Sibling Empty Nest Syndrome Is A Real Thing, Let's Talk About It

Only when they're not around do you realise how good you had it with your siblings.
(picture: Anousha/Cheyney)

Your parents are your people for the first part of your life. Friends and partners (though you might have met them in childhood) tend to consume the latter. But siblings? Siblings are whole life relationships.

I have every kind of dynamic with my four siblings: the frayed, the friendly, the inseparable. But no other kind of love trumps it – not even the one I have for my parents. There’s a unique bond you share with your siblings. They truly, madly, deeply get you.

With parents, there’s still an air of authority you have to respect. Add cultural expectations into the mix, and you can end up with a relationship that rests on fulfilling responsibilities, caretaking (first them for you, then you for them) and the sort of generational divide that can hinder genuine connection.

As close as you may be with your parents, do they know exactly the person you are? Do they know all the wild things you did on holiday or where you went every time you said you were going to a ‘friend’s’? And if you have a language barrier with them, do they know how funny or witty or radical you can be?

Do they see that side to you? You know who does: siblings. Even at times when you’re not getting on. The understanding and irrevocable camaraderie I get from my siblings can’t be matched. And it was only when they started leaving home that I realised the gaping hole they leave behind.

When my sisters started moving out for university, leaving me at home with my parents as a commuter student, I experienced what I can only describe as sibling ‘empty nest’ syndrome.

The term – usually reserved for parents who are grieving a grown-up child’s departure – definitely applies to siblings, too. Thankfully, I still had two other younger ones to keep me busy. But now even they, in nascent adulthood, are growing into the business of their own lives. And when i finally moved out, I could understand the empty nest syndrome that my parents must feel.

None of this is surprising to Paul Mollitt, a London-based therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Sibling relationships can be “the most enduring” of all human relationships, he says, especially given the similarity in age and the likelihood that you will share major experiences across your lifespan.

“Just as ‘empty nest’ syndrome is a well-known phenomenon in parents whose child/ren leave home, the impact on siblings left behind is also recognised as significant, particularly if there was a close bond between siblings,” says Mollitt. “The resulting emotions can be likened to that of bereavement: sadness, anxiety, and grief, for both the leaving and staying siblings.”

Yet, despite that shared feeling of loss, we don’t have a term to describe this unique bond between siblings.

As writer Megan Sutton points out, we have a “wide and practiced vocabulary” to discuss romantic love, but “sibling love is often sidelined in the hierarchy of importance”. And while there are countless representations of warring siblings in pop culture (think any high school movie ever), many real-life sibling pairs and groups get along brilliantly.

Recently, we’ve seen better sibling representation in shows such as Bridgerton and This Is Us – even if they can, at times, be a little maudlin for my liking. We get plenty of earnest chats between the Pearson triplets, Kevin, Kate and Randall, for instance, but in my house, siblings didn’t often have deep and meaningful conversations. There’d be no end of teasing if we did.

We have even witnessed the nuances of sibling love in You, with its quarrelling sisters and co-dependent twins, both sets demonstrating how powerful the sibling bond is and both each other’s fiercest protectors.

Sibling love is deep and wide and consuming, so it’s no surprise that sibling absence can impact us in many different ways. Separation can be a source of sadness, but also a chance to breathe new life into the sibling relationship.

Jordanne (left) with her twin Cheyney
(Picture: Cheyney Smith)
Jordanne (left) with her twin Cheyney

Cheyney Smith, 30, a marketing executive from London, knows this all too well after university forced her apart from her twin sister – for the first time.

“Me and my twin Jordanne hadn’t been apart for more than 48 hours till we went to uni. We’d always been close but had never had to actively think about it or keep in touch!” she tells HuffPost UK.

But when their studies separated them, an even stronger bond began to form.

“When we lived in the same city we would arrange weekly meet ups for dinner or a cinema trip,” says Smith. “And when we started living in different countries we would call each other every morning on the commute to work. I’d call on my walk to the tube as she was driving to work and we’d have a catch up about what was going on.”

This mindful contact was good for them. “We’ve always been close (I think most twins are!) but moving out was the first time we had to actively keep in touch and take an interest in each other’s lives,” she says. “I think it’s made us closer and definitely made me realise that I shouldn’t take the bond we share for granted, as it isn’t something everyone gets.”

Twins are one thing, the departure of an older sibling another. The sibling left behind is likely to feel the absence more keenly, says Paul Mollitt, as they are left navigating new dynamics in a household with a disrupted equilibrium.

“Being the sole young person left alone with an adults or adults who still have a child at home and may not be feeling the loss with the same intensity can feel very lonely and feelings of abandonment are common,” he explains.

“But even the departing sibling, who is likely heading on a new adventure, will feel the loss of their sibling as they navigate new challenges without the presence of the person who has likely known them most of their lives.”

Siblings with a larger age gap are more likely to be thrown into the dynamic of empty nest syndrome, but they can also find new ways back to each other.

Anusha Couttigane, who heads up fashion research at Vogue Business, says her sister Tara may be 10 years older, but their connection is impenetrable.

“Tara got married and moved out when I was just 11 – but we got closer, if only because I was no longer stealing her makeup or trashing her room,” she says.

“When Tara left I felt like I lost my ally. When we were younger, even if we were in the middle of a sibling squabble, we’d always come to each other’s defence when we were in trouble with our parents.

“I definitely missed having her presence in the house.”

Sisters Tara and Anusha, close despite their 10 year age gap.
(Picture: Anusha Couttigane)
Sisters Tara and Anusha, close despite their 10 year age gap.

However, Couttigane found some positives in the situation. “As she was such an important role model for me as a kid, it gave me the opportunity to develop my own personality and identity when she moved out, rather than copying my big sister all the time,” she says.

This shift can be more noticeable when a sibling relationship has its tensions, according to Mollitt. “In cases where siblings didn’t get on when younger, the separation may not give rise to feelings of sadness to the same degree, but they will still feel a loss at the breaking of a close attachment bond,” he says.

“In the longer term, this distance can provide a new perspective on the relationship and it’s very common for a previously difficult childhood relationship to blossom into a close and fulfilling one as adults. No longer so caught up in daily family dynamics relating to personal space, perceived favouritism or competition, siblings can forge relationships that are based on intention rather than proximity.”

And though a decade’s age gap can mean one sibling is still a child while the other is a grown-up, it comes to matter less as adulthood embraces both.

“The gap closed a lot when I was in my late teens and Tara was in her late twenties,” says Couttigane who started to socialising with her sister for the first time. “When she returned from travelling, she was 27 and I was 17. We hadn’t seen each other for a year and I’d done a bit of growing up. It was fun sneaking into bars and clubs with her and her friends and having no one question it.”

Since then, the dynamic has strengthened. “We’ve always supported each other’s careers, especially by backing each other up when we wanted to pursue less traditional paths that our parents found difficult to accept,” she says.

“We’re actually very different people in terms of personality and lifestyle choices, but we have shared values and experiences that are completely exclusive to our relationship and strengthens our bond.”

Our sibling connections take work as we get older. We have to check in with each other and consult with one another’s schedules instead of being able to barge into the other’s bedroom whenever we want. But it’s the best kind of work. And we’re lucky to be able to keep doing it.