By Jane Mersky Leder, published on January 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The new view holds that conflict is not the natural state of sibling relationships. Still, for a third of us, discord sown early endures for a lifetime
Karen Kalish made a new commitment: "I'm going to keep the communication open between my sister and me," the 44-year-old media consultant told me. "I will follow the rules... do whatever it takes to make our relationship work. You can be on it!"
That Karen's younger sister (an identical twin whose twin died within days of their premature birth) and Karen had never gotten along didn't seem to matter. Karen was willing to forget about the seven beloved pet parakeets her sister had let out the window, one at a time. She was ready to look beyond her sister's angry reminders. And she was able, she thought, to forgive her sister for turning their adult years into one explosion after another. "My sister is the gatekeeper to the nephews whom I adore," Karen said. " If they weren't there, I would probably give up."
That was three years ago, and I was interviewing Karen for a book on the sibling relationship. Today Karen has given up, finding herself at a "total loss as to how to smooth things out." At home in St. Louis for her father's funeral last spring, Karen, her sister, her brother, and her mother (divorced from their father years before) spent some time together. "I ceased to exist," Karen said. "I became wallpaper. No one talked to me. And, for once, I didn't feel any pain. It was like, 'Ah, so this is how it was with us.' I saw things the way they were and are, not the way I wished they were or could have been. Not long after, I resolved not to have anything to do with my sister or the rest of the family. I don't want it!"
While few adult siblings have severed their ties completely, approximately one-third of them describe their relationship as rivalrous or distant. They don't get along with their sibling or have little in common, spend limited time together, and use words like "competitive," "humiliating," and "hurtful" to depict their childhoods. The speed with which old conflicts reduce these adults to children again prevents them from seeing one another in a new or different light. They push each other's buttons without knowing why or how and recast themselves in childhood roles that never worked in the first place.
When they talk about their brothers and sisters, adult siblings locked into old patterns resort to a variety of emotional strategies. Some try to diminish the relationship (and their feelings) by emphasizing the importance of friends and spouses instead. Some speak with frightening venom as they describe the horrors of growing up under the same roof. Others become very analytical, piecing together all that went wrong between them, thereby detailing the impossibility of ever finding common ground. For most conflicted brothers and sisters, there is an underlying sense that "this is the way it's supposed to be."
Western culture has an obsession with sibling rivalry that began with the story of Cain and Abel and was elaborated by Freud, who labeled and dwelt on the competition between siblings for parental love and attention. It's colored our perception of sibship ever since. Therapists and lay people alike tend to view the relationship largely as one of struggle and controversy. We have no rituals that make, break, or celebrate the sibling bond. And family experts have underemphasized the sibling relationship, instead concentrating on parents and children and husbands and wives. Small wonder that sibling rivalry is accepted as the normal state of affairs.
From Genes to Scenes
There is a consensus among clinicians and developmental psychologists that the sibling bond is complicated, fluid, and influenced by many factors. Parental treatment, genetics, gender, life events, ethnic and generational patterns, and people and experiences outside the family all contribute to the success or failure of a particular sibling connection. To understand how these factors shape the lives of siblings, researchers have begun looking at young siblings within the context of their immediate families.
At the forefront of this work is Judy Dunn, whose pioneering sibling studies are being conducted in her native England and in the United States. Through her observational studies of siblings at home instead of in the lab, Dunn's work presents a radically revised view of children's abilities and their social understanding. Dunn now knows that from the startlingly young age of one year, siblings respond to disputes between their siblings by supporting or punishing one of the antagonists. These same young siblings are profoundly affected by their mother's interaction with the other siblings.
"The message is," Dunn said, "that children are far more socially sophisticated than we ever imagined. That little 15-month-old or 17-month-old is watching like a hawk what goes on between her mother and older sibling. And the greater the difference in the maternal affection and attention, the more hostility and conflict between the siblings." From 18 months on siblings understand how to comfort, hurt, and exacerbate each other's pain. They understand family rules, can differentiate between transgressions of different sorts, and can anticipate the response of adults to their own and to other people's misdeeds.
By age three, children have a sophisticated grasp of how to use social rules for their own ends. They can evaluate themselves in relation to their siblings and possess the developmental skills necessary to adapt to frustrating circumstances and relationships in the family. Whether they have the drive to adapt, to get along with a sibling whose goals and interests may be different from their own, can make the difference between a cooperative or rivalrous relationship, Dunn insists.
