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Family Dynamics

Venus v. Serena Williams: Reflecting on Sibling Relationship

A complex connection with some potentially lasting effects

Wikipedia via Flickr
Source: Wikipedia via Flickr

You don’t have to be a tennis buff to be drawn in when the Williams sisters face off. There are lots of reasons to watch—each woman’s consummate skill, power, athleticism, personal style, articulateness—but what keeps many of us curious and enthralled is the sibling thing. Just fifteen months apart—there was a time when the younger sister couldn’t take Venus on—it’s now Serena who’s in ascendancy, having triumphed in 15 out of the last 26 encounters. Of course, it’s watching sibling rivalry displayed so literally that really hooks us, especially since the way it’s played out in most families isn’t out in the open—or at the Open, for that matter. (The brother version of this dynamic fascinates too—as in those dueling quarterbacks, Peyton and Eli Manning.)

Barring the unforeseen, the sibling relationship—if you happen to have one—is the longest of a person’s life. Our cultural take on it—that siblings are always close, that there’s no better friend than a sister or brother—reflects this longevity as well as our belief that “blood is thicker than water,” even though boatloads of research about the complexity of the sibling bond belie this simple answer. (Remember Cain and Abel?) There are, indeed, sibs who are best friends but they are a relative rarity. Sibling connections encompass a whole continuum from those who talk every day and are true confidantes to those who are wholly estranged, and every other variant you can imagine in between. A so-called “shared” childhood isn’t necessarily the glue we think it is, nor is it always “shared” in the way we think: even siblings very close in age—two years apart or less—may experience the dynamics of family life differently, and may be influenced by them in different ways. That was certainly true for Bill and his brother Jim—just fifteen months apart just like the Williams sisters—who grew up with a binge-drinking father and a mother who refused to discuss it. It was the slightly older Bill who was the focus of his father’s volatility and became his mother’s protector while Jim learned to stay out of the fray and mind his own business; each brother developed his own set of coping skills. As adults, Bill was the sibling who had anger management issues while Jim continued to avoid confrontation, resorting to passive-aggressive tactics only when necessary. They do share one trait, though: an unwillingness to talk through important issues.

In their book, The Sibling Bond, Stephen Bank and Michael Kahn explain that what differentiates sibling relationships is the degree of identification one sibling has with the other. At one end of the spectrum is close identification. While this sounds ideal—Hansel and Gretel, anyone? —it actually can be unhealthy, yielding a fused relationship in which selfhood is lost; a merging one in which one sibling is unsure of who he or she is; or an idealizing one, in which one sibling becomes the lesser hero worshipper of the other. In the middle of the continuum is partial identification which is the healthiest and most flexible of sibling bonds, at least potentially. Here each sibling appreciates the similarities between them and the differences are respectfully noted but what matters is the dynamic. If it’s a constructive dialectic, what friction exists is accepted as the normal wear-and-tear of emotional connection. Moreover, their connection is neither exclusive or excluding, becoming a thread in the larger fabric of emotional connections in life. Alas, even though siblings may stay connected, they may also engage in a destructive dialectic, which is marked by ongoing strife. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum is distant identification, in which each sibling feels no similarity but great difference. Absent a feeling of connection, these siblings either live parallel lives or are estranged. As one woman wrote me, “I wouldn’t befriend either of my siblings if I met them today. We dealt with each other while our parents were alive but now, there’s no reason to.” Compare that to what another woman commented: “Who I am isn’t separable from my being one of three. Yes, my siblings sometimes drive me nuts but being a sister and having a brother and a sister shaped me and continues to even as an adult.”

The sibling connection, paradoxically, is rich in both negative and positive possibilities, and remains complicated. Take, for example, some insights offered by science which deny the simplicity we often attribute to sibling bonds.

