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Adult Sibling Rivalry
Sibling rivalry often lingersthrough adulthood.

By: Jane Mersky LederPage 1 of 7

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The new view holds that conflict is not the natural state of sibling relationships. Still, for a third of us, discord sown early endures for a lifetime

Karen Kalish made a new commitment: "I'm going to keep the communication open between my sister and me," the 44-year-old media consultant told me. "I will follow the rules... do whatever it takes to make our relationship work. You can be on it!"

That Karen's younger sister (an identical twin whose twin died within days of their premature birth) and Karen had never gotten along didn't seem to matter. Karen was willing to forget about the seven beloved pet parakeets her sister had let out the window, one at a time. She was ready to look beyond her sister's angry reminders. And she was able, she thought, to forgive her sister for turning their adult years into one explosion after another. "My sister is the gatekeeper to the nephews whom I adore," Karen said. " If they weren't there, I would probably give up."

That was three years ago, and I was interviewing Karen for a book on the sibling relationship. Today Karen has given up, finding herself at a "total loss as to how to smooth things out." At home in St. Louis for her father's funeral last spring, Karen, her sister, her brother, and her mother (divorced from their father years before) spent some time together. "I ceased to exist," Karen said. "I became wallpaper. No one talked to me. And, for once, I didn't feel any pain. It was like, 'Ah, so this is how it was with us.' I saw things the way they were and are, not the way I wished they were or could have been. Not long after, I resolved not to have anything to do with my sister or the rest of the family. I don't want it!"

While few adult siblings have severed their ties completely, approximately one-third of them describe their relationship as rivalrous or distant. They don't get along with their sibling or have little in common, spend limited time together, and use words like "competitive," "humiliating," and "hurtful" to depict their childhoods. The speed with which old conflicts reduce these adults to children again prevents them from seeing one another in a new or different light. They push each other's buttons without knowing why or how and recast themselves in childhood roles that never worked in the first place.

When they talk about their brothers and sisters, adult siblings locked into old patterns resort to a variety of emotional strategies. Some try to diminish the relationship (and their feelings) by emphasizing the importance of friends and spouses instead. Some speak with frightening venom as they describe the horrors of growing up under the same roof. Others become very analytical, piecing together all that went wrong between them, thereby detailing the impossibility of ever finding common ground. For most conflicted brothers and sisters, there is an underlying sense that "this is the way it's supposed to be."

Western culture has an obsession with sibling rivalry that began with the story of Cain and Abel and was elaborated by Freud, who labeled and dwelt on the competition between siblings for parental love and attention. It's colored our perception of sibship ever since. Therapists and lay people alike tend to view the relationship largely as one of struggle and controversy. We have no rituals that make, break, or celebrate the sibling bond. And family experts have underemphasized the sibling relationship, instead concentrating on parents and children and husbands and wives. Small wonder that sibling rivalry is accepted as the normal state of affairs.

Psychology Today, Jan/Feb 93
Last Reviewed 30 Aug 2004
Article ID: 1748

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