We all bring our early ways of interacting with our families to our adult close relationships. Much of the existing research on how early family relationships affect how adult couples interact focuses on attachment style. According to this research, your inner model of relationships, based on how you were raised by your parents (or other caregivers), influences how you relate to your close intimate adult partners.
This emphasis on parents, however, leaves out an important dynamic of early family life. Parents may provide you with a sense of inner security, or not. Your siblings are the ones who give you the majority of opportunities to deal with conflict. As you hash out such issues as whose toys are whose, who is responsible for which chores, who qualifies for more attention from your parents, and who does better in school, you are playing out relationship themes that will eventually mature into those you find in your adult close relationships.
Siblings resolve a range of issues, from the mundane to the emotional, in a variety of ways. They may rationally debate a solution to their conflict or scream and fight until someone gives in. However they manage it, even as young children, siblings have to find ways to live together. In the process, they start to establish patterns that emphasize either cooperation or hostility.
Thinking about your own sibling relationships, what patterns do you think characterized yours? Did you feel you were largely supportive of each other or always at war? Was there one sibling who you were closest to? Or, if you had only one sibling, how did your closeness to him or her change over time? If you’re an only child, you may still be able to recall your early patterns of family peer relationships if there was a cousin or child of a close family friend with whom you essentially grew up.
In research reported in June 2013 by University of Kentucky family scientist Fatimah Shalash and her collaborators Nathan Wood and Trent Parker, partners in committed relationships (married and cohabiting) reflected on their (current and past) closest, sibling methods of resolving conflicts.
Shalash and her team focused on a well-known marital conflict resolution classification system using the categories of compromise, avoidance, and attack. As you can probably surmise from the terms alone, compromise is a relationship-enhancing method of conflict resolution, and attack is aggressive and destructive. Avoidance, although it may allow for a cooling-off period between angry partners, ultimately detracts from a relationship because it prevents partners from actively confronting issues and ultimately they grow apart.
Using an online method in which participants were recruited by Facebook and other social media, Shalash and coauthors were able to collect data from 144 adults averaging 29 years of age and in a relationship for approximately 7.5 years. They were asked to think of the sibling to whom they were emotionally closest and answer questions about their conflict styles both with the sibling and their adult romantic partner.
The questionnaire that Shalash and her co-authors gave was an adaptation of a measure called the Conflict Behavior Questionnaire. Participants were instructed to rate the frequency of each of 22 behaviors that could occur when they disagreed with their closest sibling or with their current partner. Examples of attack items included: “really get mad and start yelling,” “get sarcastic,” “get mad and throw something at them” and “say or do something to hurt their feelings.” Avoidance items included: “try to avoid talking about it” and “clam up and hold my feelings inside." Example items from the compromise scale included: “try to reason,” “listen to what they say and try to understand” and “try to work out a compromise.”
To analyze the findings, the Shalash team constructed a formula in which they used ratings of sibling compromise, avoidance, and attack to predict these conflict resolution styles with current romantic partners. The results showed that perceived sibling conflict styles predicted perceived romantic partner styles, for each of the three styles, but the strongest prediction emerged for avoidant conflict behavior, followed by attack, and finally compromise.
You might argue that since participants were providing all the data themselves, their recollections of their relationships with their siblings were biased by their current romantic conflict styles. However, after combining these findings with other studies of family dynamics, Shalash believes that they in fact identify an important key to conflict resolution styles in committed adult partners.
There are undoubtedly other factors at work too, beginning with the dynamics of the whole family. Conflicts among siblings don’t emerge out of the blue. Siblings raised in families characterized by high levels of dysfunctional conflict resolution, whether through attack or avoidance, learn from their elders. If you’ve been raised in a household in which family members are constantly criticizing and yelling at each other, you’ll learn that such behavior is both appropriate and expected. Although you may later find out that not all families behave this way, you’ll still have been influenced for years by your closest family members and that mode of resolution will become your default approach.
Still, even if your family of origin resolved conflicts in dysfunctional ways, you don’t have to be locked into those patterns for life. The Shalash study implies that by recognizing the connection between your early family environment and your current conflict style, you’ll be started on your way to becoming a better relationship partner. Think about how you would answer the questions on the questionnaire. Focus back on the atmosphere of your early years, particularly the way you and your siblings interacted, and gain insight into what it was you learned at the time and how it affects you now. Go back and look through family photo albums or videos and try to recall the backstory behind those scenes. If both you and your sibling(s) seem to be highly attacking or avoiding with your partners now as adults, maybe you can even help each other change by stimulating each others’ memories about those long-ago days.
The other piece of the puzzle, of course, is the interaction style that your close romantic partner learned in childhood. How does your spouse or partner relate to his or her siblings or cousins now? Are there constant arguments and bickering? Do they interact as little as possible or shut down when things heat up emotionally? Or do they seem able to work out their differences without fireworks or the silent treatment?
It’s possible that your family environment was a positive one but your partner’s was not. In that case, you might find a quiet moment to talk to your partner and suggest engaging in a little bit of reflection about what family life was like when he or she was young.
Siblings can also help each other work through more painful memories of their childhoods involving not their own conflicts, but those they observed between their parents. Shalash and her coauthors advise family-life educators to be aware of the fact that children who observe marital conflict are negatively influenced in their own interpersonal relationships, including childhood relations with peers. School bullies may be re-enacting interactions among their parents. As adults, they may bring these modes of dealing with negative emotions into the workplace and their own homes.
To sum up: Your adult relationships may contain vestiges—for better or worse—of your relationships with your siblings or other children in your family. However, you don’t have to remain a victim of dysfunctional conflict styles throughout your adult life. By asking yourself, honestly, whether your typical interactions with your siblings were more negative than positive, you may be able to identify these same tendencies in your current relationships. Taking such steps now can help you improve your current relationship style, and perhaps even more important, pass along more constructive modes of conflict resolution to your own children. It may take work, but you can break the cycle of destructive family interactions.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Shalash, F. M., Wood, N. D., & Parker, T. S. (2013). Our problems are your sibling's fault: Exploring the connections between conflict styles of siblings during adolescence and later adult committed relationships. American Journal of Family Therapy, 41, 288-298. doi: 10.1080/01926187.2012.698205