‘We’re not that close. Sometimes I wonder if she’s even my sister.’
‘He’s like my best friend. I couldn’t imagine not having him in my life all the time.’
If you are a sibling, maybe you resonate with this first view having a tricky relationship or a distant one with a sibling. Or perhaps you’re the opposite and you have a very close relationship with a brother or sister.
Often people coming to counselling will bring up their sibling relationships during the work, whether positive or challenging. In a way, these relationships are the proving ground for how we interact with the world in later life.
As a counsellor I’m always curious to know if there are brothers and sisters in the family; what the age gap is; what the birth order is. These can all offer clues to how we experience the world. Our early years form and shape our beliefs and confidence and often our relationships with our close family, mould us for our adulthood too.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself about your relationship with your siblings.
- Where am I in the order of birth? How has that coloured my experience of growing up?
- Do I share a common memory of experiences of growing up? If not why not?
- Were we allies or enemies (and who were you fighting)?
- Are our values and view of the world similar?
- Were we in competition for attention from mum and / or dad?
- How were we in friendship groups – extraverted or introverted? Is that different from your sibling(s)?
- Did we share any friends in common or were we independent?
- Do I describe any sibling as a best friend or trusted confidante?
- Did I or a sibling become a substitute parent for other siblings?
There are of course many more questions you can ask, but being curious about your sibling relationships can open up a lot of understanding of what happened when you were growing up and what family life was like and how you go about life now.
Here are some of themes that I often see come out in sibling discussions:
1 The enemy within
Consciously or unconsciously you can end up in deep competition with a sibling or siblings. Vying for parental approval or attention, if you come off second best it can feel like the world is fundamentally unfair. Resentment and injustice become familiar feelings. These can colour life right into adulthood and continue to do so unless resolved in some way.
2 The hero
Sometimes, when a role model is lacking in a parent, a sibling can start to symbolise another positive or negative way of being. Be it through rebellion, achievement, development of an individual identity, a role model sibling can offer a template for how to be in the world.
3 The substitute parent
When age gaps are significant or parents are absent or if they die, sometimes a sibling becomes a parent figure, taking on the substitute parent role both emotionally and in terms of family livelihood. This has a great impact on that sibling and the others. There can be untold resentments and struggles with independence.
4 The ally
In close relationships, sibling can become allies, either against a perceived tyranny of parenting or against the world more widely. The identity of both siblings gets bound up in each other, as they fight their way through life.
5 The stranger
In some families, things become so fragmented or age differences are such that virtually no relationship exists between siblings; it’s as if they grew up in two different families.
Of course, it may be that you or a sibling occupied more than one of these roles during your childhood. You may still occupy some now.
And there’s more
Of course, it’s also increasingly common to find multiple and complex family constellations where old relationships are replaced with new ones and other children are born or adopted. Half-brothers and sisters, step-siblings also come into the frame with all these other dynamics in play too. It can make for an exciting and explosive cocktail of emotions and status. It can send you into emotional meltdown just at the thought of being with all these different siblings.
The roles we play
As well as themes which define the relationship between siblings, it’s not uncommon to see siblings fall into roles that somehow keep the family machine oiled and running. Here are just a few (there are some overlaps with the themes above):
6 The caretaker – this role is about making sure everyone is ok in the family, ensuring the family unit feels secure. This role placates and keeps things smooth, defusing anger and tension. Sometimes this role takes the form of the clown. Often the cost of doing so is to be a life-long people pleaser and to enter into co-dependent relationships.
7 The scapegoat – this role takes the blame for when things go wrong, irrespective of whether its their responsibility or not. The family tends to be ashamed of this child. Often this child acts out the anger and tension in the family. At their heart, they are sensitive but the pain they bear is too much and so gets acted out in rebellion or addiction or both.
8 The hero or responsible child – learns to be self-sufficient and preserves the family’s good image. Often the cost of doing so is to become hyper-critical of oneself and others. They struggle to be their authentic selves the most.
9 The absent child – this role tries to make itself invisible in the family, to hide away from reality rather than feeling it. They might say they weren’t bothered rather than in pain. Relationships and intimacy can become a real struggle for this role.
While these roles are archetypes, it’s interesting to note if there are aspects which resonate with you and the role you played in your family and whether you can recognise the role that other siblings played too?
If you are struggling with a legacy of difficult sibling relationships and would like to explore more, why not get in touch?
Photo by James Dennes licensed under Creative Commons