Sharing the best of times and the worst of times
Posted Jul 08, 2017
My sister just turned 80. She remembers when I was born; when I got my first haircut and went to the theatre for the first time. My sister is a witness to my life and, although there are many things about me she doesn't know, she knows me in a way that no one else (other than my brother) does. My sister and brother are witnesses to my experiences with my parents and share precious memories. And for millions of baby-boomers like me, relationships with siblings will last well into old age.
Relationships with siblings are both long and constant. Siblings offer each other an ongoing sense of continuity in the face of major life changes. When parents change jobs and move, children’s friendships and social ties are disrupted, schools and teachers change. It is not uncommon for children to go through three or four school systems, neighborhoods and friendship groups before graduating from high school. Siblings are witnesses to life events that no one else knows about or can corroborate. My sister remembers when my father lost his job and swore us to secrecy because he didn't want to tell my mother until after their vacation.
You may change jobs, get divorced, lose parents and outgrow friendships. Friends who attended your first wedding may no longer be friends when you re-marry. You may have lost touch with friends when you moved or changed jobs or got divorced. One constant person during such dislocations is often a sibling.
The bad news is that conflicts with siblings that arise over the years do not go away. They do not dissolve and, too often, don't resolve either. My patient, Sal, is still angry that his brother made fun of him because he wore glasses 40 years ago. At 50, Janice is still enraged that her brothers did not have to clean the house--that was for girls. Stan is still angry that his brother came late to his wedding 49 years ago. And Hal is still talking about the fact that he had to share a bedroom with his grandmother instead of his sister.
Caring for elderly parents presents a unique challenge because it often revives the emotional “stuff” from childhood and can reduce adult siblings to kids again. No matter how old we get, reality is filtered through yesterday’s memories. We can begin the process as a confident adult and regress to roles we thought we had let go of long ago—the colicky baby, the peacekeeper, the avoider, etc.
Painful adult sibling relationships serve as a model for our children. If we have turbulent relationships with siblings or don't speak to them, we are giving our children a message about THEIR sibling relationships.
Fortunately, since our sibling relationships are life-long, there are still opportunities for adult siblings to understand and work out unresolved issues that are still lurking from childhood. In order to take advantage of opportunities to develop a better relationship with siblings, you have to be able to embrace regret and overcome feeling mortified by your part in perpetuating the problem. The good news is that if you want to work out the kinks, you will most likely have an extended period of years to do so.
(For more on sibling relationships,see https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-after-50/201608/sibling-rivalry and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-after-50/201609/sibling-conflict-and-gender)