AT FIRST, THE CASE APPEARED TO HAVE NOTHING AT ALL TO do with siblings. Alice, a 40-year-old journalist and single mother, came in with her only child, 15-year-old Becky, who had threatened to run away from home because “my mom is like a prison warden.” Becky told the therapist, Syracuse University doctoral student Tracy Laszloffy, that she would go live with her Aunt Tess, who had told her she was always welcome. This was her trump card, and it had the desired effect: her mother’s eyes narrowed in anger. “I always knew she’d do something like this to get even with me,” said Alice.
“Why do you think Becky wants to get even with you?” the therapist asked.
“Not Becky,” explained Alice. “Tess! My older sister always hated me and has never let me forget that when I was born, she had to take care of me. She’s always making me pay for that. Now she wants to steal my daughter away!”
Laszloffy helped Alice and Becky find a compromise for their most pressing problems Becky’s demand to be allowed to go to parties unsupervised and Alice’s insistence that Becky get better grades. Despite Becky’s description of her mother as harsh, it became evident that Alice vacillated between the conflicting roles of parent and peer. But Laszloffy felt that the real work for this family needed to happen elsewhere. She decided that including Tess in a session might be the key, and her hunch was confirmed when Alice flinched at the suggestion. “Why her? She already knows I’m a screw-up.” She agreed, however, for Becky’s sake.
From the first moment the sisters walked in Tess, a matronly, 50-year-old woman in sensible shoes, and Alice, looking fashionable in a miniskirt it was clear their relationship organized the way they thought about themselves. The sisters immediately began to compare themselves to each other: “She was always the creative one,” said Tess. “I never had any real talent, except for making pot roast.”
“Yeah, but you were also the good daughter, the one everyone approved of,” countered Alice. Tess bristled. Was Alice mocking her for being a stay-at-home mom and housewife?
“I feel judged by Alice constantly,” Tess said. “I have arguments with her in my head while I’m vacuuming about who has it better, me or her.” She admitted that she did sometimes have regrets about her life, but said she never felt comfortable letting down her guard with her sister.
“I guess I feel threatened when Tess isn’t her usual confident and bossy self,” Alice said. “It’s like a balance we have. One of us is the caretaker, one of us is the fuck-up. Well, I’m used to being the one who needs taking care of. I’m not sure I’d know what to do if she needed my advice, or help.”
“How does this fit in with your image of yourself as a mother?” Laszloffy asked. Alice admitted she preferred being a friend to her daughter rather than a mother. “It hurts when Becky says she wants to live with Tess. She’s so strict and conventional! Why doesn’t my kid want the kind of mother I always wanted?” The next session began with the sisters reporting on a lunch that week that had ended with a big fight over their memories of their mother. Tess had recalled her as a cold, disengaged woman wrapped up in her own problems; Alice remembered her as being affectionate to the point of being stifling. Laszloffy explained that no siblings grow up in the same family the emotional, economic and even physical circumstances of the family are distinct for each child, and the parents often respond differently to each. Tess looked irritated, unused to relinquishing her right, as eldest, to define the way things were. Alice said she felt guilty that she had gotten the “nice” mother while Tess had gotten the “mean” one.
“So why did you run away from home, if Mom was so loving and caring?” Tess challenged her sister, referring to the year when 18-year-old Alice dropped out of high school three weeks before graduation and moved to California.
“To get away from her! She was too loving; it was suffocating me!” Alice said, frustrated that her sister needed to be told the obvious.
Tess’s mouth dropped open. “I thought you ran away because you were mad at me for leaving you at home with Mom when I got married and had kids of my own.”
“No! In fact, I was trying to get out of your hair so you wouldn’t have to keep taking care of me, because I knew you hated that and hated me because of it,” Alice choked on the last words, tears welling up.
“I never hated you,” Tess said softly. “What ever gave you that idea?”
Alice blew her nose. “I’ll never forget the time when I was 5, you were 15, and you were supposed to take me to the playground. You yelled at Mom that you hated me and wanted to go out with your friends. Then you left.” Alice, with her tear-streaked face and forlorn expression, looked like the abandoned little girl she was describing.
