Siblings (April 2007)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 11:20

Psychologies April issue 2007


My sister and I have never really got on. I was born on her sixth birthday, which, I can say with great feeling, was not a good career move for me. She has never forgiven me, and there is nothing I have ever possessed about which she cannot be jealous. A few years ago she was staying with me and discovered that my post arrived at 7.30 in the morning. 'I have to wait till the afternoon for mine!' she cried in that familiar tone of "It's not fair!" and I had the equally familiar feeling of anxiety and helplessness. As ever she expected me to make amends. What could I do? Tell the postman not to call?

Having to share whatever is on offer, siblings learn to compete. Many say this competition made them stronger. But we tend to overlook just how far it can shape our character. We probably spend more time with our sibling in the first years of life than with almost anyone else. And while our parents may have nurtured and looked after us, it was our sibling who we played with, joked with and argued with - the one who knew our secrets and could either protect us or turn against us in a moment's notice. No other relationship is quite like it.
While psychologists know a lot about how our parents influence our personalities, they have largely ignored sibling relationships, which can be hard to categorise. Sibling attachments may be warm and loving, but often they're made up of equal parts of affection and irritation, even anger, and sometimes rivalry. Sometimes we feel nothing but hatred, or cold resentment. Yet they have an enormous influence on whom we become.

This is true wherever we come in the birth order. Older children may feel displaced by a younger sister or brother, but a younger child can spend a lifetime feeling overshadowed by their older sibling. Despite this, we still find our siblings endlessly fascinating. I've seen May, the youngest of four, on a chill morning and dressed only in a nappy, crawl across a freezing patio to reach her playing siblings. Sometimes they played with her and made a fuss of her, at others they ignored her or yelled at her if she touched their toys. At 18 months May had already formed a strong attachment to her siblings. Like an inveterate gambler, she lived in hope that her siblings would reward her. Their mixture of rewards and punishments led May to form the strongest kind of attachment, what psychologists call anxious attachment; a varying mixture of love and fear. Older siblings who want their younger siblings to love and admire them can also form anxious attachment. Edith, at 48, told me how upset she was because her younger sister refused to talk to her. 'My sister is the most important person in my life,' says Edith. 'But I don't know if that's how she feels about me.' She is still experiencing the anxious attachment that most siblings have with one another.

This combination of love and fear explains the complex feelings we have about our siblings. We may love them and feel close to them, yet we can also experience intense hatred and envy, sometimes culminating in violent behaviour. My friend Ruth told me how, when she was born, her four-year-old sister, jealous of this infant usurper, put her on the fire. Fortunately her mother saw what was going on and rescued her. Most siblings have comparable, if less extreme, examples.

Where causes this ambivalence? The common explanation is sibling rivalry, yet what we really fear, and are trying to protect ourselves from, is annihilation as a person. We all know what this feels like. It's the sick, panicked feeling we experience when we discover that we've made a mess of things, or someone rejects us, or we been used or ignored or humiliated or betrayed. We feel we're shattering, crumbling, even disappearing.

All of us, every moment of our lives, are engaged in defending our sense of identity. As small children our sense of being a person is constantly under threat because we know so little of the world. A child feels this threat most acutely from a sibling - whether it's a new baby or an older sister or brother. And it's heightened by the knowledge that our sibling knows us well enough to know what will annihilate us as a person. Children will cruelly tease, criticise, scorn, humiliate, trick and betray the sibling who has frustrated them or has something they want, whether it's a toy or the biggest share of their parents' love. Having your big brother steal and destroy the little shells you were treasuring can be more devastating than failing an exam or knowing you've let down a work colleague. Yet it's often difficult to talk about incidents with siblings that we found distressing because they can sound so trivial.
Threatened with being annihilated as a person, we defend ourselves. We may deflect the attack, perhaps by forming an alliance with another sibling. We might use our position in the family to our advantage. As the oldest child we can claim to be in charge. As the youngest we can demand to be looked after.

We also learn ways of gaining attention or affection or admiration. We might become the drama queen, or the one who cossets the others, or the one with the greatest daring-do. When a ploy works, we use it again, and again, until it becomes part of us, something we do without thinking. It's these habits and skills that we carry into adult life and use unthinkingly in our relationships with people who remind us of our siblings, until we're made to realise what we're doing.

Not all siblings defend themselves by carving out a separate role for themselves. Instead, some siblings become extremely close, almost inseparable, forming an impenetrable bond. When siblings discover that their parents are so absorbed in themselves that they have little interest in the children, the siblings cling to one another. Even if they marry or have children of their own, they may still feel that their sibling remains the most important person in their life. While this may be effective when we are growing up, the danger is that we may not experience a sense of ourselves as an individual. And our closeness may prevent us from forming other strong relationships. Nancy, 38, describes her brother Pete, 36, as her 'soul mate', but acknowledges that 'we know and 'get' each other so well that other people seem difficult or shallow.' They are both single, with no significant love affairs in their past. 'It's hard for anyone to live up to Pete - if I can have this closeness with him, why settle for anything less?'

