Sibling Article: Washington Post Express (May 09)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 16:06

Roomies? Oh, Brother: Why Some Siblings Are Opting to Live Together

WE STOOD AT the Home Depot paint-mixing counter in an exasperated stalemate, paper samples of "Village Square" and "Toffee Crunch" shades clenched in our fists.

Then she said it. "I ... hate ... you." Her voice was flat and even, as frustration culminated in those three words. Then, to the horror of the salesman helping us, Tracey burst into tears.

Uh-oh. Maybe living with my sister wasn't such an inspired idea.

It was May 2008 and we were two weeks away from moving into the two-bedroom condo we'd bought together in Clarendon. How was I going to survive living with my younger sibling of three and a half years if we couldn't agree on how many gallons of paint we needed for our pad? But the contracts were signed, the mortgage loan ratified I looked at Tracey and knew there was no turning back.

Of course, if I'd consulted roommate and sibling relationship experts before signing the lease, they would've predicted potential disaster.

"Our relationships with our siblings are very passionate ones," says Dorothy Rowe, a psychologist whose book, "My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend" ($18, Routledge), focuses on the dynamics of sibling relationships. "We care enormously about what our siblings think of us: their praise, their approval," Rowe says. "At the same time, we're scared of their criticism. If you've grown up together, your sibling knows just what to say to upset you, tease you or really hurt you. It's a very complicated relationship that doesn't get simpler as you get older."

In other words, even at 24 and 28, respectively, Tracey and I can revert back to whining kids.

"You developed a relationship with your sibling from such a young age where you learned to fight in a certain way," says Amy Zalneraitis, author of "Room for Improvement: The Post-College Girl's Guide to Roommate Living" ($14, Simon Spotlight). "You might think you've gotten over it as you've gotten older, but if you put yourself back in a situation that you were in up until you were 18 years old, you'd probably start fighting."

Even worse, the fight fodder has grown exponentially, thanks to adulthood. There are still squabbles over who left the dishes in the sink. But this time, say Rowe and Zalneraitis, there are additional triggers that can range from financial management to learning more than one would ever want to know about a relative's sex life.

This may explain why Bank of America Mortgage vice president and senior loan officer Christian Hartung, who has financed home loans in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region for the last seven years, isn't seeing many joint home loan applications from siblings.

Another buying pattern has caught his eye, however. "I have seen a lot of friends who have bought property together ... like current roommates who are renting that don't qualify [for a loan] as an individual they decide this is a great time to buy."

After an extensive search for D.C.-area siblings who lived together, I found just a few pairs. Yet, whereas Tracey and I had bought a place together, these sibs all rented, cautiously opting for temporary situations instead.

Take Chris Shattuck, 32, and his 29-year-old sister Marsy Shattuck. It's impressive that the pair continue to live together after all they've endured over the last few years.

They lost their mother to cancer in 1999 and in 2003 moved their 84-year-old father from their childhood Rockville home to a full-time Alzheimer's care facility in Friendship Heights. They'd inherited a mortgage and a houseful of memories at an age where "responsibility" usually means grappling with car payments. Chris Shattuck lived in Dupont; Marsy Shattuck was in Manhattan. Soon, it became clear that selling the house from afar wasn't going to work.

"We said, 'OK, let's move back there," says Chris Shattuck, a teacher at Rosslyn's Inlingua English Center. "There's no rent, and we can get things settled."

So, in September 2005, they resettled under the same roof they'd lived under until they were 18 minus Mom and Dad. Well, that's not entirely true. As they sifted through memorabilia and readied the house for sale, the Shattucks realized the parental roles were still being played.

"We'd have an argument and then look at each other and be, like, 'Oh, my god, we just had an argument Mom and Dad would have had,'" says Marsy Shattuck, an interactive Web designer at the
Discovery Channel.

There were lots of those fights. "You've heard stories about how dealing with a house or an inheritance breaks up families," says Chris Shattuck. "I know people who are 20 years older than me who are in court with their siblings over this stuff."

A year and half later, in June 2007, they did get something in writing: another lease. This time it was for a Columbia Heights townhouse.

"It was much more than either of us could afford on our own," explains Chris Shattuck. "We said, 'Maybe we can just live together a little while longer.'"

Two years later, things are going swimmingly for the duo and roommate Jessica Blond.

"There have been times when I've wanted to kill them both because they're screaming at each other and I'm in the middle," admits Blond, 29, a management consultant at BDA Global, who has lived with the pair since those first tumultuous days. "I'll think, 'Why do I have to deal with this stress?'"

Before signing on to live with the Shattucks a second time, Blond briefly considered moving into a seven-person house she'd found on Craigslist, but she ended up nixing the idea. "They needed somebody else to be a reason to move," she says, "so, it really wasn't a question. It was three bedrooms. ... I felt like I played a really important part by being able to diffuse situations."