Parents' relationships with each of their children are very closely involved in sibling rivalry. As Dunn's work reveals, from one year on children are acutely sensitive of how they're being treated in relation to their siblings. When a parent shows more love, gives more attention, or is unable or unwilling to monitor the goings-on between children, it is often the siblings and their connections that suffer. Even though the social awareness and development of children is far more sophisticated than imagined, children don't possess the ability to understand who or what may have turned them against one another. Most rivalrous adult siblings aren't able to see the total picture, either.
Parental action and inaction have had a long-lasting impact on the rivalrous relationship between Karen Kalish and her sister. Grieved by the death of one twin and consumed with taking care of the surviving one, Karen's mother had no time for 30-month-old Karen. A nurse was hired to tend to her, and Karen, her mother, and her baby sister spent little if no time together. Karen was not only dethroned by the birth of her sister; she was abandoned. "She was left out... pushed out of the family orbit," said Kenneth Addison, associate professor of developmental psychology at Northeastern Illinois University. "She was not given the role of oldest child or any other responsibilities that go along with that position."
As Karen's father told her years later, he stepped in to fill the void left by her mother. He stepped in, that is, despite his wife's complaints that Karen had taken her husband away--and then only until the birth of his son. "I was dropped like a hot potato;' Karen said. Over the years, her sister, the "special" child, assumed an angry position of superiority. Her brother, the "prince," could do no wrong and made Karen's life miserable by teasing her incessantly. Her parents found the verbal abuse "humorous." Karen was left with neither parent favoring her or willing to take her side. "I never got praise for doing anything well, even though I was the best student and had loads of friends. And when I'd go to my parents because my sister had done some injustice, they gave me absolutely no support."
While the rivalry between Karen and her brother ceased for a time during early adulthood, Karen's relationship with her sister remained tense. "Being around my sister is like being around Mount St. Helens. You never know when the volcano is going to erupt." One eruption took place when Karen told her nephew that he'd have to drink his milk before he could have dessert. Her sister flew into a rage, even though she'd issued the same edict the night before.
"Don't you ever tell my kids what to do!" she screamed. "Only when there's danger are you to give them instructions." Karen was incredulous. Her sister stopped speaking to her for three months. "I've been trying forever to get my sister's love and approval, just like I tried to get my parents' love as a child," Karen said. "Forget it! I want to be around people who love and respect me."
Even when parents do their best at loving and respecting all of their children, the influence of siblings on one another can be enormous. Brothers and sisters spend more time together during childhood than with their parents, particularly today when nearly 60 percent of mothers with children under age 6, and 75 percent of mothers with children age 6 to 17, work outside the home. If the siblings are close in age and/or the same gender, the greater the potential for intense relationships.
Studies have shown that of the three sibling pairs, sister/sister pairs are the closest and brother/brother pairs are the most rivalrous. (Identical male twins tend to be the most competitive.) Sisters are the traditional kin keepers in our society and have a real commitment to keeping the relationship going. They are, according to sex-role expectations, more adept at expressing themselves on a personal level and in sharing their intimate feelings. Brothers, on the other hand, are more conflicted. Their childhood time together tends to be more competitive, and often that competition is carried into adulthood, exacerbated, it seems, by parental and societal expectations of men.
When I interviewed identical twins Mel and Marv three years ago, the then 27-year-olds detailed a childhood flail of fighting and nasty tricks. They fought over noises--the way one chewed--and over control of the TV set. "We got into some kind of physical battle every day until we were 12 or 13," said Mel. "We were out to hurt each other and wouldn't stop until one of us started to cry--usually me--or a parent threatened us. When our rage was triggered, nothing could stop us."
Both twins talked about being bothered by the other's noises and recalled the "nasty trick" Marv played on his brother when they were 14. "Mel was snoring, and I went to look at him lying in bed," Marv said. "His nose was plugged up and his mouth was open. So I stuffed his mouth, and he blew up like a balloon." The next night, Marv decided to "suffocate" his twin again, but Mel was waiting for him, pretending to be asleep. "I crept over to his bed," Marv said. "I started to stuff his mouth, but he started screaming at the top of his lungs. It was 2 a.m., and there I was hunched over him when my dad threw open the door and sentenced me to 30 days with no TV, much to Mel's delight."
Both Mel and Marv talked about their sensitivity to being compared (more from outsiders than from their parents) and how comparisons about who was the better athlete, the best looking, the better student triggered their competitive feelings toward one another. Girlfriends were a big issue, too. "It's still an insecurity with us," Marv said. "If you're with a woman, what does she think about him? .... It makes me jealous to think that someone I'm dating finds him physically attractive," Mel said.
