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Does Adult Sibling Rivalry Ever Really Cease?

Here are some pointers on how to keep the peace.

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illustration of sisters arm wrestling, sibling rivalry
Nadia Hafid
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After years of my sister and me not speaking to each other, it was the frantic call from my nephew that led us to become friends again. “Mom had a heart attack; she’s in the hospital’s intensive care unit,” he said.

Evelyn and I had a difficult relationship. Our mother died when I was 6, and Evelyn, eleven years older, gave up her dream of going to college to raise me. Our dad, busy working, practically ignored us both. When Evelyn went on a date, I tagged along. She made sure there was food in the fridge, clean underwear in the drawer. She did a great job!

The not-so-good news is that at every turn, and for so many years, she reminded me of all she had done for me.

Her resentment went into overdrive, and I tired of the constant need to express my appreciation. After decades of groveling for her love, I ended the relationship with my one and only sibling.

That is, until my nephew called. I raced to Evelyn’s bedside, and although we hadn’t spoken for many years, I was grateful that she was happy to see me. Regardless of the past, we are still sisters, bonded forever.

Although years have passed (Evelyn is 94, I am 83), our motto is to let go of the past and live in the now. It’s not easy to forget, but we work on it.

My friend Joan, however, tells of her unresolved sibling story. She and her twin sister have led very different lives. Joan, a successful attorney, lived in a big house on a hill. Sarah, her twin, barely made ends meet, but streams of cash from their dad kept her afloat.

When both parents passed away and the will was read, Joan was shocked that her sister was rewarded with the bulk of their estate. “I worked my tail off, and she gets all the kudos,” said Joan, who never spoke to her sister again.

Her sibling rivalry issue was too painful to repair. (But based on my story, maybe there is still time to forgive and forget.)

Problems between adult siblings can often be aggravated when a son- or daughter-in-law enters the picture. Bob and Phyllis, for example, found their children had in-law rivalry issues when the overweight wife of one son would avoid a family get-together if the other son’s slender wife with the size-6 figure was attending. To avoid the jealous friction, the parents thought to prepare two separate Christmas dinners, one for each of their children and their families, a plan that would be both expensive and exhausting.

While Bob and Phyllis couldn’t make their kids resolve their differences, Ann Bair, a Boca Raton, Florida, psychotherapist, advised them to share their feelings with their sons using the following dialogue.

“Although we understand there are issues between the two of you, we hope you can be respectful enough to care about our feelings and put aside your conflict for a few hours. It would make us happy for everyone to be together at our holiday table. This, too, will set an example for the grandchildren.”

When does this sibling rivalry begin, and, more important, does it ever end? Not really; it just takes on another form. According to those who have examined this topic, the problem is basically one of competition for limited resources: a mother’s love, approval and time. It can start when a mother brings home a new baby sister or brother, and the older child becomes keenly aware of having to give up being the sole focus of their parents’ love.

What begins as a struggle for Mom’s attention and approval soon grows into a battle of who gets the biggest dessert, the nicest stuffed animal or the best Christmas present. Fast-forward a few years and the competition becomes who has the largest house, the most successful career or the most money. On my recent flight from Florida to California to celebrate my 80th birthday, I thought about my three daughters — now in their mid-50s — and hoped that whatever rivalry issues they had as children were now in the past. As I enjoyed my second glass of champagne, I remembered how, a few years before, when their dad was gravely ill and I needed their support, all three were by my side, taking turns, to help me with his care. It was fabulous teamwork. And this California trip was my birthday gift from this beloved and loving team!

But at my party, just after the birthday cake was served, I overheard my two older daughters comment on the gold earrings their younger sister, who had just turned 50, was wearing, and asked who bought them for her. “Mom did,’’ she responded. Quick to keep the jealousy dragon at bay, I reminded the other two that I had taken them to Broadway shows for their big 5-Oh celebrations. After decades of screwing up, I have gained a few pointers on how to help keep the peace between my adult children. 

  • Closeness between adult siblings should come from their hearts and not from a pestering parent. Sibling closeness ebbs and flows throughout the years. Some years are better than others.
  • Resist interference. Let each sibling decide when and how to share their own good (or bad) news; don’t be the family messenger.
  • Regardless of their age, find something to make each sibling feel special. The same goes for the grandkids.
  • When your child calls you with a problem, ask first, “Is this for my ears only?” If the answer is yes, respect their wishes.
  • And if all else fails, keep in mind that if the Creator couldn’t prevent Cain from killing his brother, Abel, in a jealous rage, why do we think we can single-handedly minimize our adult kids’ jealousies? Enough said.

Do you get along well with your siblings? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships
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