Tess had no memory of what Alice was talking about. Of course there had been moments she resented having to take care of her baby sister, but most of the time she loved and cherished Alice. “Why do you think I rushed ahead to have babies of my own?” Tess asked her. “Because you had been the best thing in my life, and I wanted to have kids just like you.” For the first time in 35 years, Alice could hear the love in her sister’s voice.
“I’ve wanted to be close to you for a long time, but you kept pushing me away,” said Tess. “I could never figure out what I had done to make you hate me hate me so much that you don’t even want Becky to visit me.” Now Tess was crying, too.
“Why didn’t we ever talk about this stuff before?” Alice wondered. “We’ve wasted so much time being mad at things that never really happened the way we thought they did.”
They also had spent a lot of time frozen in roles that no longer fit them as adults. In therapy, Alice learned that she could be more of an adult with and parent to Becky without turning into her sister. Tess began to accept that she wasn’t as stuck in her life as she imagined. As if unfolding a map and seeing a multitude of possible roads to take, the sisters could now see themselves as being more than simply the other’s road not taken.
CLEARLY, THE SIBLING RELATION-ship was the pivotal factor in this case, yet there was little in her family therapy training to lead Laszloffy or most clinicians to consider siblings as a point of leverage in family therapy. Mental health practitioners have spent a century putting the parent-child bond and marital relationships under the microscope, yet sibling connections have been largely ignored. “My pet peeve with the field is that when we say ‘family of origin,’ most of us really mean parent-child relationships, which is a very limited and linear view of family that derives from our rigidly hierarchical way of seeing the world,” says Ken Hardy, professor of family therapy at Syracuse University.
Laszlofly’s case is striking because the intensity between the siblings lay close to the surface. Most of us respond to our brothers and sisters with subtler rumblings, having long ago learned to bury powerful emotions in order to survive years of living with them resentment at having been an easy target of a sibling’s anger; longing for closeness masked by habitual guardedness; hidden desires for attention, approval, vindication. As adults, we still may wish our siblings would apologize for past hurts, abandonments, humiliations; we still may feel responsible for them, afraid for them, stuck with them.
Normally articulate and insightful people grow tongue-tied when it comes to describing their relationships with their siblings. Writers of books about siblings struggle to manufacture encompassing theories about our connection to these people after we no longer have to wear their hand-me-downs, share a bedroom or put up with their teasing. But there are no givens for what kind of relationships emerge between adult siblings. Some grow up to be one another’s closest friends; others become like distant acquaintances, sharing nothing of their adult lives. Some continue to use their siblings as a compass point for measuring who they have become. Some consider each other ancient enemies to avoid, while others casually drift apart without concern. For every “truth” about siblings, the exact opposite also may be correct. Most of us are still trying to figure out who these familiar strangers are to us.
IN THE BEGINNING, WE ORBIT OUR parents like planets vying for the position closest to the sun. They are the primary source of light, warmth and love, but we have to compete with our omnipresent siblings, who at times eclipse us, collide with us and even, at odd moments, awkwardly love us. In myth and literature, the bond between siblings is portrayed as far more ambivalent than the attachment between parents and children, dramatized in extremes of enmity and loyalty. In the Bible, the relationship between the first brothers, Cain and Abel, ended in fratricide. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. In King Lear, Cordelia’s older sisters outmaneuvered her to get their father’s kingdom and delighted in her banishment. Still, Hansel took hold of Gretel’s hand in the forest and promised to protect her; Joseph forgave his brothers and saved them during a deadly famine.
The seeds of enmity between siblings may be planted early the introduction of a new child into the family is often experienced as an irretrievable loss by the older child. The trauma of being displaced by a younger sibling can turn into rage, envy, even hatred of the usurper. The earliest impulses to commit murder are felt in the young child who has been dethroned as centerpiece of the family. Therapists report seeing cases where older siblings tried to drown their younger brothers and sisters, or “helped” them have accidents near sharp objects or open windows.
