may have valuable skills they can use and want to be included, for example, managing finances, chairing family discussions about the future or interviewing personal support assistants.

Seeing things from the other’s perspective

  • More often than not your partner has your best interests at heart – arguments often arise out of worry and concern about how caring might be affecting your health and wellbeing. Take a step back from time to time and consider what the situation might be like if your roles were reversed.
  • Equally it may help if your partner understands more about what being a sibling is like. Perhaps you could ask them to have a look at the Sibs website.

Getting help

Sometimes relationships may need external help if things have reached a point where communication has broken down.  The relationship charity Relate provides relationship and family counselling and can provide this to you individually or as a couple/family.


If you have children under 18 you have parental responsibilities for them that should be prioritised over and above the needs of your adult disabled brother or sister. As a sibling growing up you may have experienced the impact of having less attention or feeling less important than your brother or sister – so you will know how important it is for your own child to have your focus and involvement.

Siblings often feel that they can continue to spend a lot of time being with or supporting their brother or sister after they have a child. However the reality is that once siblings have children of their own, their priorities change and their available time and energy changes.

Make sure that your own children are your first priority and that you are spending more time with them than with your brother or sister.


Adult siblings often want to have time with their parents that is focused on things other than care and support issues. However for many siblings the pattern from their childhood, of their parents’ main focus being on their disabled son or daughter, does not change with adulthood. This can be very disappointing and an adult sibling can feel that they are missing out on sharing their adult lives with the parents.

Some of the issues that arise are:

  • Parent not being able to spend time with an adult sibling due to the pressures of care
  • Parent only talking about their disabled son or daughter during conversations
  • Parent not getting involved in being with grandchildren as their focus is still on their disabled son or daughter
  • Parent not asking siblings about their own needs and lives
  • Parent not relating to their sibling adult child as an adult, and still very much seeing their adult learning disabled son or daughter as a child

Some strategies for dealing with this are:

Tell them what you need

Communicate clearly to your parents about what you need from them:

  • A regular meet up to talk about your stuff
  • Going shopping/for a coffee together once a month
  • Doing a joint fun activity together like going to the cinema
  • To have your adulthood recognised and celebrated

Set limits on care talk

  • Say that you need to have chats about other things – not just about how your brother or sister’s issues
  • Set aside a day of the week for an update on your brother or sister with your parent when you talk about care issues and that you keep that time just for that
  • You can say “Let’s talk about my sister first for about ten minutes and then let’s talk about my children; job-hunting; decorating…”
  • It is common for parents to offload issues to siblings late in the evening – have a cut off time of day for this so that you can go to bed without having care and support worries at the forefront of your mind
  • Make it clear that certain dates e.g. a child’s birthday or graduation day, are not times for talking about these issues
  • Help your parent find support networks so they have others to talk to also

Point out new priorities

Talk about the changing dynamics of the family as everyone gets older – partners, children, siblings with health needs of their own, parents needing care too. This is a normal part of all families changing over time, and that this change can be positive e.g being involved as a grandparent; a partner’s family helping with support logistics..

Nurture other sibling relationships

Think about ways you can nurture your relationship with any other sibling or siblings you have. It can be easy for time together to be focused on how to support your disabled brother or sister, or elderly parent. Or you may be in conflict about issues of fairness about who provides care or about the best way to manage things. It may not be possible to resolve these issues but it will be easier to work on things together if you are involved in each others’ lives in a positive way. Take time to talk about the other things that matter to you both and to spend time just hanging out together.