What word can reduce normal, competent, rational human beings to raw bundles of anger, love, hurt, longing, and disappointment in a matter of minutes? It’s the name of a sibling. If you have brothers and sisters, you will most likely understand this. If you are an only child, then maybe this information will help you understand your friends and co-workers better. Leo Tolstoy once opined that the simplest relationships in life are those between brother and sister. He must have been delirious at the time.
Sibling relationships outlast marriages, survive the death of parents, and resurface after quarrels that would sink any friendship. Sibling relationships shape how people feel about themselves and how they understand and feel about others; even how much they achieve. The arrival of a younger sibling may cause distress to an older child, but it stirs enormous interest. This relationship presents both children with the opportunity to learn crucial social and cognitive skills: how to comfort and empathize with another person, how to make jokes, how to resolve arguments, and even how to irritate another. The make believe play of siblings prepares them to be understanding adults.
The rivalry that exists through the teenage years wanes in adulthood. At least, adults are less apt to admit competitive feelings. But does the rivalry disappear? As young adults, my sons exhibited the rivalry which they will deny exits. They are only thirteen months apart in age, and were attending colleges in different states. One day, near the end of a summer vacation, they came home from working out at the gym. Each one was hot and sweaty. Yet, when they entered the front door, they were fighting. I asked, “What’s going on?”
Robert, the younger son, replied, “I’m going to show my big brother he’s not as big as he thinks he is.”
They continued to fight all the way to Robert’s bedroom, and the fight continued there for thirty minutes. When it was over, both sons were exhausted. Allen went to his room and sat on the floor. Robert sat on his bed. Both were breathing heavily. Neither one could explain why they had been fighting.
Age does not seem to be a factor in sibling behavior which is not refined. I have two precious aunts. Aunt Bea celebrated her 80th birthday last July. Aunt Jane is two years her junior. Aunt Bea’s husband passed away about fifteen years ago, and four years ago Aunt Jane’s husband died. These sisters have lived near each other and have been the best of friends. They have enjoyed their freedom and friendship these past four years. Then, Aunt Bea got a beau. One day, when Aunt Jane was visiting, the beau came to call. He asked if he could take them both to lunch. Aunt Jane’s response was, “No, thank you. I can buy my own lunch.”
Nevertheless, harmonious or antagonistic patterns established in childhood make themselves felt in many adults’ lives. One psychologist says this is not just kid stuff that people outgrow. One woman competes bitterly with a slightly older co-worker, just as she did with an older brother. A scientist realizes that he argues with his wife in exactly the same way he used to spar with his older brother.
Sibling rivalry may reduce each of us to a bumbling idiot at times. Or, we may learn to rework and reshape the images of childhood to become more accommodating to adult reality, and in turn enjoy our adult relationships more. Most adults deem their relationships with siblings to be “warm and affectionate” in spite of any rivalry that may exist in their family.