Over two blogs I have focussed on one area of sibling relationships, namely rivalry. In part 1, I looked at some aspects of sibling rivalry as they can surface in childhood. In part 2, I will suggest how these might impact on ongoing struggles in adult life, before suggesting ways in which problematic issues with rivalry can be helped.
Sibling Rivalry in Adulthood
Feelings of competition and rivalry are perfectly normal and to be expected in adulthood. However, when childhood rivalry has been particularly problematic and unresolved, this can shape and lead to intense struggles later in life. Below are some thoughts about sibling rivalry and adulthood.
An obvious impact is in relationships to competition. Difficulties might particularly arise at work, socially, in educational settings, or any other situation where competitive feelings are heightened. This might lead to over competitiveness at the expense of other experiences – for example friendship, fun, comradeship etc. The rivalrous person may be driven towards success, however, often these feelings just seem to cause paralysis, procrastination, and low-self-esteem, as the individual constantly measures themselves against others.
As siblings are the earliest relationships they become a kind of template for later relationships. If feelings have never really got beyond negative experiences of aggression and dislike, this can make it hard to establish positive, caring and cooperative adult relationships.
Siblings who hold onto intensely rivalrous feelings, may be unable to establish a good adult relationship with each other. They therefore lose out on what these uniquely close alliances can potentially offer.
Sometimes sibling rivalry that’s not overt in childhood later manifests in adulthood. This can often be triggered through a change in the family dynamic. The most common is the serious illness or death of one or both parents. In these circumstances, feelings of rivalry can intensify or, if latent, can suddenly manifest. This is particularly common if there are issues around sharing responsibility or care for the parent, or around inheritance.
Fair shares and mutual concerns
Dennis Brown, a group analyst, wrote a paper entitled ‘Fair shares and mutual concern: The role of sibling relationships’ (1998). He explored how these rivalrous battles with siblings belong to an early stage in the individual’s development and that in healthy childhood psychological growth there is a shift to a more cooperative position towards siblings and therefore later relationships.
Our relationships with our siblings are usually the earliest experiences of grappling with love and hate for our peers. It’s important that aggression, jealousy and rivalry can be countered by experiences of love, companionship, and affection. Achieving this in childhood helps this balance of positive and negative feelings in later relationships.
The potential for change
But if this change hasn’t taken place in childhood can anything be done in adulthood? Below are some suggestions of how to work towards resolving the more crippling preoccupations with ‘fair shares’ towards a greater feeling of ‘mutual concern’ for and with others.
One way forward is to try and develop an adult relationship with your adult sibling. Sometimes family members get stuck in a narrative belonging to the past. We carry the child templates of our siblings inside us without perhaps getting to know the adult version. This is particularly compounded if relationships don’t develop outside of the family environment, for example when siblings only ever see each other in the presence of the rest of the family, particularly parents.
During or after times when you find yourself preoccupied with doing better than others, or having painful feelings of inadequacy or exclusion, it can help to reflect on links between this experience and what you may have felt as a child in your family. This can help you step away and separate from those past dynamics, reminding you that this is no longer the actual situation you find yourself in.
I mentioned earlier that sibling rivalry can worsen or manifest after a major family dynamic change such as brought on by the illness or death of a parent. Sometimes the opposite shift can happen. For example, the loss of one or both parents, or other family events, can suddenly bring problems of historic rivalry between some siblings to a natural end.
The Role of Group Psychotherapy
Group psychotherapy is particularly helpful in working through the difficulties arising from unresolved sibling rivalry.
Being in a therapy group stirs feelings of rivalry for everyone in it. In this way, it tackles rivalry in a way that individual therapy (where you have all the attention to yourself) can’t. Bringing these feelings alive and to the foreground means they can be worked with head on in the safety of a therapeutic environment.
In a therapy group, members find that each other remind them of their siblings, some more obviously than others. This offers an opportunity for working through difficulties that they may have had growing up with actual siblings. Members can then develop the kind of affection and closeness with rivals that might not have felt possible growing up or since.
Group members often find that the group feels a bit like an alternative family. This gives the opportunity for everyone – including ‘only’ children – to have different kinds of ‘sibling’ experiences than those they grew up with.
Preoccupation with ‘fair shares’ is symptomatic of a world where we feel pitched against each other and encouraged to see ourselves as alone. These feelings can be particularly heightened if the conflicts of our earliest peer relationships have not been resolved. Psychotherapy and counselling give the opportunity to explore and understand these deep rooted and painful experiences and how they may continue to have impact. Psychotherapy groups emphasise our connectivity as human beings. This challenges the notion that we are on our own, offering a direct release from the paralysing grip of rivalrous conflicts, towards greater co-operation, affection, and ‘mutual concern’ in our relationships.
Claire Barnes is an experienced UKCP registered psychotherapist and group analyst offering psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy to individuals and groups at our Hove practice.
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