Although both twins said living in different states as adults was not a conscious decision, they've only been geographically close for one six-month period, when they both found themselves living at home. "Marv tried to control my life by telling me what to do and when to do it," Mel said. "I was brought to tears many times. He said things I'll never forgive him for. I was shocked. It was like we were kids again." "It was not pretty," said Marv. "Space has a lot to do with our relationship, and we irritated each other a lot. Seeing Mel's lack of consideration and selfishness, I regressed and didn't handle things as well at first. I did a lot of yelling, just like I used to." The twins didn't see each other again for about six months. And when they did get together, it was, Mel said, "pleasant but distant."
When I recently called to talk to Mel and Marv to see what improvements, if any, they'd made in the last three years, Mel was enthusiastic about a follow-up interview. But Marv didn't think it was a good idea, and was hurt that Mel had agreed without consulting him first. "We need to work through some stuff brought up by the last interview," he said. "We need to do a lot of soul-searching. We keep saying we're going to do it but never seem to make the time." While Mel was disappointed, he deferred to his brother's concerns and ultimately decided not to discuss their relationship with me, either.
What makes brother/brother ties so rivalrous? Gold has launched a new study that is not yet completed. But she has found a consistent theme running through the interviews she's conducted thus far. "The thing that rides through with brothers that doesn't come across in other sibling pairs is this notion of parental and societal comparison. Somehow with boys, it seems far more natural to compare them, especially more than with sister/brother pairs. Almost from day one, the fundamental developmental markers--who gets a tooth first, who crawls, walks, speaks first--are held up on a larger-than-life scale. And this comparison appears to continue from school to college to the workplace. Who has the biggest house, who makes the most money, drives the best car are constant topics of discussion. In our society, men are supposed to be achievement-oriented, aggressive. They're supposed to succeed."
Sibling relationships are not fixed, however; they change dramatically over the years. Key life events in early and middle childhood can bring siblings closer together--or split them further apart. Dunn found that such events as a mother's illness and, in one case, a mother's death prompted siblings to be tremendously supportive of one another and to close ranks in the face of stress. The transition to school, on the other hand, diminishes the relationship between older and younger siblings.
Similarly, life events in adulthood--leaving home, getting married, tending to an ill parent, grieving over a parent's death, adjusting to an empty nest--have the power to significantly alter the connection between siblings or to reinforce old rivalries. When it comes to the marriages of our siblings, for example, we are not unlike ex-husbands or ex-wives.
"Our brothers and sisters were our 'first' marriage partners," says Karen Lewis, a counseling psychologist and coeditor of Siblings in Therapy, a collection of writings about siblings. "We have a lot of emotional stock invested in them and in the spouses they choose." How will their entrance into the family affect how we all get along? Are our sisters- or brothers-in-law like us? Are they good enough to be one of the family? Apparently, many are not. In one of the few studies of young- and middle- adult siblings, two-thirds of the siblings interviewed said that the marriage of their brothers and sisters drove a wedge between them. Their already-conflicted relationships were exacerbated, or sibling relationships that appeared sound suddenly became strained.
In the interview I conducted for my book on siblings, stories of strained relationships following one or the other's marriage far outweighed stories of marriages that enhanced the sibling connection. In several cases, the spouse was "not like anybody else in the family." Siblings found it difficult to try to get along with sisters- or brothers-in-law who were different and sometimes difficult. For some, the new family member was seen as someone who made an effort to keep siblings apart.
"She would not let me come near my brother;" a disgruntled sister recalled. "He was cold and controlling. My brother and I weren't part of each other's lives. I felt empty then, like I was floating in space." Another sister talked about the "great change in the quality of our relationship" after her brother married. "The focus went from me being the critical person in his life to his wife being the most important. I was sad... sad that a discrete life stage had come to an end."
Yet another sibling talked about how his sister's husband destroyed their relationship. "He had some business dealings with my company that were rather shady. I never forgave him for that or my sister for marrying the guy." For some rivalrous siblings, divorce offers another chance to improve the relationship. In a few cases, adjustments are made. For the others, the rift can last a lifetime.
Perhaps the most devastating consequence of sibling relations gone bad is sibling incest. While it's difficult to estimate how many siblings are sexually abused by a sibling, a study by sociologist Diana Russell of San Francisco found that 16 percent of 930 women over 18 had been sexually abused by a sibling. Extrapolation to the population at large reveals that 160,000 women under age 18 have been incestuously abused, and 23,000 per million have been victimized by a sibling.