1. Sibling rivalry isn’t as “normal” as we think

That’s right: sibling aggression and bullying are often ignored and wrongly tolerated by a parent or parents, much to both children’s detriment, thanks to the cultural trope. That’s exactly what a study by Corinne Jenkins Tucker and her co-authors revealed looking at three subtypes of sibling aggression: physical assault, property victimization, and psychological aggression. And, yes, there’s a direct link between sibling aggression and poor mental health outcomes. It’s not just the bully at school we need to pay attention to but the potential one closer to home. So if your older son is pinching his younger sister in the back seat of the car or at the dinner table, or your middle kid is always telling her younger sister she’s dumb and ugly, or your eldest somehow “loses” his baby sister’s favorite doll or book, you need to pay attention.

2. The quality of sibling relationship(s) is connected to depression in adult men.

That’s what a longitudinal study—conducted over thirty years—of 226 men by Robert Waldinger and others showed. While it’s true that the study didn’t establish causality, what’s especially illuminating is that the quality of parenting didn’t predict depression but poor, stressed, or dysfunctional sibling relationships did. It’s worth keeping in mind that the authors note that children with siblings spend more time together than they actually spend with their parents. Additionally, the ability to relate well to peers is a key to social functioning in adulthood and the authors opine that healthy relationships may “help children develop specific capacities to mobilize interpersonal resources and these capacities may promote emotional well-being in adulthood.” Conversely, dysfunctional sibling connections may impair or hobble those coping skills. Interesting, no?

3. Sibling jealousy may shape your adult love life

Often, sibling jealousy is the result of Parental Differential Treatment, a rarely talked-about factor in many families in which one child is favored over the other but which is common enough to warrant its own acronym, PDT. It is one of the taboo subjects since as parents, we all like to stick to the simpler if not wholly true declaration, “ I love all my children equally, in the same way.” Of course, children are highly sensitive to differential treatment, so much so that their perception of it may actually shape them more than the love they receive. Interestingly, as a study by Amy Rauer and Brenda Volling showed, being the jealous sibling or the one who was the object of a sibling’s jealousy boded equally for distress in adult romantic relationships. The difference, though, was the mode of attachment, either preoccupied or dismissive.

4. How many siblings you have may affect your likelihood of divorce

Many studies show that people with fewer siblings or none have enhanced educational outcomes, and studies on only children as having early deficits in social skills because they are singletons have had mixed results. But do additional siblings actually bestow social benefits? And could that be extended to staying married? Do people with greater numbers of siblings have better coping skills, dealing with the positives and the negatives in intimate relationships? That’s what Donna Zeher-Babbitt and her colleagues wanted to know. Was there any benefit to having more siblings when it came to marriage?

Well, the results are counterintuitive, if demanding of attention. It turns out that the more siblings you have, the more likely you are to marry. In fact, add an additional sib and the odds of your marrying increase by 3%. Similarly, every time you add a sibling, the probability of your divorcing goes down 3%! Now, lest you think this is a recipe for a new reality show, keep in mind that this observation doesn’t predict divorce nor does it address causality or the reasons why this might be so. Is it that people from large families appreciate family ties more? Are they more tolerant of chaos or fractiousness in close relationships? Or what? Additionally, as the authors note, you’d need eight siblings to counteract the effect of your parents’ being divorced on the probability of your owning your very own divorce decree. Still, there’s food for thought.

Siblings are a complicated lot. Just ask Venus and Serena.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2015

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Bank, Stephen P. and Michael D. Kahn, The Sibling Bond. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Tucker, Corinna Jenkins, David Finkelhor, Heather Turner, and Anne Shattuck, “Association of Sibling Aggression with Child and Adolescent Mental Health,” Pediatrics (July, 2013)vol.132, no. 1, 79-84.

Waldinger, Robert J,, George E. Valliant, and E. John Gay, “Childhood Sibling Relationships as Predictor of Major Depression in Adulthood: a 30-Year Prospective Study,” American Journal of Psychiatry (2007), 164, 949-954.

Rauer, Amy J, and Brenda L.. Volling, “Differential Parenting and Sibling Jealousy: Developmental Correlates of Young Adults’ Romantic Relationships,” Personal Relationships (2007), 14 (4), 495-511.

Babbitt-Zeher, Donna, Douglas B. Downey, and Joseph Merry,” Number of Siblings During Childhood and The Likelihood of Divorce in Adulthood,” Journal of Family Issues (2014), 1-20.

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