The se­crets of sib­lings


Good Health (Australia) - - Contents -

How to nav­i­gate the mine­field of sibling re­la­tion­ships. By Anita Chaud­huri.

The trou­ble with Bea is that it’s high time she grew up and joined the real world, in­stead of drift­ing around in la-la land, ex­pect­ing ev­ery­one else to pick up the pieces af­ter she’s made yet an­other stupid de­ci­sion,” says Melissa, a 43-year-old teacher. You could be for­given for think­ing that she was talk­ing about her worst en­emy. You could be right, ex­cept the en­emy in ques­tion is Melissa’s only sibling, a sis­ter two years her ju­nior.

While Melissa had al­ways done ev­ery­thing to win parental ap­proval – top exam re­sults, great uni­ver­sity, sen­si­ble ca­reer, good hus­band, three lovely chil­dren – her sis­ter, by con­trast, fol­lowed an en­tirely dif­fer­ent path. Bea stud­ied act­ing, rarely worked and drifted from one doomed re­la­tion­ship to the next. At the age of 41, with­out fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties or prop­erty, she de­cided to study screen­writ­ing – and their par­ents are foot­ing the bill.

“My par­ents never of­fer me money for any­thing other than presents for the chil­dren, but when it comes to Bea it seems there is no end to how much they are pre­pared to in­dulge her. It feels re­ally un­fair, es­pe­cially when I have worked hard, and I am the one who is there for them, go­ing around to tidy up or fix things ev­ery week­end, while Bea is off do­ing what­ever it is she does with all that free time,” says Melissa.

Lis­ten­ing to Melissa, it’s strik­ing how po­larised her and her sis­ter’s roles in the fam­ily have be­come.

Whether or not you get along with your broth­ers or sis­ters, it is likely that this idea of fam­ily ‘la­bels’ will be fa­mil­iar.

Archetypes like ‘the good girl’, ‘the rebel’, ‘the drama queen’, ‘the trou­ble­maker’ and ‘the cre­ative one’ are one way that mem­bers of a fam­ily can carve out their in­di­vid­u­al­ity within the group. This might be why we are en­tranced by the an­tics of celebrity sib­lings like the Kar­dashi­ans, and fic­tional sib­lings like those in Game of Thrones or Jane Austen nov­els.

What role do you play?

Fam­ily ther­a­pist Rosamund Zan­der be­lieves that we get la­belled with cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics and tal­ents as we com­pete for parental at­ten­tion: “There isn’t enough room for two chil­dren to be bask­ing in the sun­light of a par­ent’s ap­proval in the same spot.” So if one child is stu­dious and win­ning aca­demic prizes, their sibling is more likely to put their en­ergy into be­ing artis­tic, funny or prac­ti­cal, rather than com­pet­ing for exam grades. And if more than one sibling is try­ing to shine in the same area, trou­ble and re­sent­ment can en­sue.

Zan­der adds that birth or­der plays a key role in the way sibling dy­nam­ics play out. “In the or­di­nary run of meet­ing new peo­ple, I can pretty much tell where in the fam­ily birth or­der they are: a first­born, sec­ond or mid­dle child.

The first child is gen­er­ally the most re­spon­si­ble; the most or­dered. There’s a cer­tain power with be­ing first. The sec­ond child is of­ten look­ing for some­thing else to do other than what the first child is do­ing, be­cause you don’t find the same chil­dren hav­ing the same tal­ents. Very of­ten it’s the third child, if there is one, who tends to be the cre­ative one; who thinks out­side the box. And, if a per­son doesn’t con­form to th­ese be­hav­iours, there’s usu­ally a rea­son why. For ex­am­ple, if the first child is vul­ner­a­ble in some way, then the sec­ond child of­ten steps up to be the more re­spon­si­ble one.”

What can go wrong?

Th­ese roles are set from early on, and they can be­come the breed­ing ground for fu­ture re­sent­ment. For ex­am­ple, Melissa clearly en­vies as­pects of her sis­ter’s care­free life but, be­ing the ‘re­spon­si­ble’ one, views that life path as un­avail­able. For this rea­son, older sib­lings can of­ten seem judg­men­tal of younger sib­lings’ be­hav­iour – be­cause they se­cretly yearn to be al­lowed a bit of ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity them­selves.

Ac­cord­ing to Jeanne Safer, psy­cho­an­a­lyst and au­thor of Cain’s Le­gacy – one of the few books to an­a­lyse grown-up sibling dy­nam­ics – prob­lem­atic re­la­tion­ships be­tween broth­ers and sis­ters in adult­hood are sur­pris­ingly com­mon. “A third of the pop­u­la­tion will ex­pe­ri­ence sibling strife at some point,” says Safer. >

Re­search shows the most com­mon rifts be­tween sib­lings oc­cur over dis­putes about money (61 per cent), as well as sort­ing out who cares for an el­derly rel­a­tive, and pol­i­tics.

Safer de­fines ‘sibling strife’ as the to­tal ab­sence of good­will. “They never feel like friends. Lis­ten­ing to their sto­ries is very sad. One 75-year-old wo­man told me that she and her brother were es­tranged for their whole lives. She tried to talk to him about why their re­la­tion­ship was so dif­fi­cult, and he replied: ‘You never thanked me for the flow­ers I gave you in 1982.’That’s ac­tu­ally one of my favourite sto­ries be­cause it high­lights the ab­sur­dity and longevity of the grudges peo­ple can hold against each other. I hear th­ese types of sto­ries over and over again. An­other wo­man com­plained bit­terly about how, at one fam­ily cel­e­bra­tion, she’d ar­rived and her sis­ter hadn’t said hello. I asked her what she had done. Noth­ing. ‘Why didn’t you say hello to her?’, I asked. She had no an­swer.”

Our sig­nif­i­cant equals

Safer be­lieves sibling re­la­tion­ships are hugely in­flu­en­tial. “Our first peers in life are our sib­lings, so it would not be a huge stretch to think that they might have an ef­fect on who we marry and how we relate to other peers, later in life.”

Safer also points out that, for most of us, sibling ties last longer than any oth­ers – 50 to 80 years – com­pared to the 30 to 50 years that peo­ple typ­i­cally know their par­ents.

Nu­mer­ous stud­ies also high­light the impact that sibling re­la­tion­ships can have on our lives. For ex­am­ple, re­search has shown that young peo­ple who had grown up with at least one sis­ter tended to be hap­pier and more op­ti­mistic, es­pe­cially if their par­ents had di­vorced.

Mean­while, an­other in­di­cates that hav­ing a big sis­ter makes women more com­pet­i­tive. And, ap­par­ently, there’s a greater de­gree of sen­si­tiv­ity and lis­ten­ing skills in men who grew up with sis­ters.

Jef­frey Kluger, au­thor of The Sibling Ef­fect, says: “Stud­ies show that when you pair up peo­ple in fiveto 15-minute con­ver­sa­tions, as if it were a speed date, the males who grew up with sis­ters tended to do bet­ter than the ones who grew up with broth­ers, or as only chil­dren. Sim­i­larly, the fe­males with broth­ers tended to do bet­ter with males.”

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