Siblings: best of enemies, worst of friends

Relationships between siblings are sometimes plagued by resentment, anger and blame. Here’s what they can do to bring the love back


Over the years we’ve become familiar with what psychologist Jeanne Safer calls ‘sib speak’—those family interchanges fraught with resentment and blame: “Dad visits your family, but never comes to see mine, even though I’m so much closer,” “Mom tells you everything, and I have to find out from somebody else,” “Mom is always on your side.”

We want to think of sibling relationships as being close and harmonious. Don’t we call a close friend a ‘sister’ or a ‘brother’? In sad fact, those friends may be closer to the ideal of the ‘brotherly’ relationship than our actual siblings.

For example, an accomplished woman with a PhD feels small and inconsequential because her brother was brought up as the family ‘hero’. He continues to rub his financial success in her face, and she hates him for it.

Another woman has supported her family financially for years, but her sister is known as the ‘good one’. No matter how hard she tries, she still feels as an ‘outsider’.

A brother and a sister, both successful and with loving families of their own, stop speaking to one another for years, after an apparently minor difference.

Research suggests that 33 — 45 per cent of adults say their relationship with a sibling is ‘distant’ or ‘rivalrous’.

Too close for love

It’s difficult to forge and maintain a close relationship. I work with many couples who struggle mightily to establish an ‘eye-to-eye’ [an I-to-I] bond. Spouse and spouse, parent and adult child, brother and sister all have similar problems. The underlying question is “How can I be my full self and also be fully with you?”

The process of growing up as human starts with, we assume, a sense of not-knowing—not knowing what our eyes are seeing, not knowing what our ears are hearing, not knowing how to manage our limbs. We feel safe only when, in mother’s arms, we smell her known smell, hear her known heartbeat. Then we are ‘at one’ with her. The famous psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott is quoted as saying, “There is no such thing as a baby—only a mother-and-baby together.” Perhaps the Garden of Eden is a metaphor for that blissful oneness. When baby becomes a toddler, she starts to be a separate person, capable of relationship.

Oneness is not a relationship. Relationship takes two. Two hearts may beat as one when lovers first meet, but only up until that moment when they recognise that they are NOT the same. And that’s when an adult relationship actually starts.

Conflict develops around what we call ‘merging’. When people are very, very close emotionally, it can feel wonderful—like mother and baby, like being in love—or it can feel stifling. Any difference between people demands some space. Rage is one way of trying to create more space for oneself. Not speaking to one another gives the illusion of separateness.

Identical twins often demonstrate the extremes of love/hate, or merger/distance. There was the duo of elderly ladies I used to see walking in the neighbourhood, dressed, quaffed, made up exactly alike. They chose to merge and be ‘as one’.  In contrast, I know two identical brothers who can’t stand being in the same city with one another. When I met them, they looked very different, having spent several years in different parts of the world. As they had time together, they started looking more and more alike, dressing more alike, sporting the same kind of facial hair. As they seemed to become more ‘the same’, the fights escalated. Mutual friends ‘belonged’ to one or the other. One was accused of following the other, wherever he set himself up. Eventually, they came to the conclusion that they really could not share a city, even as large a city as New York. Too close can sometimes only be solved by physical distance.

Growing together and separately

Siblings are our firsts. Our first friends, our first enemies, our first rivals, even our first marriage partners. They grow together, and they grow separately. How they grow up affects what kind of adult relationships they can have.

There’s bound to be competition between/among them [also known as sibling rivalry]. There’s no mother in the world who can treat all her children equally all the time. No matter how skilled she may be in divvying up the soda into equal parts, there is no such thing as real equality. [Too much effort put into trying to be fair has its own problems.] So there is always a certain amount of strife among the kids for mom’s attention, and dad’s, and even one another’s. When Mom and Dad are under the kind of stress that most modern parents are, the supply of attention is at a premium, and the competition can get more intense.

This, in itself, is neither bad nor good. It’s more important how the competition is handled—is it acknowledged, with empathy, or is it judged, denied, or ignored? If one of the latter, it is more likely that hostilities will grow as the children grow, and eventually strain the relationships of adult sibs. Grievances get stored up, until at a tipping point, they break apart.

