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When we examine the influence our families have on us, we typically focus on our relationships with our mothers and fathers. But what about those with our brothers and sisters? Sibling relationships can be as powerful as any in our lives — and just as destructive.
This week, the Sugars revisit their episode on sibling rivalry. They discuss with psychotherapist Dr. Jeanne Safer, author of The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling and Cain's Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret.
My husband and I are considering having a second baby, and among the many serious things that leave us ambivalent, I worry that the introduction of a sibling will amount to constant household battles with aggression, jealousy, fighting, and — something I really have little compassion or tolerance for — being mean just to hurt another person. My daughter is 4 years old and the love of our lives. She is thriving, healthy, happy and adores the attention and emotional support that we can provide her with, while still having time for ourselves. It is a peaceful life like this; we are so lucky to have her and this could be enough for us.
I once heard a man say that he and his wife would exchange "knowing" glances at each other when one of their children who was always melting their hearts would do certain things, and when a sibling saw them doing it and commented on it, the couple realized they had to watch themselves around the other children. That seems so sad to me, to miss out on such good feelings, although of course I understand that parents need to protect siblings from favoritism. Still, I wouldn't want to be on guard about my very deep and intense feelings for my daughter which I can't imagine going away, or, on the flip side, I might start to see her differently if she is nasty to her sibling. It just seems like adding a sibling, gamble that it is, can become such an awful mess.
But perhaps most importantly for me, I can imagine being furious - absolutely rageful - about the sadism inherent in sibling rivalry and the pleasure of hurting another person, the bullying and the cruelty, and I don't know if I am willing to open this up so that we can hope to love another child like we love our first and so that she can have a sibling.
Cheryl Strayed: There is a wide range of the degree to which sibling rivalry is an ugly thing in a family, or a garden variety thing. I was the middle child, and growing up, my siblings and I had our battles, but we were also a pack of good friends. I can honestly say that nothing negative left its mark on me into my adult life. And even as a kid, the arguments and fights that we had with each other were the sorts of fights that kids have with each other all the time. It was all the stuff of life. The way that respectful and loving people co-exist is sometimes fraught with jealousy or conflict, but not to a degree that necessarily becomes dangerous or destructive. And so my first instinct when I read this letter was that this woman is really overthinking this.
Steve Almond: I agree. But what she’s identifying is part of what happens in many families where there’s more than one kid. My older brother, at age 2, felt displaced by two new babies and parents who had their own professional ambitions. He was heartbroken by it, at a very young age, and he had a temperament that made him regard us as invaders. He would sometimes be mean to us, and we would be mean right back. I think this happens in a lot of families. It’s not pathological, it’s just part of the experience when there isn’t enough love and attention to go around. And when this letter writer talks about the possibility of aggression and jealousy and fighting, that can and does happen.
Cheryl: So much of this depends on the temperament of the child. My son was 18 months old when my daughter was born, and he was not even remotely threatened. That’s just his personality. And when we talk about Sibling Rivalry and this potential second child that might come along – we don’t know, and she can’t either, what the temperament of the older child will be in relation to the younger child. So if you want to choose the safest course if you don’t want that child to have that kind of conflict, you decide to go with one to protect them from that. But you’re also potentially robbing them of the pleasures, the joys, the things we can learn not just from loving a sibling, but having conflict with them, and resolving conflict with them.
Steve Almond: Sibling Rivalry, you should have the family you want to have. Nobody’s insisting that you should have a second child. That’s for you to decide. But your letter is so full of dread and anxiety that there’s no space for hope and possibility here. It could be that there will be aggression and jealousy and fighting. But there seems no room, in your conception of this second baby, for the idea that she’ll increase the amount of love. Wouldn’t it be amazing if this daughter that you love so much had a little brother or sister, and you saw how much they’re capable of giving love? You don’t have to do it, but at least consider that that too is the opportunity that a sibling affords her.
My brother won’t let my parents see their grandchild. This was born directly of accusations and misinterpretations that are, in my view, unfounded, but there is a history that makes this more complicated.
To be clear, he is my half-brother (from my mother's first marriage) and we have a significant age gap between us. This is important only to say that we are not particularly close, but this has more to do with the gap in age then a rift in our relationship.
While we were growing up and my brother lived with us, my dad had a personality that could be very exacting and unforgiving of those that did not meet his high standards. This contributed to a rocky relationship with my brother that has persisted.
Older age has softened my dad considerably and in the few interactions he and his grandchild have had, and I have observed, my dad has only been attentive, playful, and loving.
Whatever can be said about the wonderful, emerging relationship between my dad and his grandchild would apply tenfold to my mom. Her commitment to those she loves is profound.
Repeatedly, my brother and his wife have put my nephew in the middle of the difficult relationship that my brother has with my parents. At this point, my brother has essentially ended all contact, and my parents think it better not to press a relationship that is too volatile and unpredictable.
As the one on peaceful terms with both parties, I am left to problem-solve. I think the prohibition on grand-parental contact is unforgivable under most circumstances (and this applies here) and has much more do with my brother’s insecurity as well as events long past. I’m not sure saying any of this to him will help, but I think there’s much to be gained from a renewed relationship. What is the way forward?
Steve: What a painful situation. I feel tremendous sympathy for you, Sibling Struggle, as the person who is between these two and wants to make peace. But what I immediately thought of when I read this letter is how radically different our experiences are as two siblings in the same family. I think about the long periods of time when my brothers were alienated from my parents, and I thought, they should be more forgiving. But that’s just not for me to say. I didn’t have their experiences growing up. Your brother’s insecurity, and the events of the past, are what you should be talking about with him. Because that will help you understand why, at the moment, he is not ready to forgive your dad, his stepfather.
Cheryl: I agree entirely. When I read, “My dad had a personality that could be very exacting and unforgiving of those who did not meet his high standards” – that could mean a lot of things. Sibling Struggle, your brother’s job is to protect his child. And is he going to allow his child to be in the company of somebody who he experienced as threatening, unforgiving, perhaps even abusive? I understand that’s not your perspective, but you said your dad softened with age, and you were the beneficiary of that softer dad. We can’t say, it’s unfair that your brother is keeping your nephew from grandparents who love him, nor can we say that your brother has made the right decision here, because we don’t have enough information. You obviously love your nephew and want him to have a relationship with your parents. And of course, that’s the ideal. But I think the way to get that is to really understand where your brother is coming from and help him process his feelings. What’s beautiful about this is you have an opportunity to get closer to your brother and understand his perspective. There are a lot of questions that you need to answer with your sibling before you together answer this question about the whole grandparent-grandchild dynamic.
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