The secrets of siblings
SIBLING RELATIONSHIPS ARE COMPLEX AND CAN BE STRESSFUL AT TIMES, FINDS ANITA CHAUDHURI, BUT THERE ARE WAYS TO NAVIGATE THE MINEFIELD
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.”