The science of sibling rivalries

by Sally Blundell / 18 January, 2018
Rose, 9, Jakob, 11, and Grace,13, pictured with their mother, Susan Elijas. Rather than family rivals, these West Auckland children are a shining example of sibling support. Photo/Victor Carter

Rose, 9, Jakob, 11, and Grace, 13, pictured with their mother, Susan Elijas. Rather than family rivals, these West Auckland children are a shining example of sibling support. Photo/Victor Carter

RelatedArticlesModule - Science sibling rivalry

Who was the favourite? Who got the most? Sibling relationships set up patterns that last a lifetime. Latest research reveals why adults start re-enacting those childhood roles. 

The Christmas presents are in the boot, food in the chilly bin, kids in the back. Between leaving home and arriving at the bach, camping ground or family dinner at Nana’s, the children will laugh, cry, scream, sneer or tune out with a pair of new headphones.

A generation later those same siblings, now adults, will probably be laughing, crying, screaming, sneering, tuning out or simply not turning up as the family get together over the festive season.

Old hurts will be rehashed, old roles re-enacted. Seemingly trivial slights will rip apart our sense of mature well-being. The oldest will be expounding his view of the world, the middle brother who used to savour his stash of chocolates long after everyone else had licked the box clean is still grandstanding his superior self-control; the youngest is flouncing out of the house because everyone – “Everyone!” – ignored her suggestion that we have dinner on the lawn.

Inevitably, writes Geoffrey Greif, professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, someone will say or do something that is later (or immediately) regretted; someone will be offended by a (probably inadvertent) remark; someone will feel left out, ignored, dissed, unloved, unfavoured or underappreciated; someone will feel overworked and stressed out; or someone will start mouthing on about politics.

“It is common when people get together over the holidays that they fall into their old routines,” says Greif, on the phone from Maryland. “Families who get along better can look at themselves and joke about it. Families who don’t get along well, who carry a lot of baggage to these holiday get-togethers, are probably going to feel less comfortable in approaching this in a light-hearted way and are more likely to get angry about the way they are treated by family members. It is hard not to fall back into those old ruts.”

Celebrity sibling Rob and Kim Kardashian. Photo/Getty Images

Celebrity siblings Rob and Kim Kardashian. Photo/Getty Images

Together through life

Our relationships with our siblings are the longest-lasting we will have: the simple arithmetic of lifespan means they are longer than those we have with our parents, our children, our partners and, in most cases, our friends. Unsurprisingly, the odds of something going amiss, Greif says, are “pretty good”.

The ensuing battles can unfold on a very public stage: Kim Kardashian and her brother Rob; actress Julia Roberts and her brother Eric; Oasis brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher; have all exposed their fractured sibling relationships to the world. Some tiffs are more enduring: two of Sigmund Freud’s grandsons, Liberal MP Clement and artist Lucian, refused to speak for decades; Antonia Byatt and her sister Margaret Drabble have been at loggerheads since the 1990s; Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine gave each other the silent treatment for more than half a century.

Other sibling schisms may yet prove to have repercussions. In the gold-plated world that is Trumpland, Don Jr, Ivanka and Eric Trump have admitted to a lot of sibling rivalry. Ivanka told the New Yorker, “We were sort of bred to be competitive.” (Tiffany, Donald Trump’s daughter to Marla Maples, should presumably be watching her back.)

Competitiveness between siblings has a long and not particularly reassuring history. If the prehistoric family was low on resources, says Greif, the weakest children were probably left to starve. “And if you are the parent in the cave, you are going to feed the person who will best be able to feed you in old age.”

Today, with smaller families, less hunger and more – and more easily divisible – wealth, the inequitable distribution of resources, whether real or perceived, still gnaws away at sibling relationships. In their 2015 book Adult Sibling Relationships, Greif and co-author Michael Woolley argue that siblings can carry the memory of getting less as children into their sibling relationships as they age. “Adulthood for them may be about getting back what they feel they are owed.”

And getting together with the rellies at the end of a frantic and overheated build-up to Christmas provides just the opportunity to tear the wrapping of Norman Rockwell nostalgia off happy family get-togethers.

Celebrity siblings Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. Photo/Getty Images

Celebrity siblings Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. Photo/Getty Images

Asking the questions

For their book, Greif and Woolley interviewed 262 siblings between the ages of 40 and 90. Of these, 70% said they had not always been close to their siblings and that their sibling relationships waxed and waned. A similar percentage said they could trust their sibling, but 46% reported fighting and arguing with siblings and less than a quarter said they were always close.

For about 10%, the end result was a complete breakdown in sibling relationships, most commonly the result of an accumulation of events starting in childhood but also triggered by the death of a parent who held the family together, theft, drugs, alcohol, a series of slights – such as missing an important family event – and political differences.