“I remember the first moment I was conscious of you,” a woman wrote to her younger sister. “I was almost three, you were an infant; Mom was holding my hand and pushing you in the stroller, and two women came up to her, saying, ‘Oh, is that a baby?’ I puffed up with pride, sure they were talking about me. Then I realized they meant you. My place in the world was suddenly uncertain; I understood all at once that you would now have what was mine. But what would I have?”
Freud codified the notion of sibling rivalry, which was already a widely accepted truth, saying it was natural that the introduction of a new sibling into a family would stir up envy, aggression and competitiveness in the other siblings. But normalizing sibling rivalry created an expectation that brothers and sisters were destined to feel lifelong antagonism, resent one another’s accomplishments and envy one another’s talents and privileges. Until recently, the phenomenon was believed to be so self-evident that no one bothered to challenge it. But are aggression and envy really the overarching emotions siblings have for one another? Recent feminist theorists suggest that Freud’s theory was tainted by male bias. Siblings may not always be locked in mortal combat; interdependence and companionship are as much a part of siblinghood as competition and antagonism, says Laura Roberto, family therapy professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School. “Until we began to see how female development is also forged in affiliation and relationship, we tended to ignore these facets of the sibling bond.” Feminists point to the lifelong friendship between many sisters who, increasingly outliving their male relations, may spend the last years of their lives together. This feminist challenge has given us a new lens for regarding both female and male sibling relationships, suggests family therapist Michael Kahn, coauthor of The Sibling Bond. “Women are more interested in horizontal ties,” says Kahn, “and are asking new kinds of questions like, ‘What is lost when one sibling wins at another’s expense?'”
Other critics point out that sibling rivalry isn’t a primary force among siblings in other cultures; in some African societies, for example, one’s greatest support, both material and emotional, comes not from one’s parents but from one’s siblings. Not all families in our society operate exclusively from Eurocentric values of individualism, points out Ken Hardy. For example, as a response to racism, African-American parents, brothers and sisters often pour all their resources and energy into one child, who carries the family torch like a bright beacon into the institutions of mainstream success. “It is not uncommon to see an African-American family in which one brother is a surgeon or lawyer while the other siblings are locked into menial jobs or struggling with unemployment,” he says. “The one who made it sends back money and helps the others, repays the debt.”
To look only at the negative feelings of siblinghood is to forget how important we are to one another, how, in a sense, our siblings are as responsible for creating us as our parents. All planets, though drawn to the sun, exert a pull on one another, shaping one another’s course. “I was the coddled one; he the witness of coddling,” wrote novelist Vladimir Nabokov about his older brother, describing the natural complementarity that exists among siblings.
Our siblings are peers who share not only the same family, but the same history and culture, not to mention a sizable chunk of our genetic material. Even among those with a significant age difference, siblings’ personal histories intertwine so that there is no escaping a mutual influence. During a family therapy session, two adult sisters and their brother talk about how the people they became were influenced by one another. “I learned to be the family entertainer because you and Mom were always fighting,” says the brother to his older sister. “I hated the yelling, so I would try to make you both laugh. I still do that whenever I’m around conflict-try to defuse it.”
“I think I wouldn’t have been such a rebel if you two hadn’t been such goody-goodies,” says the youngest sister. “You still compete with each other, like who’s more successful or whose kids are the smartest. Since I was never in the running, I tried to do things neither of you did. Using a lot of drugs was a way to feel like I had something over both of you, like I was more mature or cool.”
“I always felt so responsible for you two,” says the oldest sister. “Mom would yell at me if you guys made a mess or got in a fight. I grew up believing that everyone else’s problems come first, because other people are younger, smaller, more needy or whatever. In my marriage, I kept on doing the same thing, putting his needs first, because it was what I knew. And having kids just replicated what it was like to be the oldest sister. Since the divorce, I’ve been trying to figure out who takes care of me.”
