Monday, July 20, 2015

Making Peace with Siblings: Enhancing the Longest Relationships of Our Lives

Maggie, 6, and Henry, 3, engaged in sibling stuff

It's all so transparent in childhood as siblings pinch, fight and tattle on each other.

"MOM! He's looking at me!"

"He hit me first..."

"I didn't do it....she did it!"

I see traces of this in my young niece Maggie and her little brother Henry as, like little lion cubs, they cuddle and wrestle and fight both in play and for real. They also love each other fiercely and show dramatic differences in temperament. Ebullient Maggie loves to talk, play fantasy games and visit with both other children and adult friends. She loves the spotlight. Henry is quiet, thoughtful, introspective. He plays happily by himself and when he initiates a sibling tussle, it is quiet -- like the pinch above in one of Maggie's spotlight moments.

In adulthood, sibling troubles can take on many forms with rivalries and resentments carried from childhood forward.

My friend Lisa has been estranged for years from her older sister Dee whom she feels has always been bossy and judgmental, always making comparisons, with Lisa coming out the loser. Even though both are currently battling cancer, silence prevails. "I can't imagine us having a good conversation," Lisa insists. "Unless, of course, she changes."

Another friend, Denise, limits contact with her two older brothers because she finds herself regressing when she gets together with her sibs. "The teasing, which started when I was little, is just relentless," she says. "I feel sucked back into my less than ideal childhood when we get together. They treat me like they always did -- like a pesky little sister they'd rather not be with."

My neighbor Don hasn't seen his only brother in decades. "We tolerated each other growing up, helped by an eight year age difference which made our daily worlds quite separate," he says. "But once we were grown up and that age difference didn't matter so much, I realized that I really didn't like him much as a human being. I suspect that he feels the same way about me."

Indeed, there are some sibling relationships that are beyond repair. Others, however, are --or could be -- loving and supportive.

How do you minimize the troubles and maximize the love with your siblings?

* Forget the old roles and patterns of childhood. That was then. This is now. Being the eldest doesn't entitle one to be bossy or judgmental or prescriptive with younger siblings. Being the youngest doesn't mean that shirking responsibility is okay.  You're all adults and there are moments when you need to come together with love and commitment and maturity to handle serious family matters -- like aging and dying parents and estates to be settled.

These family crises are prime fodder for fights over which sibling does what or which one doesn't step up to the plate, who is more entitled, most supportive, least responsible. In so many of these scenarios, the subtext behind the family drama remains much the same as it was in the early years: someone was loved most, someone felt left out, someone did much without praise, someone was lauded just for being.

The challenge is to find an emotional path past the old hurts to a new understanding -- that we all handle crises and grief in our singular ways, that people do the best they can at the time, even if it feels woefully inadequate to others, that everyone wants to feel cherished. Reaching out to siblings, in times of calm as well as crisis, with love and understanding can help to begin to heal some of those old wounds.

*Be the first to reach out. This may mean being the first to apologize (even if you feel your sibling should be the one to apologize first!). It may mean being the first to say "I would like us to be closer."

We have no control over whether or when a sibling will reach out to us or change his or her behavior. So, rather than waiting until a sibling changes -- as my friend Lisa hopes that her judgmental, bossy older sister will -- try initiating change in your own way and your own time.

This can mean reacting to old behavior patterns in a new way, like refusing to react with outrage to teasing or revisiting and rehashing old arguments that lead to nothing but heartbreak. It can mean calling a truce, agreeing to disagree, letting go of old hurts. It can mean expressing a need for closeness and connection. Or it can mean overlooking the sibling trait that has led, in the past, to arguments and hurt feelings. It can mean speaking up for yourself or laughing along with stories of your childhood foibles or changing your way of being with your family of origin.

My husband Bob grew up in a family that was loving, but a bit distant and non-demonstrative. When he was thirty and in therapy for the first time, he realized his need to express his love in more physical ways. That Christmas, he stunned his family by greeting them with warm hugs and expressions of love. As he looked around, his entire family, even his brother -- who often kept others at a distance with barbed humor -- was smiling through tears. From then on, hugs and kisses added warmth to each family gathering.

So in looking to change the dynamics of a sibling relationship, be the first to speak up, reach out and express your desire to build new closeness.

* Respect each other's differences. Just as my niece and nephew Maggie and Henry differ so dramatically in temperament even at their young ages, you and your siblings may be very different people.

