Why Siblings Are Our Most Significant Relationships

October 1, 2012


Once, for a short blissful time, you had your parents undivided affection. Or so you believed. Then perhaps  around aged three you realized that there were others who lay equal claim to your parents’ affections? Welcome to sibling rivalry.

Sociologists agree that how you negotiate sibling conflicts sets the template for all future relationships. Far beyond the first born and last born stereotypes, the very essence of our personality is shaped by how we interact with our siblings. The tools with which sisters resolve jealousies, or the rules of competition laid out by brothers predicts, I believe, how successful you will be as a spouses,  fathers, friends and co-workers.

One of my patients, Barbara, a woman in her eighties, demonstrated to me just how primary this sibling relationship is. She was very frail and I found her all alone, staring aimlessly at the hospital ceiling. I introduced myself as a hospital volunteer and we began to chat. Soon she opened up about her intense loneliness.  “My father is dead, my mother is dead, my daughter is dead. My husband is also dead.” And then she paused, sighed and her eyes welled-up. “And my sister has died.” She could no longer hold back her anguish at the memory of her dead sister. I thought it interesting that out of all her relationships, it was the loss of her sister that ignited the most grief. The sister had died some forty years ago.

When I thought about it deeper, it made perfect sense. Siblings do shape us rather fundamentally. They are our most enduring relationships. We may lose our parents to death, spouses may divorce, friends come and go, but love ’em or not, siblings are for keeps. They may at times be maddening, but the durability of the relationship forces us to discover skills to negotiate positive outcomes. And the ultimate prize for successful negotiation is parental approval. A craving so deeply ingrained, so primal that practically every religion refers to its deity as either Our Father, or the Universal Mother. In that vying for parental approval most of us discover our unique talents that sets us up for future careers and hobbies. And sometimes we go out of our way to avoid certain professions and interests simply because that was our sibling’s thing.

Of course much can go wrong with this competition for parental affection: one or both parent could die, or the rivalry could turn bitter and remain unresolved. Observe this for yourself: whenever you come across a person who is socially awkward, shy and isolated or has difficulty trusting other people, then inquire casually into his or her family history. I guarantee that there is an unresolved sibling conflict in his or her life. Closer to home, my older brother never learned to accept my right to my parents’ affection. Had he learned to do so, he would have, I believe, made a better father to his son.

I am reminded of Morley, another patient at the same hospital. He has had some serious medical complications of late but he has been a recluse most of his adult life. He has no friends, no family contact, not even acquaintances. When he had his aneurism, he was discovered bleeding by a concerned neighbor. It is as if all his life he has been replaying his sibling conflicts with everyone he is in contact with.  By his own admission his apartment is hoarder’s mess, much like his sibling relationships. Both he and his siblings remain profoundly committed to their childhood animosity.I know Morley suffers because of it, and I suspect so do the other siblings.

How do I tell this man that it is never too late. How can I express to him that it is my experience that by healing these primary relationships, he will learn to trust others again?  He, like many adult siblings, assumes that siblings are of the dead and buried past. What he forgets it that unresolved conflicts do not die, they lie festering and contaminating all in its vicinity. He is wrong to believe it is too late to make amends.

It is not even necessary that the siblings be present to heal the relationship. To simply understand the dynamics of the relationship, to go beyond blame and guilt, is beneficial enough. As soon as one acknowledges the impact of a dysfunctional sibling relationship, it begins to loosen its grip. Deep understanding and insights have the power to mend broken bonds, sometimes even beyond death.

The parents may be deceased, the sibling may be deceased, but by continuing to hone new skills in your sibling relationships, the very core of your personality evolves. If you put efforts into getting these few relationships right, it pays rich dividends with every other.

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2 Responses to “Why Siblings Are Our Most Significant Relationships”

  1. I hadn’t ever thought about the interaction between siblings affecting the rest of our relationships, but now I see it does. I come from a family of five kids and all of us interact differently and have extremely different personalities. At times we all get along and other times we can’t stand each other. Thanks for the insight. So much to think about.

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