The love relationship between siblings is one of the most complicated love relationships. In no other relationship, the similarities between you and the other person are so many; in no other relationship, the differences are so stark.
The fact that you were brought up by almost the same parents, almost in the same environment, with almost the same values, creates a kinship never seen before. The fact that you were brought up almost the same makes the subtle differences seem insurmountable.
You weren’t allowed to stay out until 10 pm but they were. Your father wasn’t alive on your wedding day but was at theirs. You grew up under financial strains but they didn’t. You will take care of your mother at an old age but they won’t. So many things to resent.
We meet each other in relationships ready to give and take from each other, but between siblings, while this give and take still exists, the focus is on the give and take between you and the parents. You are sharing the parents. You are sharing life’s most precious resource: the steady, stable, secure love of a parent, which is rarely steady, stable or secure. A precious and volatile resource.
The tendency of the mind to compare yourself against others is an invitation to bitterness in every relationship, but the tendency to compare yourself to your siblings who live under the same roof with you 24/7 during your most defining years, is a lot to endure. And it is often exacerbated by the comparison of siblings by parents: “Rachel is more mature than her sister,” or “Fred is already making a lot of money, it’s George we have to worry about”.
Up until very recently, I was looking at a very biased sample of siblings who loyally love and fully support each other despite their differences. I was also looking at social media posts where sibling love was a bragging point, along with #lookatmywonderfulhusband, #lookatmywonderfulmother, #lookatmywonderfulfather, and #lookatmywonderfulfriends. I was under the impression that this bitterness either does not exist in many sibling relationships, or it does, but they somehow surmount it. I was wrong.
After going through a couple of really difficult years with my sister, I started speaking up about my pain, and I found out that a lot of people were feeling like me. The examples I was looking at before were rare and precious, and not the rule. For the majority of people I spoke to, there was the relationship we wanted to have with our siblings, there was the relationship we thought we should have with our siblings, and there was the relationship we had with our siblings. The three were not aligned, and we were suffering.
Those that didn’t necessarily get along with their siblings didn’t know or understand why most of the time. Those that did get along with their siblings could count many aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandaunts, and granduncles that didn’t. Rivalry was common, jealousy was common, estranged relationships were common. Some wanted to talk more with their siblings but they didn’t pick up the phone to call, some wanted to talk but there was often tension so they avoided it, some were completely okay with being estranged. “We are just very different,” was a common explanation.
In her book Mindfulness On The Go, Jan Chozen Bays says: “There is a scene that has always touched me in the movie Shall We Dance? A man whose marriage has ended asks, “Why do people get married?” His companion says, “Because we need a witness to our lives. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will witness it.’”
I think our siblings, especially if we had a happy early childhood with them the way I did with mine, are the first witnesses to our lives. While our parents are there, they have authority over us and being 25-30 years ahead of us, their life experiences are no longer comparable. If you have someone who walked a few years before or after you, who talked a few years before or after you, who went through the pain of adolescent hormones a few years before or after you, that makes a good witness to our early lives.
The question is if and when and why this earnest witnessing disappears, later on in life.
My friend has a theory that sibling relationships go sour after one of the siblings gets married. She says when we find life partners, we start sharing our lives mainly with them, and the sibling is pushed out of the picture. I did feel the pain of my sister’s going away to university across the Atlantic ocean, and I did feel the changes that her marriage brought, especially how she started to talk to me with plural pronouns (“We are doing good, and how are you?”) and I wondered if I was never going to have my sister for myself again, even if momentarily.
I’m sure life changes like these play a big role but I am not convinced. As Jung says, we have as many social selves as there are people in our lives, and I don’t think a life partner replaces the part of my being that was reflected at me by my sister. I sense that we always have a way of keeping bonds alive if we genuinely care about them, even with limited time and resources. If the heart keeps beating for the other, if we feel intimacy, safety, and loving presence, we dare to allow the relationships to change shape, and keep evolving ourselves to meet the demands of the new shape.
Then again, I am a striver, and I strive for so many things in so many corners of my life. And through mindfulness I have learned how this striving energy often puts more pressure on already strained relationships. There seems to be a fine balance between striving and letting life play its course - this is a balance I lose and find many times a day.
Earlier this summer, on a train ride from Paris to the South of France, I watched a sister and brother sitting across from me. They must have been 7 and 11. For the entire two hours we were on the train, they danced to silly pop music that they listened to on pink headphones they shared and played one person mobile games together on a single mobile device. She frequently had her arm over her little brother’s shoulders, guiding him, giving him tactics, letting him win, and he frequently looked up to her older sister with wide eyes, amazed.
I cherished this tender bond between these two sweet and young human hearts.