Even though you spent your childhoods together, your perspective of those years may be quite different from those of your siblings. Instead of arguing about which one is correct, it's important to understand that each one is correct. No one has quite the same experience -- whether it's in relationships with parents and other family members, or experiences in school or in the passage of adolescence.

My brother Mike, three years younger than I, was the frequent target of our father's rage and abuse which escalated to life-threatening intensity as Mike reached his teens. Our frightened mother put him on a train one night, sending him to live with her own widowed mother. He spent his high school and undergraduate college years with Grandma, then in her mid-seventies, helping her out on her Kansas farm and feeling his life evolve to a wonderful new normal. Away from the stress and abuse of his childhood home and with Grandma's unconditional love, he thrived, excelling academically, enjoying close friendships with classmates and with cousins and a very special bond with an amazing woman whose memory he still cherishes.

My sister Tai, who is ten years younger than I am, is fiercely independent and, in her younger years, grew up largely as an only child of rapidly aging, ill and isolated parents (who had been in their mid-forties when she was born). She doesn't remember our father ever being employed. Her adolescent rebellion came in the form of angry confrontations. She felt invisible to teachers and classmates, though she excelled in her studies. And she was a truly gifted ballet dancer and found her dearest friends among her fellow dance students.

I shared Tai's love of ballet, though I was more enthusiastic than gifted. The parents I knew were a decade younger, my father successful in his work, both parents socializing with friends and neighbors on a regular basis. My adolescent rebellion took the form of aggressively pious religious observances, guaranteed to drive my parents (and everyone in the family) insane. Although my father's drinking and mental health issues were well in evidence when I was a child, he was still functional. I sought extra emotional support from a few close friends as well as two beloved teachers, both still lifelong friends, and our incomparable Aunt Molly, whom we all considered to be our third and best parent.

There are many memories that Mike, Tai and I do share, but I have also learned to understand that their memories are as real and valid as my own, whether they coincide with or whether they differ from mine.

Knowing your longtime, fundamental differences can also make understanding current differences better. You and a sibling may have very different ways of viewing the world, relating to others, handling money or raising children. Instead of judging, imagine life as they have seen and experienced it and find ways to admire them whatever their challenges may have been.

Respecting each other's differences in experience and perspective can go a long way toward forging stronger sibling bonds.

* Embrace the ways that you are similar.  Even though you and your siblings may lead very different lives, being aware of the traits and opinions and tastes you do share can enhance your times together. It may be favorite foods or old stories or family jokes. It may be shared values or beliefs.

When I think about my brother and sister, I smile as it occurs to me that while our differences in lifestyle are many, our fundamental beliefs are quite similar.  Tai, a Seattle-based hospital nurse specializing in labor and delivery, has spent many years as a divorced single parent of daughter Nick, now grown. I have no children, have been married to Bob for 38 years and now live in an active adult community in rural Arizona. Mike, still a busy M.D. and medical IT expert, didn't marry until he was 58 and his first child was born when he was 60. His wife Jinjuta is Thai and he lives with her and their children Maggie and Henry in the middle of bustling Bangkok, Thailand.

But when Mike, Tai and I get together and talk current affairs or politics, I'm always amazed at how similar our views are. We can spend hours discussing, sometimes ranting, about politics together with an abandon we wouldn't even try with others, however close and beloved. And that, as annoying as it might be to onlookers, is immensely reassuring. So is our shared belief that, as difficult as our childhoods might have been at times, we wouldn't change places with anyone.

* Celebrate this longest relationship of your life. While a strong and loving marriage is a special blessing and joy in one's life and the love for one's child is truly life-changing, the longest relationships one is likely to have in life will be with siblings.

This longest relationship can have its challenging times -- when you disagree over important family decisions or get on each other's nerves or will a reluctant sibling to make changes you see as potentially life-enhancing.

These longest relationships may or may not be the happiest or most intimate ones in your life. But, with care, with love and respect, they can be uniquely wonderful.

A brother or sister knows, unlike anyone else, exactly what life was like for you in your formative years. A sibling shares a history that predates by decades the life story you have built with your spouse and own children. Though your sibling relationships may have become less intense with time and distance, there still can be that wonderful sense of picking up where you left off, a feeling of safety, a unique camaraderie when you do get together. There may be those moments, reminiscent of childhood, with emotional pinching, tussling and teasing. But the times of understanding each other's lifelong challenges and celebrating each other's triumphs are truly priceless.

Hanging with my sister Tai and brother Mike in L.A.