Of course, parents who actively show favouritism add fuel to the situation.

So do family roles. All families have roles; it’s a kind of division of labour. Individuals accept ownership of different parts of the whole, the family system. The more functional the family, the more elastic the roles; the less functional [the more merged], the more rigid the roles become. When roles are extreme, they lock siblings into being ‘the smart one’, ‘the pretty one’, ‘the funny one’, ‘the sad one’… Rigid roles create a kind of interlocking blocks: they can’t get apart from one another, but neither can they share with one another. Fights happen when people are too close to one another to be able to breathe.

Getting back together

There was a time when we had a more physical need of our families. Siblings learned to ‘get along’ in order to keep the family farm running, or to care for the younger and the older generations. These days, it’s easy for a family to be spread across the continent, if not around the world. Distance is an easy fix for rivalry. But we cannot actually leave our families behind. They live in our psyches. Angry splits weaken both parties. Each ends up missing a piece of themselves. Reconciliation strengthens both. So, it’s a good idea to try to make peace with your families.

But that can be pretty difficult. If you are in a relationship of interlocking, rigid roles, the first thing you have to do is to find a way to get unlocked. Let in some air. This can be done by becoming more aware of yourself—rather than by trying to ‘take care’ of the other. If I am the ‘talented one’ and you are the ‘beautiful one’, you must find your talent, and I, my own beauty.

If you would like to try to reconnect with a sibling, it can probably be done. Studies of older siblings indicate that some 80 per cent of them over 60 can claim close relationships with one another.

While it always takes two to tango, you can take steps on your own to increase your chances.

Start with yourself

Think first about yourself. Think about what you are looking for. Do you want to rekindle some of the good things of your past? What are you missing without this person in your life?

Think about your own life. Are you healthy? Are you generally happy, with supportive people around you? Will you be able to approach this other person from a place of well-being?

Talk with others about your wish to reconnect. Talk with your present family, talk with your close friends. Make room for their opinions and reactions, while remembering that the actual choice is yours.

Make room for forgiveness. Whatever happened in the past may have come from a sense of lack, of ‘not enough love to go around’. Your sister may have suffered in her own way as much as you did, in yours.

Let go of resentment. No one gets a ‘do-over’ of past hurts and mistakes. Resentments only poison the person collecting them.

Clearing the mine field, together When you feel strong, healthy, happy, ready to jump into the deep end of the pool, step into the shallow end, instead. Do something simple. Make a ‘coffee date’ with your sibling [probably better to leave alcohol out of it!] and keep your conversation on a social level. Pretend you’re a scientist, gathering information about both yourself and them.

At this point, it’s vital to make lots of room for all your own emotions, while containing them for later examination. Be prepared to accept whatever results come.

Once you’ve made contact, if it has gone well, you can begin to think about talking about more serious things. Sharing happy memories is a good place to start. “Remember when…” lets you share what you agree on, and this is an opportunity to notice how you may remember things differently.

When the difficult subjects come up—and they will, even if you’ve both agreed to keep things light—take a moment to make even MORE room inside. Give your sibling the benefit of the doubt; their memories come through the lenses of their experience, which is different from your own. After all, this is the past we’re talking about. You’ve both already survived it. This is a time to carefully practise using ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ statements. Tell your sinling, “I felt this way,” rather than “you did that.”

When talking about those subjects that have divided you, keep in mind that what you’re doing is clearing a mine field, together. Walk carefully, move slowly, treat the past gently—or it will blow up in your face. When the bomb is defused, you can both heave a sigh of relief.

But remember, it may be awhile before all the mines have been cleared. Defusing them takes patience, skill, and practice.

Healing the rift is a difficult process. It’s good to remember that the ‘prize’ is a new connection with someone who has actually known you all, or almost all, of your life. As we get older, that prize is, in fact, priceless.

This was first published in the November 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Cheryl Gerson
Cheryl Gerson has been in psychotherapy practice in New York for over 25 years. A Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Board Certified Diplomate, she has a passionate interest in how relationships work. Her training has helped her develop a broad spectrum of techniques, to work collaboratively with clients in finding what they want, or what they need.


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