In some cases, respondents could not remember specifically what triggered the cut-off. It just became a “self-sustaining state after the original insult or injury has faded from conscious memory”.

Why do we trip-wire these important relationships because of what appear to be minor, even forgotten transgressions? Part of the answer is to be found in family lore: roles and parental expectations adopted in childhood, the modelling of parents and, to a certain extent, birth order. Oldest children, Greif and Woolley say, may be raised to assume leadership positions and the youngest to follow. Middle children may have characteristics of both, which may in turn be tempered by gender.

Younger siblings may be raised to not upstage their older siblings. Greif quotes Leonard Nimoy’s relief when he was nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actor, rather than best lead actor, for his role as Mr Spock in Star Trek. He said he had been raised not to upstage his older brother, and being nominated for best actor, rather than supporting actor, would not have been consistent with his own family history.

It is hard, says Greif, to make definitive statements about the experiences of older versus younger children: every possible configuration of gender, number of children and age gap has an influence, as do changes in the parents’ relationship, financial situation, geographic location, involvement of extended family and traumatic events.

Even the birth order of the parents can have an effect: if children perceive their fathers to be close to their siblings, the authors write, they are more likely to be close to each other.

The number of children in a family is also likely to affect later sibling relationships. “If you only have one sibling, you will try your darndest to make it work,” says Greif. “If you have three or four, the odds are that one will be floating around on the periphery of the family and others will be close. Even in large families, you may have an intense relationship with the sibling closest to you in age or the one who is your gender or the oldest who raised the youngest because the parents had to work.”

Many of these roles change over time, but nature, nurture and luck, he says, “can all conspire to make life tougher for some than for others in the same family”.

Trump children Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr. Photo/Getty Images

Trump children Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr. Photo/Getty Images

Status envy

Former Prime Minister John Key’s older sisters have said that their mother, Ruth, was quite open about her favouritism of their brother. Such frankness is uncommon, but the research found 28% of respondents believed their parents played favourites when they were young and virtually all continued to hold this view into adulthood.

The perception of favouritism, which can foster a sense of competition and jealousy between siblings, appears to be deeply embedded in Western society. A 2005 study by a team at the University of California, Davis, led by sociologist Katherine Conger, found 74% of mothers and 70% of fathers admitted to having given one child preferential treatment. They didn’t let on which child they preferred, but firstborns were more likely to report feeling they were the preferred child on the basis of being first to achieve certain accomplishments. Younger siblings said they sensed the firstborn bias and that it affected their self-esteem.

The research also found that all children, no matter what their position in the siblings’ birth order, suspected their parents liked another child more.

It is not a good place to be. Greif and Woolley’s research found both favoured and unfavoured children experienced negative effects of favouritism. Compared with siblings reporting equal treatment from parents, those who perceived differential treatment reported higher levels of depression. Perhaps surprisingly, they found a father’s favouritism had a larger impact than a mother’s.

Suspicions of preferential treatment are likely to be inflamed when money is involved. According to research commissioned by Genes Reunited, of the 26 million Britons who have fallen out with a relative for up to 10 years, almost 16 million – more than 60% – had had disputes about money. The most common bone of contention between siblings is over parents responding more generously to the needs of one of their children than of the others.

Financial adviser Liz Koh sees it in her own, now-adult, children. “If I help one of them out because they have a big debt, the other will say, ‘You gave her that money – why aren’t you helping me with this other thing that I have got?’ So, parents need to be very mindful of the consequences of helping their children in an unequal fashion.”

Helping children raise the money for a deposit on a house is understandable. Koh says it gives them a huge leg-up “and after that they shouldn’t need much help, unless something goes wrong”. But, she says, people can go overboard in helping their children.

“If they are giving too much to one child, what is that going to do to your family relationships further down the track? What is it going to do to your own financial stability and that of the other children in the family? If you’re helping one child, you have to say, am I in the position to help the others when they need it?”

Even if you are, there can be moral hurdles yet to jump. One child may marry into wealth while the other scratches to pay the weekly rent. One may be faced with a home-shattering divorce, while the other has just paid off an inner-city apartment. Do you give the same to both (often not possible for a parent within a certain time frame anyway) or do you support the one who needs it more?

Koh says there is no easy answer. “I hear stories of wayward children fleecing their parents – they get into trouble, their parents bail them out, but then it causes animosity with the other children. Those sorts of things bring out underlying rivalries and even hatred in some cases. The No 1 thing is to be open about why you are helping that particular child and perhaps not the other. If parents say what they have decided to do and why, the children may or may not agree, but it is the parents’ right to deal with it in the way they think is morally the right thing to do. Whatever you do is never right or wrong; the only mistake you can make is not thinking about the long-term consequences.”