Sibling incest occur primarily in families where the parents are distant and inaccessible, family secrets abound, and parents stimulate a sexual climate, studies show. The victim, usually a young female, is the devalued member of the family. The perpetrator is most often an older brother.
Even before the incest began, Dee, 46, was teased and tormented by her older brother. He'd put her up on the roof of the chicken house and remove the ladder. Or he'd take the hinges off the doors, prop them up, and laugh with the rest of the family as Dee would go to open one and it would fall on top of her. "Nothing I said or did was right," Dee said. "Everything that came out of my mouth was degraded. And it seems as if my parents paid no attention. My father was an alcoholic with a hearing problem. He always claimed he never heard anything. And my mother favored my brother and thought he could do no harm." The sexual abuse began when Dee was eight and lasted for two years. Dee endured full vaginal and anal penetration without telling anyone. "I felt nobody would believe me, that everyone would have come to his aid."
A Vacuum of Neglect
Sibling sexual abuse usually develops in the vacuum left by parental absence and neglect. It creates the opportunity for siblings to intensify their relationship. Emotionally and physically abandoned, abusive siblings express their hurt and rage by misusing their own power. They take sibling rivalry to an extreme, and the consequences are often devastating.
As a young girl, Dee painted her room black, changed her name, bit her nails, and retreated into shyness. Her parents missed or ignored all the signs. As an adult, Dee has had trouble with relationships, suffers from low-grade depressions and a weight problem, and is still unable to express anger toward her brother. Only after extensive therapy did Dee confront him. "He feigned surprise and said, 'Are you telling me you think I had intercourse with a little girl?' 'No, I don't think. I know.' It was the first time I ever stood up to him. I kept using the word incest, and he kept squirming. To this day, he's never admitted what happened and said he's sorry. I would love the validation."
No matter what form it takes, sibling abuse can never be seen as "normal." Yet there are parents and other adults who excuse such cruel and harmful behavior as the expected effect of sibling rivalry. They conclude that sibling abuse is part of growing up and competing for parental attention--even the most blatant misuse of power. The result is lack of remorse on the part of the perpetrator, which makes it impossible for many incest survivors to consider any relationship in adulthood.
"I'm writing my brother off forever," one incest survivor told me. "I've never seen any remorse or regret. And there is no reason for him to change. Besides, after all the therapy and self-help groups, my anger is too great to ever consider therapy with him. It would not be a healing experience for me."
When boundaries are crossed and the incest taboo broken, the chance for some kind of reconciliation in adulthood is remote. Yet for other adult siblings, rewriting rivalrous roles is a good possibility. Studies show that at least 80 percent of siblings over age 60 enjoy close ties with one another. Rivalry forged in childhood and carried into early and middle adulthood becomes less and less important with time.
What matters more is that as constants in our lives, siblings provide a reference against which to judge and measure ourselves. They know us in a unique way during childhood and share a history that can bring understanding and a sense of perspective in adulthood. Friends and neighbors may move away, former coworkers are forgotten, marriages break up, parents die, but our brothers and sisters remain our brothers and our sisters. As we age and begin to sense our own mortality, many siblings rediscover the values and strengths of family. "There is a real awareness," said Lewis, "that brothers and sisters are in this together." Old rivalries are either forgotten or forgiven, and siblings concentrate instead on the feelings and forces that can help us feel more human, less ashamed, and more connected.
BORN TO FEUD?
"There is sibling rivalry; it does exist," says Deborah Gold, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and sociology and senior fellow at the Center for Aging and Human Development at Duke University. "But it needs to be put into perspective, so that brothers and sisters don't think they're weird if they get along well."
For Gold and others, like Stephen Bank, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of psychology at Wesleyan University, getting along well with our siblings is a "birthright." Rivalry is not a natural state of necessary; it does not merely "come forth from a innate wellspring of black-hearted malice." Rather, bitter conflict is originally the "fault" of a "disturbing family situation" in which parental actions or inactions play a large part."
Not necessarily, insists Judy Dunn, Ph.D., professor of human development at Penn State University. She parts company "a bit" from the idea that we have a "birthright" to get on well with our siblings. "We don't choose our siblings," Dunn says. "There are personality differences that can be very striking and, If you're stuck growing up with someone day-in and day-out who grates and irritates and provokes, then it seems very understandable that, even without the huge importance of competition for parental love and attention, some siblings don't get on well."