EXACTLY DOES IT MEAN to be the product not only of one’s parents, but also of one’s siblings? How does it happen? The most elaborate theory of siblinghood we have in the therapy field concerns birth order. Although Freud said that “a child’s position in the sequence of brothers and sisters is of very great significance for the course of his later life,” the main work in the area of birth order has been done by Austrian-born family therapist Walter Toman, whose book, Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Behavior, came out in the 1960s and was reissued in its fourth edition in 1993. Toman’s basic assertion is that the order of one’s birth determines certain personality characteristics that shape the choices we make and the likelihood of our success and even how we think about ourselves. Toman developed profiles of sibling positions, including only children, saying, for example, that older siblings tend to take on more responsibility and be somewhat overcontrolling while only children are inclined to be loners, and women who are not fond of children tend to be youngest siblings.
With his wife, Toman conducted one study of sibling position by collecting 12 years of Time magazine and charting the birth orders of everyone who appeared on the cover, from the notorious to the respected world leaders and trendsetters.
They found that the majority were male oldest children who had brothers. “This fits our birth-order roles,” says Toman. “Competition among siblings is heightened when there are more boys and few or no girls. The boys become well trained in competing,” which is a necessary trait for rising to the top in any endeavor. “Middle siblings are characterized by never having a clear role, never quite knowing what to do with themselves,” and youngest siblings have been accustomed to being on the bottom rung in the sibling competition and are not as driven to be number one. Since those who are the oldest, by virtue of advanced strength and intelligence, are practiced at being dominant (and therefore victors in sibling conflicts), they become either strong leaders or strong villains.
Beyond affecting the likelihood of worldly success, Toman determined that sibling position also shapes other relationships in fundamental ways. We tend to have our most successful relationships with people who feel familiar to us, says Toman; the more compatible our birth-order roles, the more harmonious our relationships. The most compatible combination, for example, is an oldest brother of sisters and a youngest sister of brothers, because they are most congruous according to age, rank and sex. The most mismatched pair would be an older brother of brothers and an older sister of sisters. “Those two will fight for dominance because they are not used to life with an opposite-sex peer, and they are used to being in control,” says Toman. In studies of individuals’ histories of friendship, Toman discovered that the more compatible the individuals were when it came to sibling position, the more enduring their friendship.
In the early 1960s, Toman put his ideas to the test in a study of one of the most intense relationships of all: marriage. Not since we were children living in the same house with our brothers and sisters have we shared our space so intimately, compromised so often or spent so much free time together. Is compatibility of birth-order position between spouses significant in predicting whether a marriage will succeed or fail? Toman found that it is: Out of 180 couples in his study who had divorced, not a single one included a purely compatible relationship. In fact, the rate of divorce among purely incompatible couples (an oldest brother of brothers married to an oldest sister of sisters) was more than three times the norm. After publishing these startling results, Toman was criticized for dooming marriages of people who marry someone in their same birth-order position. “But in 84 percent of the cases we found, the marriages between incom-patibles were still intact,” he points out. “It doesn’t automatically mean you will divorce.”
There’s something intuitively satisfying about Toman’s findings. It makes sense that we would carry our early experiences into our adult lives and do best in relationships that feel like “home.” But other researchers have come up with inconclusive evidence to support Toman’s theories. And some family therapists feel cautious about accepting, wholesale, the idea that birth order molds our character in a specific, predefined way. It seems facile and stereotyped, and may lead clinicians to make unconscious and perhaps faulty assumptions about clients. “Does it help us, or does it prejudice us?” asks Charles Fishman, executive director of the Institute for the Family in Princeton, New Jersey. “No single parameter can be true in these complex systems. Simplistic generalizations like these may hinder us from being good observers.”
EVEN WITHOUT A HIGHLY SCHEMAtized theory about siblings, practitioners, like structural family therapist Salvador Minuchin, have described siblinghood as the first social laboratory where we learned how to be a peer. Even when the fights made us cry miserably, we were growing a thicker skin, which we would need later on as adults; we were learning the truth that life doesn’t always seem fair; we were learning how to forgive. “After listening to my brother and sister hurl insults at each other one day, I was surprised to see them playing together the next morning as if nothing had happened,” says a 40-year-old man. “It was a revelation to me that you could hate someone one day and forget all about it the next.”
