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Family Dynamics

4 Factors That Define Sibling Relationships

... and how to let our "sibling ghosts" go.

Key points

  • The ways brothers and sisters interact in childhood sets a template for relations with lovers, friends, and coworkers.
  • Psychology has largely overlooked siblings for decades. Few studies have explored the effect of childhood sibling relationships in adulthood.
  • A new book finds sibling transference is common. A sibling unconsciously redirects childhood feelings towards a sibling to another relationship.

A new book, Sibling Therapy: The Ghosts from Childhood that Haunt Your Clients’ Love and Work, by Karen Gail Lewis, is a fascinating exploration of how siblings profoundly shape one another in adulthood.

Psychology has largely overlooked the sibling relationship. Few scholarly papers with “sibling” in the title were published before 1980; likewise, no scientific conferences, symposia, or panel discussions appeared to have focused on the sibling relationship. Only in 1983 did the journal Psychoanalytic Study of the Child finally devote a special issue to siblings. In the past 40 years, researchers increasingly have studied sibling relationships in childhood, but only in the past eight years have studies appeared exploring the effect of childhood sibling relationships in adulthood.

Lewis’ book adds to this important work. She has specifically counseled siblings, and she uses her cases to illustrate how early hurts and distorted perceptions with our first playmates—our brothers and sisters—are often re-enacted in adult relationships.

“The influence brothers and sisters have on each other’s lives goes far beyond their own interactions,” Lewis writes. “Understanding the quality and emotional tone of the childhood relationship provides a rich source of information about and explanations for who siblings are today.”

It may be stating the obvious, but, as Lewis reminds us, siblings—regardless of how close or distant in adulthood—are part of each other’s lives. They grew up together, and each carries into adulthood their own childhood perceptions and idealizations, feelings, hurts, and resentments from those early life experiences. Lewis calls these “sibling ghosts.”

“These behaviors are unconscious; ghosts live within everyone, but they haunt inconsistently,” writes Lewis. “They quietly ride along in their adult life until a spouse or lover, someone at work, or a friend makes a comment or a facial expression that leaves the person feeling similar to when they were little. Then, whoosh, up pops the sleeping sibling ghosts.”

Four Concepts That Underlie the Sibling Relationship

The sibling relationship, she explains, is transferred onto adult relationships in many ways throughout the course of a lifetime. Here are her four concepts:

  • Frozen images: The label and perception of a sibling in childhood can become “frozen” and sustained for years to come, no matter how much each has changed. These frozen images can be applied to adults who engage in similar behaviors through sibling transference. Lewis offers the example of a brother who taunted a sister when they were little. These taunts can become internalized; long after the scars dim, the memories and emotions remain, she writes.
  • Crystallized roles: Parents sometimes label their children during childhood, assigning roles that shape their behavior: the clown, the smart one, the troublemaker, etc. Once assigned a role, children tend to fulfill it. A crystallized role shapes identity and—unless an individual becomes aware of the role and decides how to deal with it in a healthy fashion—it can define adult life.
  • Unhealthy loyalty: This is a subtle behavior pattern in which a sibling holds back out of worried loyalty to a brother or sister. A sibling may feel disloyal if, for example, he or she moves on in life while their sibling remains stuck in an unsatisfying job, challenging circumstances, or an unhappy emotional state. In such a situation, some siblings feel as if they are abandoning a brother or sister.
  • Sibling transference: Transference describes the phenomenon in which an individual redirects emotions and feelings, often unconsciously, from one person to another. Old childhood feelings toward a sibling often resurface in adulthood, in both personal and work relationships. The person may be responding to people in their present-day life as they did to their siblings when they were children. The transference may be positive or negative; either way, it definitely works against clarity in relationships with lovers, friends, and colleagues.

Ways to Identify the Sibling Influence

Lewis identifies clinical situations that suggest the possibility of sibling ghosts or transference in a client. These are seen in an individual who:

  • is stuck in an unhealthy role in one or more relationships or has a pattern of unhealthy relationships;
  • has a marital problem;
  • has been divorced once or more;
  • idealizes a sibling or puts a sibling on a pedestal;
  • is bright, perhaps successful, but underachieving or self-sabotaging at work;
  • feels guilty about taking steps to improve life that would be helpful;
  • keeps losing a job, being fired, or quitting;
  • has difficulty with coworkers;
  • complains of having poor self-esteem or self-image;
  • has few close friends or dysfunctional friendships; or
  • feels isolated.

She poses the following questions to her clients when she suspects sibling ghosts or transference:

  • What would your sibling do in this situation?
  • How is your sibling’s marriage?
  • Do your arguments with your partner/spouse/coworker feel familiar?
  • Think back to when you were in elementary school and any qualities in your siblings you didn’t like. Does your spouse or coworker have similar ones?
  • Who among your siblings makes the most money or has the most prestigious jobs? Who has the least?
Source: Dr. Karen Gail Lewis
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis
Source: Dr. Karen Gail Lewis

Lewis emphasizes that, when we examine the challenges in our lives and their origins, it’s important to include these concepts. They’re extremely useful, she notes, in making the invisible visible.

“It’s like the difference between driving in a fog where there is little or no visibility and driving on a sunny day where you can clearly see the road and trees far into the distance,” she writes. “These four concepts [frozen images, crystallized roles, unhealthy loyalty, and sibling transference] have guided me in helping them [clients] break through what seem like intractable current problems.”

This is groundbreaking work for therapists, with eye-opening perspectives for anyone who has a brother or sister.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: evrymmnt/Shutterstock


Lewis, Dr. Karen Gail. (2023) Sibling Therapy: The Ghosts from Childhood that Haunt Your Clients' Love and Work. Oxford University Press

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