Noel and Liam Gallagher. Photo/Getty Images

Noel and Liam Gallagher. Photo/Getty Images

Death duties

The way an estate is divided up can also cause lasting anguish: Koh says that being transparent about why things are being done a certain way in your will or memorandum of wishes will help allay any feelings of unfair treatment.

“There is nothing worse than finding out that all the money you thought your parents had has been given to one of the children and now the bank account is empty. If anything in your will is likely to cause problems, have that discussion while you are still alive rather than leave it as a surprise. You don’t want your kids to know all your financial affairs, but the more open you can be, the fewer problems you are going to leave behind.

Children have very long memories: they add up the balance sheet and say, ‘When Mum and Dad were alive, you got this, this and this, and I only got this and this. You got way more than I did.’”

Children who believe they have been unfairly denied their inheritance can seek legal remedies, but that is likely to compound any existing rifts. It is much better, says Koh, if you have a child who needs a significant amount of help at a certain point in their life, to set it up so when the estate is divided, it is taken into account. “So you can keep a little account book of all the help that has been given.”

How and whether to sell assets can also trigger conflict. When Koh’s parents died, the family bach on the Coromandel was left to the four children. “Do we sell something that has been in the family for 50 years or does one try and buy it off the others? If one of us wanted to purchase that property to keep it in the family, how do you determine a fair price for that? You don’t want to be in a situation where everyone agrees on a fair price and 10 years down the track it has doubled in value and suddenly you have friction in the family.

“It comes back to transparency – being in agreement on how things are done and being as fair and equitable as possible taking into account all the serious considerations.”

Mistakes will be made, inequities will occur. But, as Koh says, that is life, and if you have close and healthy relationships with family members, such matters should not get in the way.

Jakob, Grace and Rose. Photo/Victor Carter

Jakob, Grace and Rose. Photo/Victor Carter

Family ties

The old saying has it that family members know how to push your buttons because they installed them. But good sibling relationships have a range of benefits. You have someone who is watching your back, who knows your idiosyncrasies, your pet hates and your vulnerabilities. A good sibling relationship in childhood, write Greif and Woolley, bodes well for future peer and romantic connections.

The message behind Adult Sibling Relationships is simple: they can be complicated, painful, hurtful and conflicted – but they are not immutable.

Over a lifetime, sibling relationships have an hour-glass shape. Siblings need each other a lot when they are young, sharing the bathroom, the kitchen, family events and summer holidays. In early adulthood, says Greif, we are trying to establish ourselves independently of our families. But as parents age, siblings tend to come together, often to “figure out what to do” with Mum or Dad, or help with plans to do with the family property. In this older cohort, past differences that loomed so large do not seem to matter as much.

Sometimes events cause sibling dynamics to improve; but sometimes people just “gain perspective; they mature”. Jealousy and competition decrease with age; childhood roles are sloughed off and those who might have helped reinforce those patterns, including our parents, says Greif, might not be around any more.

Many of those interviewed for the book wished they had closer, more fulfilling relationships with their siblings. Some never were close and longed for contact; others had drifted away over the years. More than a third of respondents talked about the importance of communication – whether it was deep and meaningful or a casual “keep in touch”.

Greif remains hopeful. Our history is a powerful determiner of what we do, but it doesn’t mean we can’t grow up and change.

“Our family history does affect us and govern our relationships, but whether it governs relationships by 95% or 5% is up to us and our siblings. I like to believe we are captains of our own ship. Even if the waves behind us have been rough, we can steer them into slightly more placid waters.”

This can take some determined navigation through the pitfalls of blame, animosity, tears – or ongoing silence.

“People have to ask, ‘How much am I willing to rebuild our relationship? How many times am I going to call my brother or sister and leave a message saying, “Please call”?’ If that sibling never calls back, are you still going to call every year?

“At what point do you say to yourself, ‘I’ve tried to do my best?’ The art in this – and really there is not a lot of science, except to listen to other people’s stories and try to work out your own – is to work out how will I feel best about myself if I am not in touch with my sister? Will I feel better if I have continued to reach out every year, because I want to construct a vision of myself as someone who has reached out? Or do I want to construct a vision of myself as someone who reached out once or twice and has not reached out in the past five years?”

Greif cites the case of one of three brothers interviewed for his book. His tactic for maintaining a strong relationship with his siblings was simple. “He said, ‘Essentially, I don’t assume anything my brothers are saying to me is bad. If I think what I heard was bad, then I must have misheard them. And I will interpret everything said to me as being good.’

“That moves the conversation. It moves the narrative around family or siblings into a whole other realm. Of course, in some families that is impossible and what is being said is meant to hurt and you would be foolish to ignore it. But we should try to ignore as much as we can. Maybe it was something said out of pique but it was not meant to tear anyone down.”

This article was first published in the December 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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