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Surviving adult sibling rivalry

Posted Nov 11 2008 11:56am 1 Comment

"Mom likes me best!" "I got better grades than you!" You probably recognize those statements as the battle cries of sibling rivalry. Unfortunately, if not dealt with, these competitive and sometimes hostile statements morph into the adult version of sibling rivalry with statements like, "I have a bigger house than you." "My kids are doing better in school than yours." Sibling rivalry can turn the relationship into a tumultuous and turbulent competition.

I have a brother and a sister - both older than I am - and we are very close and enjoy a strong bond. We are among the lucky ones to have this healthy relationship. My sibs and I have our mother to thank for this close bond. As children, when we were caught fighting, we had to sit face-to-face and say 10 nice things about each other. Imagine being angry with your brother or sister and needing to find 10 nice things to say! We were not allowed to get up until we both had come up with 10 things. Often in our frustration and struggles to complete the "10 nice things" exercise, we found ourselves working together. We thought we were cleverly pulling one over on our mother when she wasn’t watching. What we didn’t realize was that she was the clever one. The 10 nice things exercise had us focusing on the positives and had us bonding together in our goal to end the exercise. I believe this exercise played a big part in keeping the serious rivalry issues at bay.

If you and your sibs are still locked in the competitive battle, you are not alone. Unfortunately, many sibs are not able to enjoy a healthy bond and are stuck in a cycle of rivalry that creates hostility and stressful relations. The tone for the sibling relationships is set in early childhood. If children feel the need to compete for their parents’ attention and love - sibling rivalry can develop. This competitive attitude often builds and carries over into other areas of the sibling's lives (school, sports, etc). This rivalry can continue into adulthood as siblings compete over job status, salaries, children, etc.

If sibling rivalry is still a problem in your family, there is hope. You can reduce or eliminate sibling rivalry. You must decide if it is more important to be “first” or to be close. If you really want to change the situation, it is up to you to make the first move. Put down your anger and jealousy. Give up the competitive attitude. It takes two to tango - if you stop the rivalry dance, eventually your sibling will also. It may take some time and serious effort on your part, but you can do it.

Putting a stop to the rivalry will require that you start looking for the positives in your brother or sister (this is the adult version of the “10 nice things exercise”). Think back to childhood and list any positive memories and identify the positive qualities of your sib. Focusing on the positives will help dissolve some hostility and can strengthen the relationship. You might want to share this list with your sibling(s) in a letter. Let him or her know that you want to focus on creating a new healthy bond.

The next step is to be on the lookout for an opportunity to pay your sibling a compliment. Challenge yourself to catch your sibling doing something positive at the next get together and then praise him/her. You need to be sincere for this to work. You might be amazed at the positive response you get.

It is also important to remember that you will likely need to put some significant effort into changing this relationship. Your relationship did not deteriorate overnight and it’s not likely to resolve overnight. Even if you are tempted to fall back into the old habits of competition, stay with your efforts to build a stronger relationship – the rewards can be amazing! Strong and healthy sibling relationships can enrich your life tremendously.

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Since I am in the midst of an ongoing triangle between my mother and my sister and myself, as well as sibling rivalry, I thought that writing about it might help me a bit.

I am the older of two daughters and now age 62; my sister is 60.   We are so lucky to have our mother at age 92 and she is in great health and doing well.  The problem we have goes back years and years.  My mother and sister have been extremely close since I was a young child.   Some of this stemmed from my sister being quite shy, and my mother attempted to be very protective of her and her fairly sensitive feelings.  I was the out-going overachiever and was independent.  My father was always concerned that my mother overly-protected my sister and kept her from learning to overcome her shyness so that it did not interfere with friendships and other opportunities in her life.

We are of course all grown up now and the pattern of closeness between my mother and sister has perpetuated.  My sister has a good life, has had the same job for 35 years, and is happily married without children. Their close relationship has helped my mother especially since she is a now widow, because my sister spends several hours a day with her, since she lives only about 15 minutes away, while I am 2 hours away. 

 The pattern that has kept me from having a good relationship with my sister goes something like this.  Whenever my sister or my mother wish to do something that they expect I may not support, they both use guilt to try to get me to do what they wish.  My sister typically does not say that she herself wants something, but instead says that it is my mother's wish.  So when I may not wish to go along with the suggestion for understandable reasons, my sister will say something like "mother has never asked you for any favors and this means so much to her, why don't you rethink this."  We are in the middle of such an issue and both of them are using this approach to use guilt to get me to change my mind.  My mother even said "if you don't agree to do such and such, then maybe I should just not come".

I could give you countless examples of this same scenario.  Once it becomes clear that I want to do something that will not be supported by one or both of them, it is only a matter of time before the tension begins as well as their statements used to evoke my guilt.

 Now, through all of this, I am not perfect of course.  It hurts my feelings and frustrates me that regardless of my point of view, my mother will ALWAYS side with my sister.  I am not exaggerating when I say that were I to say that the sky is blue and my sister says it is kelly green, my mother will agree with my sister that the sky is green.  Actually, I don't think my mother knows where she stops and my sister begins or vice versa - blending of boundaries.

 The sad thing about this is that I cannot have a nice adult relationship with my sister, because there is always this undercurrent of jealousy and hurt.  She is a wonderful loving person, except where I am concerned.

 I have brought this to my mother's attention in the past and asked her to be more balanced in how she deals with my sister and me.  She denies that there is this close alliance between my sister and herself.  Other family members are aware of this and their differences with me.

 I wonder what will happen after my mother is gone - will we be able to relate to each other as individuals or will all the hurt from past years still negatively impact our relationship.

 In writing this, I see that I bear some responsibility for not making it important to sit down with my sister and have a long talk about this.  I feel, though,  like it would be a very emotional exchange and that she will deny that the nature of their relationship has shortchanged my relationship with each of them.

 One suggestion I have to help ease the tension, is that I just start calling my sister every couple of days for no particular reason, other than to say "Hi, how are you".  Most of our exchange currently is about my mother, but maybe by calling her about nothing in particular it could help take the tension away.  My sister rarely if ever calls me on the phone.

I know I haven't given real specific examples of what we argue about, but hopefully you can see how we are having trouble. 




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