Things were slightly less complicated for Dan and Dominik Heynen.

After growing up in Greenwich, Conn., the 26-year-old identical twins went to separate colleges. Yet when both graduated in 2005 and got consulting gigs at Corporate Executive Board that August, chipping in on a two-bedroom Dupont Circle apartment was a no-brainer.

"He interned the summer before graduating in D.C., and he crashed at my apartment in Georgetown," says Dan Heynen. "We'd [lived together] for 18 years, so I pretty much knew what to expect."

This time, they had the added bonus of not sharing the bunk beds they did as kids. And they discovered plenty of other unexpected perks of living together.

One example is when Dominik Heynen tore his left ACL playing ultimate Frisbee last summer. After knee surgery, he was bedridden for four days before being able to hobble on crutches. "Two days after his surgery, he couldn't really bathe himself," says Dan. "So, I'd help him get into the tub. Stuff you don't think twice about" but probably not a job for a random roomie.

It also doesn't hurt to have a confidant you've known since, well, birth. "When I'm having a bad day, I can call Chris and say, 'Chris, I need help. I'm struggling,'" says Marsy Shattuck. "He's so good. He's right there.'"

The downside? You have a confidant you've known since, well, basically birth. When it's a sibling, there's less likely to be a guard at the gate if that dirty pile of laundry is grating on your nerves or, says Dominik Heynen, you feel like venting. "You're more willing to talk even if the other person isn't listening. It's like, 'Oh, whatever, he can put up with this. He's not going anywhere; he's my brother.'"

And since you've come from the same background, having too much in common might not be the best for one's personal growth. Dominik Heynen acknowledges it's cool that he and his brother share some interests both play on the same ultimate Frisbee team but at times he wonders whether "maybe living with someone else brings in new experiences."

Will this be the case for everyone? It depends, author Rowe says. "There's only one thing you can say about all siblings," she laughs. "There's no one thing you can say about all siblings."

The reason co-habitation works for some and not for others basically boils down to one simple fact: It depends on who you are and where you are in life.

The situation works for Dan and Dominik Heynen because the young Washingtonians had a readily available support system as they began post-collegiate careers. Chris and Marsy Shattuck's move, on the other hand, was precipitated by the pressure of familial responsibility and being able to support one another in its aftermath.

In the case of Tracey and me, living together was also a conscious choice, but for a different reason. We'd both lived separately in various roommate situations during and after college, but as the housing market continued to drop in January 2008, we realized we had an opportunity to invest in a condo that would have been inconceivable a couple years earlier. This was our chance to have a stylish "grown-up" home of our own. We took it.

That's how we found ourselves at Home Depot on that fateful May afternoon.

It was a split-second after Tracey's tears began that I noticed something peculiar: She was also hysterically laughing. She was still bleary-eyed when she looked at me and smiled. "I really do hate you, you know." This time, her voice was broken by giggles.

"I know," I replied. In those few seconds, the tension between us evaporated. We stood there in the paint department cracking up. Customers heading to checkout lines gave us quizzical looks. They'd never get the unspoken joke only two sisters could understand.

That's when I knew moving in with Tracey wasn't such a bad idea.

To this day, I can't remember how much paint we bought.

You're thinking of moving in with a bro or sis (maybe both!). One prerequisite? Well, actually liking each other is key. What else do you need to consider after you've finished squabbling over the larger room? We asked those who have been there for advice.

Separate Your Stuff
Whether it's laundry or leftover pizza, it doesn't hurt to mark your turf. "We don't do food shopping or anything together. We're pretty territorial about that sort of stuff," says Dan Heynen, who lives with his brother, Dominik. "But we probably were for the first 18 years."

Go the Distance
Just because you're related and live together doesn't mean you need to be BFFs. "We have our own separate social lives," says Chris Shattuck, who lives with his sister, Marsy. "She might go out and do something and I don't have to talk to her for a couple days to know what's going on. Having that distance can be really good."

Patience is a Necessary Virtue
Even if it's your bratty bro, manners and respect still matter. "Remember, you're an adult," says Dominik Heynen. "Try not to look for excuses to fight with each other. Be more patient. You might have to be even more patient with someone you know than with someone you don't know."

Schedule Cleaning Time
Whether you keep up with it or not, at least attempt to share responsibility for your mess. "We try to set some ground rules," says Dan Heynen, "[but] we're not that great at following them. For example, we'll say, 'You're in charge of cleaning up the bathroom on this day, and you're in charge of cleaning the kitchen.' Sometimes it turns into a free-for-all. You clean up after yourself. ... We generally try to watch out for ourselves, and if someone isn't doing it, you point it out."

Photos by Kevin Dietsch for Express