Dear Dr. Pat:
I have read the stories of reunions at this site for several years now, and really enjoyed the series this summer. It seems that everyone else has a family where the brothers and sisters are happy to see each other and make these special times as we grow older meaningful—apparently without envy or strife. I am the youngest of eight children . . . the “oops” baby, younger by eight years than my youngest brother. My father died when I was ten and my mother just withdrew from life. I was left alone with a severely depressed mother, and my brothers and sisters knew that I ran the house, did the shopping, and cooked our meals. They came by for dinners I planned and cooked, but never asked how I was or offered to include me in any event that I wasn’t in charge of. I became a trained chef and have been in the hospitality industry my entire life. I am 45 now and never married, because the life of a chef is not conducive to creating a stable long-term relationship. But I love my friends and our shared passion for food, wine, and entertaining.I look forward to and dread family reunions. Both of our parents are dead now and I live in the family home. When we have family events, I am always the hostess: the big summer reunion, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthday parties. I don’t mind creating the meals and making these events memorable, but I always end up fighting with my older sisters about what I have chosen. We even disagree about the table settings. And they don’t know anything about entertaining. Everyone loves the food and the pretty table, but there is always tension in the kitchen and during the meal. After dinner, I am left to clean up. I am really angry that no one appreciates what I do to keep the family together. Why do grown-up brothers and sisters—who make up a “family,” after all—continue to act as if they are children?
SarahDear Sarah: No analyst ever described families any better than Tolstoy, who famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I can understand how the lifetime of parental abandonment and neglect and the decision on your part to provide an essential component to nurturing for both yourself and others through the creation of beautiful meals was your childhood attempt to get some attention and reward from your mother and siblings. It is possible that your ownership of the family home and your in-charge attitude in the kitchen and the dining room engenders envy and other toxic emotions in both your siblings and in you as well.
I have asked Dr. Cecilia Ford—a clinical psychologist in New York City who has great experience in working with patients who still carry burdens from family-of-origin relationships—to write about your question. I would like to suggest that you may benefit, at 45, from some time with a therapist. Do remember that we can never change others, but we can change how we feel . . . about our past, ourselves, and our relationships. Then we may be able to change how we act. You may decide that it is time to let your other siblings entertain the family. I am sure these meals won’t be as perfect as those you would make, but that is a change in attitude that you can control. And over time you may decide that creating a “family” of those friends and colleagues from that special world of “foodies” is a way to have the real family that you want. Best, Dr. Pat
Guilt, Unburied Hatchets, Toxic Relationships: Sibling Rivalry in Midlife
By Dr. Cecilia M. Ford
No matter how old we are, the template of our early family relationships stays with us throughout our lifetime. Naturally, we mature, develop, and gain both insight into ourselves and wisdom about others. As a result, many aspects of relationships become smoother and more peaceful. One group that remains often troublesome is siblings.
Conflict between siblings is so ubiquitous that I would guess that on a word-association test most people would say “rivalry” when prompted by the word “sibling.” But what’s more surprising is how much of the conflict continues as we age. Below are five common issues that persist, often well into mid-life (and beyond):
Rivalry is by far the most common, persistent, and resistant to change of the sibling issues. Sometimes it is the result of an accident of birth order (e.g., two sibs of the same sex and close in age). Many times the rivalry is exacerbated by real family dynamics (e.g., “Mom really did like you best”). Most often it is a very complex combination of many factors—including, but not limited to, those above.
Unfortunately, parents can favor one child over another without being aware they are doing so. The difference in treatment can be subtle, but the effects can be dramatic.
Sometimes the rivalry can wax and wane over the course of adulthood as we learn that life can favor one person over another, and our rival may come in for her share of hard knocks. But that may not be the case. Furthermore, the competitive spirit can be lodged so deep that we are not appeased by our relative good fortune, but, rather, continue to feel threatened no matter what the circumstances.
These feelings not only disrupt our relationships with our adult siblings but also have the power to be transferred onto others in our life. If you have a history with a sibling that is laced with unresolved feelings of competitiveness and its “evil twin,” envy, chances are that these issues pop up in your other relationships as well.
•Failure to Separate
On the other hand, some siblings stay close as they grow older. This is fine until it presents a problem for creating independent relationships. A typical scenario involves one sib’s wanting to move on (often with a romantic partner), which upsets a long-held balance between two very close siblings. This can set up a seething rivalry and resentment between the new spouse and the “left-out” sibling that is never fully resolved, even after the second sibling is married herself.
There are many, many reasons why siblings feel guilty toward one another. There can be wounds, real or imagined, that we have inflicted on one another. More often, guilt is experienced by a sibling who has triumphed, been favored, or won the genetic lottery in some way that has left the other(s) at a disadvantage. Even though this is not (usually) the winning sibling’s fault, she can feel guilty anyhow, because, consciously, or unconsciously, we all prefer to win rather than lose.
This problem is especially severe in families that have a child who is significantly disadvantaged in some way—e.g., mentally or physically handicapped. The healthy sibling not only feels guilty for “winning,” but also guilty for feeling anger and resentment over all the extra trouble, expense, attention, etc. created by the sibling’s handicap.
People who have grown up in these kinds of families often have persistent feelings of ambivalence about winning, as well as guilty feelings that are difficult to allay, even if the troubled sibling’s situation has improved.
This issue, along with its corollary, Family Secrets, allows siblings to persist in a toxic “time capsule.” As long as the past injury is never brought to light, no one has to face whatever painful truth is being hidden. If a sib is still angry many years later because her sister seated her at the wrong table at her niece’s wedding, she may be using this to shield much more long-simmering resentments that haven’t been aired. But if the family has tacitly all agreed that “We Don’t Talk About That,” our only choice is to go on pretending that these violent feelings were brought on by the seating chart.
•Toxic Relationships That Can’t Be Changed
There are some sibling relationships that are so toxic, so resistant to change or to improvement, that a time may come when we should consider cutting loose. Just because someone is a blood relative doesn’t mean that she is your lifelong curse. Some people have genuine sociopathic tendencies. Some are so angry at you that they genuinely mean you harm. Others, like chronic addicts or debtors, may have come to you for help many times and squandered it. The benefit of the wisdom that comes with age is that we may be able to make more reasoned judgments about these troubled siblings than when we were younger. For example, the addict who has used your cash to gamble or drink over and over may not seem worthy of your children’s college funds any more. Furthermore, your experience is telling you that your “help” is not helping. It can often take many years and be very difficult to decide to cut loose, but in some cases there is no other road to improvement.
Sibling issues can lie dormant and then re-emerge during holiday gatherings, family reunions, weddings, and funerals. The most dangerous ground of all is the inheritance. If the parents’ wills are not very well and fairly written, they will always be breeding grounds for whatever latent pathology the siblings harbor toward one other.
On a brighter note, siblings can draw closer as their parents pass away, finding strength in each other through their link to their common past.
Photo by cobal123 via Flickr