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Family Dynamics

Sibling Rivalry

It's not just kidstuff
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Ambivalence about our siblings is inevitable. But, as long as the balance between the love and the hate of them is at least 60/40 we can live with it and not want to kill each other. What makes the balance of love and hate tip too far to the hate side? Parents can intensify the negativity between siblings by characterizing children as "the good one" and the "bad one," "the smart one" and the "dumb one," "the lazy one" and "the ambitious one." Sometimes life circumstances can intensify the negativity between siblings.

I once saw a television show where an 11-year-old boy is rushed into the hospital on a gurney. He is shaking, dripping wet and has a blanket wrapped around him, having almost drowned in the river during a storm. He first words are: “Where’s Joey?” His six-year-old half-brother has not yet been found. The older brother, Chris, full of remorse, says: “He’s dead and it’s my fault. He didn’t want to go down to the river and I taunted him and said he was a sissy so he went. Mom will hate me forever. I killed Joey.” Here is a television version of Cain and Able.

As the plot unfolds, it is clear that Chris feels his mother loves Joey more than him. While Chris was the child of a miserable, loveless marriage, Joey is the child of a second, more loving marriage. Chris feels guilty because part of him wanted to get rid of Joey and regain his special position with his mother, but he also loves his little brother. Luckily, on the show, the younger child is miraculously saved from drowning and the older brother is saved from a lifetime of guilt, remorse, self-hate and, no doubt, self-punishment.

Many older siblings have experienced death wishes toward a younger sibling and were lucky like Joey’s older brother. The sibling did not get run over by a car when the older brother was supposed to be watching; did not drown in the pool while his big sister flirted with the life guard; did not get eaten by lions when her brother left her at the cage and went to get a hotdog.

Even if parents feel they are/were even-handed, it is important to recognize that, like Joey and Chris, siblings may have had different experiences and opportunities because of the circumstances of the family when each one was growing up--divorce, death of a parent or grandparent, changes in finances, and maturity of the parents can all play a role in siblings feeling that the other one/s got a better deal.

For adult children, visiting one daughter's family more than the other; taking one son and his family on a trip and not the other; or dividing money unequally can create or intensify jealousy between siblings. For example, a patient, Karen, told me that her mother gave $20,000 to her brother and sister-in-law as a down payment for their house and gave nothing to her. All of Karen's childhood feelings about her brother being the favorite child re-emerged. Karen's mother is changing the love/hate balance between Karen and her brother. She is destroying the relationship between the two of them by favoring him.

At a dinner party I heard a similar story. Joanne explained that she and her brother Gary had not spoken in 25 years. She said that when her father died, he left a substantial amount of money to his grandchildren. Her brother has no children so that meant her children inherited all the money. Joanne's father tipped the balance of Gary’s ambivalence—he weighted it down with his overt favoritism toward Joanne. And she was so used to it that she didn’t understand why her brother refused to speak to her again after the will was read.

If parents are loving and even-handed, the relationship with the sibling is likely to be a healthy identification—i.e. feeling that you look alike, share the same history, have the same taste in food, or sense of humor. However, if one child is openly favored over another the one who feels the envy cannot develop or maintain a healthy connection to the other. That does not mean that every dollar given has to be exactly the same, but there needs to be some balance. If circumstances such as illness or divorce require an imbalance, being honest and open about it can go a long way in healing old wounds and fostering a loving connection between adult siblings.

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