I thought back to the many long road trips we would take as a family when I was a young girl. The back seat of the car would become a magical territory belonging to me and my sister. She would show me things, and I would look at her with wide eyes, amazed.
The memory of the sister and brother on the train has stayed with me the past few months, as I wonder what life has in store for me and my sister as the years go by into old age.
Research on sibling relationships
- Adult sibling relationships are often categorized as 1. intimate (devoted and close), 2. congenial (good friends who give support when needed), 3. loyal (rare contact but will show up to family events), 4. apathetic (indifference), 5. hostile (rejection and disapproval). Gender does not play a big role in these categories, and more than half of the intimate sibling relationships in the study were more than 1000 miles apart. Link
- One survey in Oakland found that among the surveyed, 16% were hostile, and 19% were apathetic with their siblings. Only 26% of siblings were highly supportive. Around 5% of the population is estimated to be estranged. Types that are prone to being estranged are 1. extremely hostile, and 2. grievance collectors (“You never thanked me for how I helped you 20 years ago.”) Estranged sibling relationships can be kept quiet due to shame and people asking “Why can’t you manage to get along? What’s the big deal?” Link
- Those who perceive their sibling relationship as apathetic or hostile are more likely to differentiate themselves from their sibling and to resort to violence in conflicts, while those who perceive their sibling relationships as intimate use effective conflict resolution (such as reasoning) to maintain the relationship. Link
- Adults with successful careers and fulfilling lives are less likely to fester tensions with their siblings. Link
- ⅔ to ¾ of mothers have a favorite. Perceived or real parent favoritism worsens the sibling relationship. Link
- The greatest predictor of positive sibling relationships is positive peer (friend) relationships. If you get along with others outside, it will carry over to inside the family. People often reconnect with their siblings toward the end of their lives. Link
- Household organization (regular routines, less noise) and marital satisfaction between parents predict positive sibling relationships, which points to a holistic approach to family functioning, rather than a laser focus on the sibling relationship. The age difference between siblings, socio-economic status, home crowding, family structure and sex constellation (sister-sister, sister-brother, brother-brother) has very little to do with enhancing sibling relationships. Link
- Tips for parents: demonstrate healthy conflict resolution, speak positively of others in the family, set expectations and make it clear that verbal and physical aggression are not acceptable. Link
Sibling love as a mindfulness practice
“We get wounded in relationships; we heal in relationships.” - Tara Brach
Relationships, as challenging as they are, are also the best platform to deepen our awareness and compassion. Here are a few mindfulness practices you can do in your relationships with your siblings.
#1 Naming the comparing mind, jealousy, and competition
A steady mindfulness practice helps us observe our thought patterns and emotions without getting caught up in them. Each time you notice you are comparing yourself to your sibling, you can name this and say “Ah, this is the comparing mind. This is the competing mind.” Similarly, each time you notice yourself feeling jealousy or resentment, you can name the emotion and say, “Hello, jealousy. Hello, resentment.”
The names you give to these thought patterns and emotions can be names that speak to you. The idea is to greet these thoughts and emotions as if you are greeting an old friend, to bow to them and to not make them bad. The goal is to remember the common humanity; we all have comparing and competing thoughts, we all feel jealous and resentful sometimes. By letting these thoughts and emotions be there, we can create some space around them.
We often put more judgment and stress on ourselves for having these thoughts and emotions. If instead we can relax to the fact that we feel and think this way in this moment, we may be able to observe that like all other thoughts and emotions, these will pass too, and we will eventually move on to thoughts and emotions that serve us better.
#2 Practicing lovingkindness
A simple and heart-opening mindfulness practice is to set the intention to see the basic goodness in others. You can practice this with your siblings. You can experiment with putting a hand on your heart, remembering that they too want to have a healthy happy life, and wishing for them:
May you be filled with lovingkindness,
May you be healthy and strong,
May you be safe and protected,
May you be happy.
If these wishes feel good in your body, you can let this feeling fill you and take space. You can observe how the love grows and deepens.
If the wishes feel mechanic at first, this is okay. Remember that these phrases are intentions. You can whisper them for your sibling without forcing them to feel a certain way. Over time, you can come back to this practice, and notice if the wishes become more genuine.
If you are in a hostile relationship with your sibling, you may not be able to wish them happiness. In this case, you can change the phrases and find ones that feel better, such as, may you be free from hatred and suffering. Or you can turn the lovingkindness to yourself and wish for yourself, may I be able to find ease and calm in my relationship with my sibling.
Making these wishes for your sibling doesn’t mean you have to talk to them, forgive them or bring them back into your life. The wishes might simply help you look at them with kinder eyes, and might ease some of the tension you carry.
Here’s a lovingkindness meditation you can use to practice lovingkindness with your sibling.