Even as adults, siblings feel tugs of rivalry
When they were little kids, Kathy and her brother were close.
Very close. Like twins, she said.
“We don’t talk, even at family gatherings,” said the 29-year-old LaPorte native who now lives in South Bend. “We just say hello.”
He criticizes her boyfriend. He looks down on the career she plans to pursue — and then adds condescending insult to injury about the community college she attends, Kathy said.
“My brother is very much in competition with us, with me and my other sister,” she explained. “He changed when he went into the Navy, and after that, he was ‘all that and a bag of chips.’ ”
He’s traveled the world. Landed a great job after his discharge, bought a house, started a family, she said.
“We’re all happy for him, but it’s given him a big head. He was never like that, and he needs to get off his high horse,” Kathy complained.
She said she’s tried to draw him closer but to no avail. And Kathy is not alone, according to some authors and experts who have studied the rivalry of adult siblings.
“We don’t even recognize and appreciate how forceful the dynamics of sibling rivalry are and how much they get perpetuated in our adulthood relationships,” said Dr. Jane Greer, author of “Adult Sibling Rivalry: Understanding the Legacy of Childhood.”
“It’s with our sister and brother that we learn whether to cooperate or to compete bitterly,” Greer said.
It’s where we learn how to share and how to demand. It’s where we develop a sense of our expectations being met, or our own deprivation if we think someone else is getting more — more love, power or money, more attention, prestige or fun.
“All of these (childhood) experiences contribute to how we feel about ourselves and see ourselves in the crowd, and we carry them into our adult relationships,” she said.
Sometimes, it’s because of the re-emergence of roles that siblings played in childhood — what Greer calls the Whiz Kids, the Troublemakers, the Underachievers, the Do-Gooders and, yes, the Comic Relief.
Oh, and don’t forget “the favorite.”
Often, in times of family stress, or during the holidays and other occasions when families gather en masse, adult siblings may slip into their “assigned” positions of long ago.
“A sister or brother is still the caretaker or the black sheep,” Greer said. “Or another complains, saying, ‘Now I’m the head of cardiology, and they’re still calling me the baby.’ ”
Those echoes are obvious when talking to Evon of Dowagiac.
“My dad’s always defending her,” said Evon, 29, when talking about her sister. “She’s the baby, the spoiled brat — and if I say something, it causes problems between my mom and dad.”
Evon’s tensions with her sister, who now lives with her parents, have affected family interactions.
She used to visit every day, Evon said, because she lives right across the street from them. But now, Evon doesn’t see her parents all week, simply to avoid her sister.
“The holidays? I’m not there very long,” she said. “We eat the meal, my son and I visit, and then I leave so as to avoid conflict.”
Not that sibling conflict is always bad, Greer said. In fact, it can be necessary for teaching people the dynamics of compromise and fair play.
“Instead of being stuck in rivalry and envy, find out what else you can do so you don’t stay locked in with ‘he’s got more’ and ‘she’s got better,’ ” she suggested.
Just don’t do it in the holidays, she said. There’s no sense in exploring sibling issues while you’re passing the mashed potatoes and gravy.
“Do not bring up old grievances,” Greer advised. “This is not the time to try and work out or flesh out old rivalries. If a sister or brother confronts you, don’t feel you have to. Agree to talk after the holidays.”
Greer’s co-author, Edward Myers, adds that the holidays are especially laden with symbols and rituals — a gold mine of family history but embedded with land mines of the past.
There are families in which things must be done a certain way, he said. Small tangible items — a certain food, a certain ornament, who puts a star on the tree, whose house we visit at Hanukkah — may be imbued with deeper “sibling” messages.
“Don’t be surprised if old patterns pop up. The holidays are wonderful … but they evoke a lot of intense feelings about how things ought to be, how this should be a time of closeness and family solidarity and warmth,” Myers said.
“No. 1, that isn’t always true. And No. 2, the very expectation loads the agenda,” he said.
Meanwhile, one sister still buries her resentment, born of the fact that she cares for elderly parents alone, while the others think of her as the goody-two-shoes martyr.
Another brother seethes because the grandparents favor his sister’s kids, while she’s tired of hearing how fabulous his new home is.
And since most of these sibling wounds and conflicts began in childhood, it’s hard to imagine a new day.
The good news, though, is that rebuilding sibling relationships is full of benefits, said Marian Sandmaier, author of “Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers.”
Sandmaier agreed that mending a sibling fence may be unwise during the holidays, but she urges people to work on their brotherly — and sisterly — love, throughout the year.
“Few people in our lives, particularly in this era, have known us always,” she said. “I think that there’s both comfort and a lot we can learn from our siblings in adulthood, about who we are and where we came from, that nobody else can help us with.”
That longevity of “knowing” may matter even more as we get older, Sandmaier said. “Our siblings are likely to be there again when our parents aren’t. And in some cases, they’ll be the last people who know our whole story,” she added.
Both Sandmaier and Victoria Hilkevitch Bedford recommend flexibility and acceptance when nurturing good sibling relationships — or healing damaged ones.
“People like to hear the conflict stuff, but there’s also a lot of love,” said Bedford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Indianapolis. For 16 years, Bedford has studied same-sex pairs of adult siblings who were all between 30 and 64 years old at the time they began.
They have personality conflicts. They have economic disparities. They have significant gender-based differences, something seen by the other experts as well when they’re talking about brother-brother, sister-sister and sister-brother siblings.
Generally, the men show more competition and comparison, and the women — for good or ill, Bedford said — are much more expressive.
“(Men) all seem to want to get closer to their brothers, but something seems to be in the way,” she said. “It could be in themselves or the brother, but it doesn’t have to ruin it. It can still get better.”
All siblings seem to benefit from flexibility, and even more so for the men as they get older, she said. Just one sibling who is willing to forgive, or seek forgiveness, or yield in her stubbornness can help the process.
Siblings can take more chances with each other, too, because they cannot “leave” each other in the way that friends and even spouses may do when relationships go sour.
It’s also important to “talk about the untalkable,” which often has more to do with their parents’ choices and behavior, and their shared sibling history, than it does with each other, Bedford said.
“I think it’s probably more about acceptance and finding ways to move around the difficult area,” Bedford said. “You appreciate the ways you do relate, despite the problems. The relationship doesn’t change so much, as much as one’s outlook changes.”
Most siblings want to have a good relationship, she said — and so does Greg, 25, of Mishawaka.
Greg couldn’t stand his younger sister, now 22, during their childhood and teen years. Now, he said, they have a “great relationship.”
It’s his brother he doesn’t understand these days.
“He’s an underachiever,” Greg said. “Some of it just makes me shake my head and wonder why.”
Greg acknowledged that his brother has a learning disability, but that alone fails to account for all of his brother’s troubles, he insisted.
“Of course I’d like to be closer to him. He’s my brother,” Greg said, with just a touch of wistfulness.
“But he’s not going to change, and neither am I.”
That may be. But it’s still worth the effort, Sandmaier said.
“There’s just a depth of affection and connection that we have the potential for with a sibling,” she said.
“It’s from growing up in the same family, in the same world, at a time when we were all so young and defenseless and impressionable and vulnerable. There’s something very poignant about going through that with other people.”