When grown-up siblings fight: how to move on

As children you share games, laughter, fights and maybe even a bedroom with your siblings, but as adults you might be jealous of one another or keep out of each other’s way. What’s the solution?


Grown-up siblings: how to move on

When grown-up siblings fight, it can cause stress not only for the individuals involved, but for their families as well. Is there a way to escape the harmful cycle of sibling rivalry?

We’re reminded of two sisters, Sarah and Anne, both over 90, who decided to sell the family home they’d inherited and split the proceeds. None of their children could afford to keep it and they found a buyer who made a good offer. But the sisters remained very competitive, even in their old age. On the day of completion, Sarah changed her mind without giving her sister any warning and pulled out of the sale.

At that moment, nothing mattered to Sarah as much as the desire to harm her sister.

It’s a desire that will probably never leave her. Family lawyers’ files are full of contracts broken at the last minute. Houses, jewels, furniture – anything can represent the dolls they stole from one another as children. Social success, marriage, money or their children’s exam results will all serve just as well as weapons in this particular war.

Why do sibling rivalries last so long after childhood? Why are our relationships with our brothers and sisters so troubled when we should have outgrown our childish rage? Why, when we try to talk about the problem, do words seem to make the damage worse and widen the rift? The process involved in creating sibling rivalry is familiar to us: siblings compete for the attention and exclusive love of their parents, and they feel that this is stolen by their brothers and sisters. This dynamic often continues into adulthood and can become a bitter conflict.

This is because, according to Freud, ‘the unconscious isn’t aware of passing time’. Part of ourselves remains the child who demands her share of parental love. ‘Children who didn’t get enough recognition from their parents can remain stuck in needy relationships all their lives,’ says child psychiatrist Sarah Stern. The recognition we longed to see in our parents’ eyes, we start to look for elsewhere – friends, bosses, lovers. But these are nothing compared to the expectations we have of our brothers and sisters.

Christopher, an artist, asked his older sister Catherine, who had married a wealthy man, to lend him her car for a weekend. Instead of agreeing, she attacked him, saying, ‘You’re a failure. You’re 50 and you don’t even have a car.’ He was shocked by her reaction, but then he asked himself, what part of their childhood was playing out here? What did the car represent? ‘Our mother gave her daughter a mission – to be like her, a perfect middle-class housewife,’ he says. ‘Catherine was taught the importance of having whereas I was given the luxury of being, and maybe she’s still angry about that to this day.’

Stern explains: ‘Let’s say the parents bought each of their children a dress. One gets a gold dress, the other gets a grey one, and they’re not allowed to swap. The one who got the gold dress inherits her parents’ narcissism and the other feels rejected. Both girls are wearing something that doesn’t even belong to them. But they will have to fight their way through life in colours that were given to them by their parents.

Positive conflict

In the Bible, the first murder takes place between siblings, when Cain kills his brother Abel because he is jealous. In psychoanalysis, the Cain Complex describes the unconscious desire of an older sibling to kill their younger brother or sister. Without denying it, we need to free ourselves from this unconscious desire. How is that done? With the best intentions, parents can unintentionally fuel the process. Driven by the desire to make their children love one another, they see sibling rivalry as personal failure. They also have a tendency to draw out conflicts, and make children hide their feelings; ‘Be nicer to your sister. You love your little brother, don’t you?’

This is the wrong thing to do, according to child psychologist and psychoanalyst Donald W Winnicott. It’s important to accept that siblings will fight. ‘A mother must stop her two-year-old from hitting the newborn on the head with a mallet, but she shouldn’t worry about these destructive and aggressive tendencies,’ he says. By leaving them free to experience the full power of their emotions, a parent allows the child to develop a sense of responsibility. This responsibility for our own feelings is the foundation of our emotional wellbeing.

Sometimes it’s the parents who unconsciously feed sibling rivalry, by using their children to carry on the unresolved rivalry between their own brothers and sisters. Laurence, 16, turned on his father who was telling him off about a dispute with his older brother. ‘Our father has not heard from his sister in 15 years,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t know if she’s alive or dead. That’s supposed to set an example?’

There are also parents who play divide and conquer, playing one child off against the other to try to keep control. Sibling relationships are multi-faceted mirrors, says psychologist Maryse Vaillant. We recognise ourselves and a distorted version of ourselves in the images of our brothers and sisters. What happens when, as adults, we decide to lay bare our anger? ‘To really talk about it, we have to leave behind our childhoods, otherwise sibling relationships will always be childish at the root. To be able to talk to one another, we have to get past the idea that you have to be king of the castle, and accept that our siblings exist. It’s difficult but when we achieve it, it’s massively rewarding.’

Time for a ceasefire

To get to this point, both people have to want to make peace, and they also have to want it at the same time. If you start trying to have a dialogue when the other person isn’t ready, you guarantee that any reconciliation will be specious and dig a deeper divide between you. It’s hard to establish just the right distance between brothers and sisters.

Accepting our own jealousy, and recognising it without asking your sibling to do the same, is the first step. Sibling relationships are deeply ambivalent by nature, and they are fuelled by both love and hate. Recognising and accepting this dichotomy is a sign of maturity. It allows us to create distance and to find a way of living in peace as a family.  

Click here to find out how birth order affects sibling relationships

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