Psychologists have tended to overlook sibling relationships, says Dorothy Rowe
Openmind 144, March/April 2007
Twenty years ago, when I was working in Lincolnshire, one of my clients was a young married woman who was deeply depressed. There was certainly much in her life to trouble her. Her account of her childhood showed her parents to be authoritarian and punitive, and, living nearby, they still demanded much of her attention.
I felt that there was something more in her background that played a major part in her distress. I was searching for some secret, when actually the problem was staring me in the face. At least it was the kind of problem that vast numbers of psychologists had also overlooked. We all knew a great deal about attachment theory: how babies form an attachment to their mother and how the response of the mother to the baby determines the nature of that attachment. What we ignored was that most children have siblings, and that these relationships can be very important, if not the most important, in a person's life.
My client was the eldest of five. Their parents made no attempt to understand their children, but instead used them as objects on which to vent their feelings. As the eldest, my client felt responsible for her siblings and she did what she could to protect them from her parents. Even though they were now all grown up, my client still felt responsible for her siblings, but she had even less control over their circumstances than she had when she was a child. She had failed to protect them from their parents, and now she was failing to protect them from the multitude of disasters that occur in everyday life. She blamed herself for her failure, and thus she turned the sorrow she felt for her siblings into depression.
I now know much more about siblings than I did then. Research on siblings is very limited, but there is a wealth of information in biographies and in fiction where the writer has drawn on their own childhood experiences. Moreover, people have told me - indeed, rushed to tell me - stories about their siblings that were often filled with anguish. The fact that the events the person was describing happened decades before did not diminish the passion with which they told the story. Often the storyteller ended with, 'If my sister knew I was telling you this she'd kill me.' I knew what this meant. In my book My dearest enemy, my dangerous friend I have told some stories about my big sister and I that I have never told before, and I expect some repercussions.
The reason that psychologists have studied mother-child relationships rather than sibling relationships is that mother-child relationships, various though they may be, have a simple theme. In order to develop as a person, a baby has to form an attachment to a mothering figure. Even when the mothering figure is not very motherly at all, the baby will try to make the best of what's on offer. In sibling relationships there is no one theme. I came to the conclusion that the only thing that can be said about all sibling relationships is that there is no one thing that can be said about all sibling relationships. They are all different, as they must be because there are such wide variations in family circumstances and in the siblings' ages. However, allowing that there are always exceptions, it was possible to draw some conclusions.
First, siblings do become attached to one another, although this isn't necessarily a loving attachment. For many - even most - siblings it is a love-hate relationship. But the very early attachment is strong, and most people find it impossible to walk away from a sibling in the way they would leave a faithless lover or erstwhile friend. Bearing in mind that our sibling relationship can be the longest in our life and vary over time, generally speaking there are three kinds of attachment: a close, loving attachment; a mixture of affection and irritation; and a hostile or indifferent relationship. Often a close, loving relationship arises in childhood because the children realise that their parents are incapable of parenting them, and that they have to cling to one another in order to survive. This was what had happened in my client's family.
Like many oldest children, my client continued to feel responsible for her siblings, and so she suffered. She was in a similar position to those people who want to bridge a lifelong gap between themselves and their sibling. This can happen only if both siblings are prepared to discuss their differences and change some of their ideas about one another. Would my client's siblings have been prepared to take responsibility for themselves? I do not know.