As much as most people tend to deny it, sibling rivalry for many is a life-long struggle. For some it starts in childhood, persists through adolescence and may plague their adult relationship for years. It is a covert emotion that masks itself and causes poor relationship and unending emotional strife. Understanding and repairing the rifts can lead to happier adults and wholesome extended families.
The poor relationship of some adult siblings is claimed to be due to a variety of causes such as: unforgivable acts and words, hurtful behavior or unacceptable personality attributes. Though these reasons may indeed be valid, the core of the conflict often stems from the competitive thrust for primacy and love of the parents.
All children need to know that they are worthy and loved in order to thrive. Vying for parental care is an instinctual mechanism for survival. Siblings dilute and reduce the caring attention and resources each child receives. Anger, hurt, betrayal and loss of significance are common emotions experienced by children when they do not receive the full attention they crave.
A first born, for example, who feels replaced when a second child is born is too young to understand the source of his/her pain. S/he may interpret the arrival of another child as evidence of his/her being insufficiently pleasing to the parents. This understanding produces fear and concerted efforts to regain parental satisfaction with the child. When a parent is preoccupied caring for another child the sibling may feel abandoned, rejected and unloved. Younger children often view the privileges given to older ones as “evidence” that someone else in the family is favored. Thus a system of sibling competition is established to affirm the child’s worth and lovability which is necessary for the child to secure his/her survival.
When children do not receive what they want or need at any moment they may feel resentful and angry. It is unsafe for them to express their rage toward the nurturing adult, so they redirect their hostility toward the sibling instead.
In some families parents inadvertently exacerbate the competition between children by not handling the siblings conflicts well. They may show favoritism, poorly arbitrate arguments or get angry themselves. Even the best parents are often at a loss at managing the constant bickering, fights, whining, crying and hostility between their children. It is practically impossible to deal effectively with a problem whose roots are not related to the present issues. No logical explanation, reasoning or placating can suffice in assuaging the child’s fears about his/her survival.
The yearning for being the favorite child is so strong for some people that they persevere through adulthood in their quest for dominance, outshining and proving their worth. They act in ways that they hope will solicit parental approval and may continue to battle with each other long after their parents are deceased.
The tragedy of this ongoing battle is in the loss of connection, intimacy, support and cohesiveness, which is the foundation of families. Siblings share genetic, experiential and emotional roots unlike any other group. They have lived together and witnessed good and bad times that were uniquely theirs. The early bonds were created despite the anger and fights and those can be life-long treasures to savor.
If you are estranged from a sibling ask yourself:
• Could the reason be masking an old sibling rivalry? If so, is it still relevant?
• If the unacceptable behavior, incident or attitude occurred with a close loved friend how would you handle it?
• What are the benefits of a lost sibling connection, what could be the gains of a restored relationship?
• If your hurt is about loss of parental attention why is your sibling responsible for it?
• How well do you handle your children’s fights and irrational hassles? Are you modeling for them a damaged relationship with each other in their adult life?
• Can repairing your relationship with your sibling free you of unnecessary hurt, anger and resentments? When Nelson Mandela was asked, upon his release from twenty-six years in prison, whether he resented his captors, he said: “ Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person dies”.
• Could forgiveness and restored closeness with your sibling bring peace to your soul and wholeness to your extended family?