Cringing at the thought of family togetherness during this holiday season? Perhaps your experiences at Thanksgiving once again failed to measure up to the idyllic scene in Norman Rockwell's famous 1940's painting, "Freedom from Want," in which relatives happily crowd around a table headed by grandparents.
What if getting together with family members, particularly siblings, is not how you anticipate closing out another year, yet the centrifugal force of a parent, a sibling or a simulacrum of family closeness keeps pulling everyone to the hearth? We suggest you invite ambivalence and ambiguity to join any affectionate feelings you feel free to acknowledge for the brother or sister whom you will likely be greeting all too soon.
Siblings are with us throughout life, longer than our parents, our partners or most friends. They can be our best friends, people with whom we share our greatest joys and our deepest sorrows. In adulthood, siblings can hold an extended family together after the incapacity or death of parents and help pass down a heritage of Hallmark closeness to future generations.
However, siblings can also cause hurt feelings and emotional estrangement, leaving us wondering how we could have possibly grown up in the same home. Why struggle to stay close with someone who may have hurt us when we were young and may continue to cause us pain by having few boundaries, acting unkindly, or being too withholding or too dependent?
In our research, intended to guide mental health practitioners treating people with unhappy sibling relationships, the less-than ideal sibling relationships are not unusual and the resulting strains may be most apparent when the family gathers during the holidays. As Marnie, the 44-year-old middle of three sisters told us, "I feel like my siblings and I, in some ways, never fully developed adult relationships. I feel like they still carry the weight of our childhood, and we have never lived in the same place as adults, so these holiday gatherings often still hold a lot of childhood baggage."
We surveyed and interviewed over 260 siblings, 40-years old and older, regarding more than 700 sibling relationships. We chose 40-years of age as a beginning point because most sibling relationships have settled into routines by this age and because the caregiving of aging parents may force interaction between siblings who have drifted apart. Our research led us to view most sibling relationships as marked by affection as well as by ambivalence and ambiguity. The individuals we interviewed often reported that they felt great warmth toward their siblings (82 percent replied a sibling's feelings were important to them, 75 percent were proud of them, and 73 percent said they enjoyed spending time with a sibling). But in other ways, the ambivalence of relationships was evident. For example, 70 percent said they had periods in their life when they and at least one sibling were not close and 8 percent said they were never close with a brother or sister. When asked to describe each of their siblings, almost half characterized them with mixed or negative terms.
Though relationships are often perceived as loving and supportive, some are accompanied by mixed feelings (jealousy, anger, competition) toward one or more siblings or by affection for one and distrust of another. As people talked in depth, the ambiguity emerged. Family members are left befuddled by each other when they think they should, in a Rockwell sense, understand each other. A brother cannot divine why another brother has not called; a sister does not comprehend why she was excluded when her sisters divided up their mother's jewelry. This stokes the ambivalence like the embers in a fireplace. We were left wondering who might be absent from Rockwell's painting.
Such relationships can be tolerated during most of the year, when the bugle call to muster the family is muted. It is during the holidays, as Marnie suggests, that the specter of disharmony looms. For those who put a high value on togetherness, pressure may be unrealistically placed on people to harness these lifelong relationships with affection. To ease the burden, we want to shine a bright star on a more realistic view of sibling relationships as not only affectionate but also as potentially, and acceptably, ambivalent and ambiguous. Too high expectations can tamp down the opportunity for siblings to get to know each other anew as adults.
Geoffrey L. Greif (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Michael E. Woolly (email@example.com) are, respectively, professor and associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and authors of the forthcoming book, "Adult Sibling Relationships" (Columbia University Press).