It is possible that in siblinghood we experience more intensity of emotion than in any other relationship that follows. Our worlds are shoulder to shoulder, and our vulnerabilities laid bare. “I’ve never loved or hated as intensely as I love and hate my brothers,” says a 36-year-old youngest brother of six boys. With our siblings, we test the limits of tolerance and forgiveness more than we do in any other relationship. As long as the family provides an appropriate container for the intensity, siblings can benefit from the lessons.
There are two undercurrents simultaneously affecting sibling relationships: the first is the strong social message that siblings, unlike nonrelated peers, can never be sexual partners. The second is that siblings are constantly intruding on one another’s privacy in a way friends never do, sharing a bathroom, eavesdropping on a phone call, mingling their dirty laundry. All siblings are aware of one another’s emerging sexuality and they may even influence its development, as when an older sister models for a younger one how to flirt, or an older brother gives a younger brother sexual advice or buys him condoms. Young siblings may even play sexually tinged games like “doctor.” All of this falls in the range of appropriate sibling contact, and from it we learn where to draw the line in the expression of sexuality. In families where there are healthy boundaries, this message is clear. But in other families, a sibling may initiate a sexual act with a sibling that is not appropriate to his or her normal developmental stage, or induce a younger sibling to do sexual things that they can’t understand or recognize as being inappropriate, or a sibling in anger or from malice may rape a brother or sister. Those instances cross the line of innocent exploration and become someone’s tragedy.
It is disturbing to consider that sibling incest is five times more likely to occur than adult-child incest. If, as researcher David Finkelher found, 15 percent of women and 10 percent of men have been sexual with a sibling, the healthy lessons about the meaning and expression of sexuality are commonly being overshadowed by far more damaging ones. When one sibling uses another as an object of sexual gratification, the experience may be as devastating as when a parent violates a child because it also destroys the child’s belief in the family as a haven from exploitation.
Through the storms and battles of siblinghood, we forge the most essential boundaries of selfhood, clarifying in our young minds where we end and the rest of the world begins. When one sibling sexually abuses another, it can distort a child’s conception of what others have a right to demand from him or her and about their right and power to refuse. The template of all his or her future relationships may be scarred by this abuse of power, love and innocence, which can be the basis of years of confusion, mistrust and misery for the survivor. “I thought my brother was like Superman before he raped me,” says a 23-year-old woman. “I would have done anything for him, and he knew it. I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely safe with another human being again.”
UNLESS SOMETHING GOES DRAmatically wrong, as in sibling incest or sibling illness or death, our relationships with our brothers and sisters rarely take center stage in the therapy room. But increasingly, family therapists are discovering what a gold mine of information and support siblings can be in therapy. As inheritors of the same mul-tigenerational legacy, albeit with different views on the family stories, they can often make a unique contribution to therapy. One family therapist was having a hard time with an 8-year-old boy who had become self-destructive, setting himself on fire twice because he believed his father hated him. The father was a large, impassive man who never looked at his son and spoke to him only when required. Hoping for some clue as to why the father was so inaccessible, the therapist invited the father’s younger brother to a session. Once the therapist outlined the situation, the younger brother turned to his nephew and asked him to wait in the next room. Then he said to his brother, the boy’s father, “I remember right before Mom left him, Dad used to tell everyone you were someone else’s bastard.” The older brother looked numb, but the therapist sighed with relief. He finally understood what was going on under the surface of this family. His own father’s rejection of him had left this father feeling confused about what fathers were supposed to say to sons. “He loved his child, but regarded his own silence as a way of protecting his son from the possibly abusive things that might come out of his mouth in anger,” says the therapist. What the man was only dimly aware of himself, his brother had been able to put his finger on immediately.
New Zealand family therapist David Epston frequently encourages clients to use their siblings as a resource for making changes in their lives. One of his clients was a suicidal woman in her forties, who had struggled against anorexia since the age of 17. Recently divorced, isolated from friends and family, she had little support in her life. Epston learned that she had three sisters whom she hadn’t seen in eight years. To help her reconnect with them, and also to try to fill in gaps in memory about the family history, he helped her compose letters to her sisters, designing questions to find out how they had remained free of anorexia while his client had been “enslaved” by it.
