Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Mom Always Liked You Best – Re-Analyzing Sibling Rivalry

What impact does a sibling really have on our lives?

One day when my son was five, he came home from a visit to his best friend, whose parents had just had a baby. "Don't have another kid," he said. "It's a very bad idea." His buddy's sister had cried the whole time he was visiting. "He says she does it all the time and nobody pays attention to him anymore."

The Smothers Brothers, a famous comic team of the 1960's and 70's, had a popular sketch called "mom always liked you best," in which they humorously captured the pain of these childhood conflicts. Although parents in recent decades have been almost excruciatingly concerned that older sibs not feel replaced by younger ones, the issues continue to emerge in therapy with adults. In my psychoanalytic training I learned to look for signs that childhood sibling rivalry was being unconsciously played out in adult relationships, with colleagues, husbands and wives, and even with a client's own children. Problems with a boss, for example, could be related to a hidden wish to correct an old feeling of not being special.

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I understand, having spent a great deal of time in my own therapy worrying that my parents loved my brothers more than me. Recently I have come to understand that sibling relationships are not just about a wish for attention from our parents. In fact, the impact that siblings have on one another is far more complex than many theorists recognize.

For example, Trish* was a delightful young woman who came to therapy because her marriage of two years was falling apart, and she could not figure out what had happened. She adored her husband, Jackson*, who she described as smart, handsome, and lots of fun. They had lived together for several years before deciding to get married, so she felt that she knew him like she knew her own brother. Things had begun to get bad shortly after the wedding; but she had not shared the fact that the marriage was in trouble with anyone. "It would be disloyal to Jackson," she said.

She had learned to value loyalty very early in her life. For as long as she could remember, she and her older brother had protected one another. Their parents were fine people who had seldom punished their children; but when she was caught with a crayon in her hand next to a drawing she had just made on the wall of her bedroom, her brother claimed responsibility and took the scolding in her place. Throughout the rest of their childhood, they had protected one another from adult criticism. They had also provided one another with solace and comfort as they moved into adolescence and young adulthood.

Trish's family was loving and supportive, with some normal human difficulties; but she felt that the person she would always turn to in times of trouble was her older brother. Why then had she not told him about the problems with Jackson? Because Jackson was his friend, a man she had met through her brother; and besides that, she had, as we gradually were able to put together, transferred her sense of sibling loyalty and devotion to her husband.

It turned out that some of the problems in her marriage were related to something Trish had hardly recognized: that she believed that Jackson was just like her older brother. When I pointed this belief out, she laughed. "You're so right," she said. "Poor Jackson."

This was not the end of the story. As Trish began to sort out her feelings for Jackson, she discovered that her relationship with her brother was more complex than she had ever realized. Opening up some of the hidden elements of that bond not only improved her marriage - it had an impact on almost every other part of her life.

* Not their real names -- in all of my examples, I change names and identifying information to protect individual's and families' privacy.

 

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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