Alternatively, children may adapt to the roles their parents give them. A hard-pressed mother may reward her oldest child for taking responsibility in looking after the younger children, or the last-born can find himself treated as the baby of the family. These roles can continue to bring benefits as well as burdens later in life - if you are the responsible one, for example, you get to be in control, but you have to work very hard. If you're the baby, you're excused responsibility but may feel patronised or not taken seriously. We don't always spot the downsides because we have so much vested in our existing experience.

If you have grown up identifying completely with your sibling, or playing a certain role, it may also affect your adult relationships with others. You might dislike this, but if you haven't tried to change it, it's likely that you find some rewards in the situation. You may still feel that childhood fear that, if you upset your family, they'll turn you out of the house. Perhaps you prefer to keep up a pretence that everything is fine rather than speak truthfully and provoke a terrible scene. Or perhaps you haven't given these things much thought, because the prospect of change is frightening.

Identify what it is that is encouraging you to follow the habitual patterns and ask yourself if you are missing out more than you are gaining. If the answer is yes, you may need to step away from your old roles and relationships, and re-evaluate how helpful they are to you now. Nancy and Pete have discussed 'seeing less of each other. It's lazy in a way - while we have this easy relationship it stops us making an effort with anyone else.'

As adults, we can learn to recognise when we're reacting to others the way we respond to our siblings, and can adjust that behaviour. But when we're with our siblings we can still find ourselves behaving just as we did when we were children. This is partly because of siblings memories differ. Memory isn't a filing cabinet. It's a construction. We try to construct the kind of memories with which we can live. At family reunions Philip, a 34-year-old barrister, makes jokes about his younger sister Kitty being 'the bad one'. He refuses to recognise that she is a responsible, hard-working single mum. Their strict parents had labelled Kitty 'the bad one' because she was lively and outgoing while Philip was 'the good one'. All of Philip's childhood memories are in these terms. He can't afford to see how unfairly Kitty was treated by their parents because then he might remember how he'd always feared that his parents didn't love him, and depending on being good or 'better than' Kitty to win their favour. That's why he was so good. Yet his division of himself and Kitty as 'good' and 'bad' has caused a lifelong rift between them.

There's no simple recipe for how to bridge a gap between yourself and your sibling. If your sibling needs to see the past differently from you it's best if you accept that there's almost nothing you can do.

Yet sometimes a family trauma can create an opportunity to renew our relationship, as such events may bring us closer together. Or some siblings are able to put aside their differences and become friends by talking. But you need to start the conversation by telling your siblings about your affection for them. You need to make clear from the outset that you want to have a conversation different from all those you've had in the past. No recriminations and none of the usual teasing which is a defence against revealing tender feelings. Have the courage to put yourself in a vulnerable position, and, if you fail, comfort yourself with the thought that at least you've tried. However, the chances are that you'll find that your siblings, like you, want to know the joy of sharing a long history with a dearest friend.

Dorothy Rowe My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: The Making and Breaking of Sibling Bonds Routledge, April 18, 2007.

Are you still reacting to others the way you behaved with your siblings? Dr Dorothy Rowe suggests asking yourself the following questions to find out if you're still playing your childhood role:

1. Do you feel you have to be in charge because you're more responsible than the others, or see yourself as the baby, needing to be looked after?

3. Do you compete with colleagues to win the approval of your boss/parent?

4. In your family were you 'the good one' or 'the bad one'? Do you feel that others still see you this way? Are you still trying to fill your role because that's what people expect of you?

5. Do you see your relationships with contemporaries as power struggles that you must win, else people will despise you? Or do you expect that in a power struggle you'll always lose, just as you always lost to your siblings?

6. Do you measure everyone you meet against your siblings and find others lacking?

Whenever we persist in doing something that doesn't benefit us, there is something in what we're doing which gives us a reward, even if we don't acknowledge it. To change you have to ask yourself, 'What advantages do I get from doing this?' For instance, measuring every stranger against your family has the advantage of being able to feel that you belong to the best family in the world. Then you can comfort yourself with, 'I know I'm inadequate but I belong to a fantastic family.' Staying so close to siblings may feel stifling, but it means we don't have to make the same effort to find other friends.

When you've identified the advantages you must ask, 'Am I prepared to give up these advantages?' If your answer is 'yes', you then have to accept that change means uncertainty and that can be scary. Yet without facing this fear you can never change.