“I enjoy the time and thoughtfulness a letter permits,” says Epston. “It allows for the questions to be asked in a very unintrusive way and allows for replies to be given without defensiveness,” which can be an asset when the therapy includes siblings who have been argumentative or unapproachable in the past. It also allows clients children as well as adults to show their siblings their vulnerable side and ask for help in a way that is both honest and comfortable. As children, brothers and sisters often put walls around themselves emotionally so that their taunting siblings couldn’t find any ammunition. It is surprising to many therapists how even their sophisticated, articulate adult clients need coaching to open up to a brother or sister.
To her seemingly carefree sister, Epston’s client wrote, “Why didn’t you live your life according to guilt as I have? Were you ever beset by guilt, and how did you prove your innocence to yourself?” To an overweight and emotionally cool sister she wrote, “Do you think overeating is connected to the same set of circumstances as anorexia? Was being aloof a means for you of escaping a life of self-torture?” To the sister she perceived as being most emotionally secure and successful, she wrote, “How have you taken advantage of life instead of letting it take advantage of you? Please advise.” To all of them, she wrote, “In your opinion, what was going on in the family in 1975, when I was beset with anorexia? I need your perspective on this. Please help me.”
The woman was shocked by the responses she received. The carefree sister wrote, “I don’t think I am free of guilt or anorexia you may not know this, but I have to go to the gym five hours a day. What makes you think I escaped?” The cool, older sister revealed that, in 1975, she had retreated into her own shell when their father started having an affair with their mother’s sister something the client had not consciously known. The youngest sister didn’t write back at all she flew across the country and showed up at her sister’s door and announced, “I love you. I’m here.”
Family therapy also can be a place to help clients strategize how to get out of constraining roles with their siblings. Family-of-origin specialist Murray Bowen, when he presented his own family-of-origin work years ago, described how he dramatically disentangled himself from a lifetime of emotional triangles with his siblings. He believed the family’s ongoing emotional process was responsible for the legacy that Walter Toman had attributed to birth order. Accordingly, Bowen reasoned that one ought to be able to go back and change the family’s emotional process, which created and sustained sibling roles. One Bowen-trained therapist treated a couple who were fighting about the husband’s intrusive family. Lisa, the wife, was fed up with hearing about her in-laws’ problems and wanted her husband, Henry, to separate himself from their incessant dramas. She was upset that he had loaned his irresponsible younger sister money and had become caught up in the ongoing fight between his older brother and their father. The constant phone calls from Henry’s family were driving her crazy. When she drew their family diagram, the therapist says, “a million things seemed to jump out at me,” particularly the multigenerational patterns of enmeshment in Henry’s family and cutoffs in Lisa’s. But the overwhelming fact that stood out for the therapist was the contrast in the couple’s birth positions: Henry was a middle child, Lisa was an only child.
As an only child, Lisa was used to being the center of attention and didn’t like competing with her brother- and sister-in-law. As a middle child, Henry was the caretaker and peacekeeper of the family. But he admitted that he wasn’t sure he wanted to keep the role. “If I wasn’t in the middle of their lives, maybe I’d have more of a life of my own,” he said.
The therapist coached Henry on how to develop more independence from his family. “The next time my brother called to complain about Dad, I told him I was sure he could work it out and changed the subject to football,” remembers Henry. His sister called to cry over her latest investment flop, hinting that she needed another loan. “I told her she had a lot of experience pulling herself out of holes, and I was sure she would find a way to do it again,” Henry remembers.
The therapist had suggested that Lisa, as an only child, could be a resource for Henry during this time, helping him remember that he was entitled to be the center of attention sometimes, too. During the next family gathering, Henry and Lisa both deliberately steered the conversation to Henry’s latest project at work. “It was a surprise to realize that no one in my family knew much about me,” says Henry. Changing his behavior significantly shifted his relationship with his siblings, who became “much more respectful of my boundaries,” almost timidly asking if it was alright to call, spending more time listening to Henry, instead of talking at him.
