Sibling Rivalry

Question:

My cousin has asked for advice on sibling rivalry so I am turning to you for help. Her 50 year old single daughter, a well-educated and accomplished professional suffers from sibling rivalry. She aimed her jealousy at her younger sister until her sister met an untimely death. The situation was quiet for a while until her brother and his new young wife had a newborn. Now she is jealous of the baby and his new family. My cousin and her daughter exchanged bitter words and no longer speak. How does one deal with the insecurities and stress this causes in many families? – Ruth from New Jersey

Answer:

Sibling rivalry often persists into adulthood is a source of stress for many families. It may seem like sibling rivalry should diminish with age due to maturation, experience, and perspective. It should become easier to let things that happened in the past stay in the past. However, “sibling rivalry” is really a descriptive term that refers to relationships between people who have lived and experienced life very closely. In many ways, asking siblings who have grown up rivaling in the same house to get along after they leave that house is similar to asking a divorced couple to let resentments go and just get along. Some can do it while others have more difficulty.

In psychology there is a term — nonshared environment — that refers to environmental factors that result in behavior and personality differences in siblings. Parents are often baffled by how children who grew up in the same home can be so completely different and react to events so dissimilarly. The truth is, despite all the similarities in child rearing, each child experiences their parents and home life somewhat differently based on factors such as birth order, timing in the parents’ lives, special skills or struggles particular to each child, etc. For example, parents are often more lenient with children born later because the parents are more experienced. With regard to timing, consider how parents’ attitudes might differ if they have child when the family is financially secure versus when one or both parents lost a job and finances were strained. Sometimes one child has developmental delays and requires more time and attention than the other children. These types of circumstances shape how each child perceives his parents and siblings, and these perceptions in turn shape relationships.

Children constantly compare themselves to their siblings. They are often assigned roles, such as being “the smart one” or “the athletic one” or even “the needy one.” Even when a person manages to shed such a role in their adult life, many people feel that role is reignited when dealing with close family members. Sometimes even a positive event can drive a large wedge between people when one person perceives falling back into a prescribed role.
It would be optimal if your cousin’s daughter could see the marriage and birth as a cause for moving forward rather than backward. The fact that she is single makes me wonder if she regrets never having children and is subsequently jealous of her brother. If not, it seems like she might be jealous of all the attention her brother’s family is going to receive and she might see it as coming at a cost to herself. Either way, jealousy comes from a feeling of being slighted. Whether the slighting is real or merely perceived doesn’t matter – the perception has developed over the course of a lifetime and is for all intents and purposes real.

So, the question remains, how does a family manage the stress this causes? In this case, if your cousin wants to repair the relationship, as challenging as it may be, I suggest trying to understand what is causing these feelings and behaviors. She will likely have to make the first move. When she is ready, your cousin might want to ask her daughter in a non-confrontational way what she might have done to contribute to her feelings of jealousy and resentment. Asking such a question in a nonthreatening manner can serve to open up a conversation. She might even want to set some ground rules for the conversation and say outright why she is reaching out, that she is attempting to understand, and ask that they be respectful and hear each other out. Putting aside for a moment the feelings of jealousy that might have led to the fight and bitter words, usually in a fight both parties can identify something they could have said differently. Recognizing one such instance could be a starting point in demonstrating openness and willingness to admit to ones vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

I recognize how challenging and emotionally-laden it is to try to reconcile with a family member who appears to be acting childish and unreasonable. I also acknowledge that my suggestion is not likely to be a quick fix. My hope is that by attempting to understand, her daughter might let her guard down somewhat and be able to coherently verbalize what she is experiencing with regards to family relationships instead of acting out towards her brother and family. Although her feelings might be irrational, she might benefit from an open audience who is willing to at least hear her side. If she is able to begin to repair her relationship with her mother, she might be able to work towards developing a more healthy relationship with her brother.

Jaime Black

Jaime earned her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Yeshiva University. She currently works in a private practice in NYC doing psychotherapy and career counseling. In addition to providing general psychological services, Jaime has extensive experience working with individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum. She lives in Hartsdale. (Advice given in Ask Jaime is not intended to be a substitute for individual psychotherapy.)

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