One of the most wrenching issues that brings siblings to family therapy occurs at mid-life, when they face the failing health or infirmity of parents and need to make decisions about their long-term care is it time for Mom to go to a retirement community, or should she move in with one of them?
It’s extremely difficult for a family to have to acknowledge the demise of its elders, evoking buried fears of death and abandonment.
Often, the grown children don’t feel ready for the changing of the guard. “I look in the mirror and see an older, white-haired man, but inside I still feel 25 and way too young to become the older generation,” says one therapist, whose elderly father recently came to live with him. “I look at his shrunken body and I can’t help feeling repulsed. He used to be a strapping, handsome guy. Now the chronic pain from arthritis doesn’t let him sleep. I have to feed him by hand as if he were a baby. It’s very sad, and very surreal.” Is this what will happen to us, siblings wonder?
Not only does the individual’s relationship with the parent change dramatically as the older generation loses its authority, but the need to collaborate closely with a sibling, sometimes after 40 years of mutual alienation, can revive all their original feelings of insecurity, competitiveness and resentment. In the face of huge, existential issues like death, some adult siblings find it is easier to fall back on picking on one another, feeding the illusion that they will be children forever instead of accepting terminal adulthood.
Boston family therapist David Tread-way worked with three siblings in their sixties an eminent jurist, a history professor and a successful businesswoman. They were not interested in talking about the past, but needed a facilitator to help them come to an agreement about their mother. The youngest, a sister, refused to consider placing her in a nursing home, arguing that she was happiest in her home of 45 years and that it would be cruel to move her away from her friends. The oldest, a brother, felt strongly that she needed the kind of full-time care that could only be found in a nursing home. The middle sibling, also a brother, felt that he was in an untenable situation, caught between the other two and forced to side with one or the other.
“They didn’t acknowledge that their struggle had anything to do with their childhood roles, but the roots of the conflict surfaced within the first 10 minutes,” says Treadway. “The youngest sister complained that no one in the family listened to her and they all treated her like a kid. It was strange to hear this plaintive voice from a highly competent, middle-aged, businesswoman.” But it was true. The older brother rolled his eyes as if to say, “What do you do with brats?” whenever his little sister spoke. Their brother the middle one vacillated between scolding the older one for his rudeness and soothing the younger as if she were a little girl.
The therapist had to see them as children in order to help them as adults, because being together had brought each of them back to the days when every discussion was a heated debate. The most helpful thing a therapist can do at a time like this is temporarily draw the focus away from the decision at hand and spend some time helping the clients understand the nuances of their sibling connection. Feeling ignored or dismissed as unimportant is normal for a youngest sibling, especially a girl, Treadway explained to the younger sister. ‘”Even when they are listening, inevitably you will question whether or not they are paying attention, because this is true for all younger siblings,'” Treadway told her. “I predicted that she would feel patronized by her brothers and ignored from time to time, and explained that this is the curse of being both the youngest and a girl, but that every position has its own particular curse.” He then asked each one to describe the curse of their position. After this exercise, they could begin the hard work of real negotiation and compromise. Eventually, they decided together to find a nursing home in their mother’s hometown, so that her friends could visit her easily. Just as important as solving this dilemma, however, the siblings found that in the process, they were able at last to express their unspoken grief about their father’s recent death. In addition, they could talk honestly about their mother’s condition, and the sad likelihood that she would soon follow their father.
In some families, a parent’s death removes the force that holds siblings in their habitual orbits. The question then becomes, will the brothers and sisters drift apart, finally dissolving the tenuous threads of connection? “Mother died a year ago, and my brothers and I haven’t gotten together since the funeral,” says one 53-year-old man. “I’m not sure if we ever will see each other again. We all have our lives, our kids, our own friends. We live far apart. It may not happen. I suppose I’d go to their funerals, or they’d come to mine. That’s about it.”
Most of the time, however, siblings find the pull among them is strong enough to draw them into a new configuration. In one family of two brothers and two sisters, after the parents died, no one came forward at first to be the one to organize family gatherings during the holidays. After spending the first Thanksgiving of their lives in separate places, they all agreed never to do that again and set up a rotation so they would each plan one holiday a year.
When adult siblings maintain their connection in later life, the relationship takes on a special importance because, as veterans of multiple losses deaths, divorce, children moving away they realize that no one else alive can remember the way it was when they were children except this sibling. The parents’ deaths may even open up a space for siblings to know each other for the first time without the competitive friction that always ruled their relationships. “I never really thought, ‘Would I like this person if he were not my brother?'” says a 56-year-old therapist. “After our parents were gone, I found myself calling him up, and he’d call me. We enjoy each other’s company now. It’s comfortable in a way I don’t feel with anyone else because we’ve known each other forever.” Sometimes it can be a sweet and unexpected discovery to realize that the people with whom one feels most affinity and closeness after a lifetime of struggle or emotional distance are our own siblings.
“The night our mama died, my sisters and I sat up all night and talked for the first time maybe ever,” says Virginia, a 59-year-old accountant. She had never been close to them and had hardly seen them at all in 40 years. Her sisters had been close to each other, but she had been the odd one out, off reading a book or taking a long, solitary walk during family gatherings, polite but distant. “But that night was a revelation. My youngest sister, Leah, observed that each one of us had done something with our lives that had been important to our mother my career in finance, one sister’s vast experience traveling the world, the other’s life dedicated to finding homes for abandoned animals,” remembers Virginia. “I had dissociated myself from these two women my entire life, so there was a feeling of shock at what Leah said. Even though we were not alike, we were each a limb of some larger whole. I suddenly understood the possibilities of having sisters, the things we could share with one another and be for one another. More than friends, not like Mama, with her judgments, but holders of one another’s history.”
MANY OF US TAKE OUR SIBLINGS for granted. They simply are, as unavoidable as gravity. Even as adults, we may not have devoted much thought to figuring out how they fit into our lives and how they shaped us. There’s something in us that resists giving our sibling relationships the credence and attention they deserve. Cherishing our adult autonomy and freedom, we strive to bury our childish vulnerabilities and reinvent ourselves, but our sibs get in the way.
The boy who was teased by the neighborhood kids and grows up to be a confident, successful businessman doesn’t want to remember those days of hot tears and humiliation. He may feel some uneasiness in the presence of the older sister who all too clearly remembers a time he’d rather forget. In a sense, our siblings don’t let us put the past behind us. “Every time I see you, I try to be open to the idea that you are a different person than the one I used to know,” one brother told his sister. “But it’s hard, because I know you so well.”
In this knowledge is, perhaps, the paradox of the sibling relationship. Siblings are the living remnant of our past, a buffer against the loss of our own history, the deepest, oldest memories of us as we were almost from the beginning. But in these memories lies a terrible power: Every time we see our siblings, they hold up a mirror before us, forcing us to look at an image of ourselves that maybe either comforting or devastating, perhaps evoking self-acceptance and pride, perhaps shame and humiliation.
There is a fateful quality of perpetuity about sibling relationships our brothers and sisters will always be our contemporaries; we can’t ever quite leave them. However convenient it would be, we can’t pretend to consign them to irrelevancy. No wonder that when sibling relationships are bad, they leave deep, irreparable scars of bitterness, betrayal and rage. No wonder when they are good, they are a source of profound satisfaction, one of the best and most fulfilling of human ties. Yet, whether thorns in our side or balm for our wounds, as long as we and our siblings are alive, they are fellow travelers who have witnessed our journey and are a living bridge between who we once were and who we have become.
The author would like to thank Mary Jo Barrett, Frederick Brewster and Michael Kerr for their help on this article.
Laura Markowitz is a journalist, editor and multimedia producer in Tucson, Arizona, and winner of a National Magazine Award for writing and coeditor of The Evolving Therapist: Ten Years of the Family Therapy Networker.