Sibling rivalry: it’s not about jealousy

A psychologist explains that sibling rivalry doesn’t go away with adulthood, and offers a different way of looking at the problem.

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Joanna, a wife and mother, who is now nearing 40, was talking to me recently about the sibling rivalry she has always felt with her younger brother, even through adulthood:

“In my childhood bedroom, there was always a war. My brother was a year younger. We fought all the time. What about? I guess about everything. I know, siblings always fight, but then you grow out of it. In our case it’s different. That conflict is still very much alive,” Joanna admits. “My brother is not doing so well. He left his wife for a younger woman, who then left him. He has alimony to pay. He let himself go, he is overweight and surly. One day, my father let it slip that they are helping him financially. My mother is retired, but as an accountant she takes on additional work. I was upset. It’s not about the money, but about the fact that my mom never has time for my son, who is just few years old. Apparently a grandson can wait, but the accounting work for some company cannot. When I yelled at my parents, saying I feel less loved, they were appalled and tried to defend themselves. But ‘we treated you the same,’ ‘we didn’t favor anyone,’ ‘everything was equal,’ and ‘you are jealous of your brother instead of feeling bad for him that he wasn’t as lucky in life.’

“I’m not sure what felicity they think I’m supposed to feel,” Joanna continues. “That I try, that I don’t give up, that my husband didn’t leave me, that I didn’t leave my children, that I take care of myself … I am not jealous, I feel hurt. And they don’t see it! They don’t understand. But why am I surprised by this reaction? They were always focused on my brother!”

Joanna is clearly distraught.

Chocolates get cut in half, but what about feelings?

Childhood doesn’t end when we stop being children. It can resonate strongly into adulthood: It affects our moods, our relationships, and how we are faring in life. Though, that’s not to say a childhood must affect our adult lives: A bad childhood doesn’t necessarily ruin an entire life, and siblings who share love for the same parents can find a way to unite rather than divide. Still, the term “sibling rivalry” exists for a reason.

As parents, we can’t change the past (our own childhoods or the childhoods of our now grown children), but we can think differently about it, and work harder to understand where these rivalries come from.

Which child do you love more? The question sounds silly, I know, but unfortunately it has basis in real life, even when most parents try hard to be fair. Because while you can divvy up daily activities and gifts equally –today you do the dishes, tomorrow your brother does them, chocolate bars are cut down the middle– attention is much harder to halve. Devotion, understanding and worry cannot be measured or given equally, regardless of good intentions or the rules we say out loud.

So if you balk at the question of “loving” a child unequally, maybe ask yourself this: which child do you feel needs you more? Sometimes one child is more sickly and we feel they need more help. Then the child gets healthy, and we continue to be overprotective. And when one child requires a specific more time-consuming presence, chances are we are not as present in the life of the other child.

The one who is not coping well at school, who gets poor grades, signals that we need to be closer, so we stay closer. And when a child doesn’t create problems, is behaving well, is not whining, he doesn’t send out any signals. So maybe we don’t stay as close. But it’s possible that child is hurting inside, because doing well in school doesn’t mean that he is not missing the praise and compliments he sees bestowed on his sibling. A problem-free child still needs encouragement and attention, and he needs it more than an equal piece of dessert.

The drama of a good child is invisible

Parents unwittingly become unavailable emotionally. In Joanna’s home, there were no arguments or mental abuse. But she feels emotionally hurt all the same.

If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you probably think feeling a lack of attention for being “too good” doesn’t sound all that bad. In most cases, this type of hurt is downplayed. After all, nothing really happened. There are no bruises, so what is there to talk about? But the hurt a “good” child feels can be just as hard on the psyche as the hurt of a child who grew up in the shadow of a parent’s addiction or other trauma.

Though the pain is real, Joanna’s parents didn’t set out to intentionally harm their children, they wanted the best for them, which is why it might be hard for them to see things from their daughter’s point of view now. And when you’re outside the situation, it’s easier to forgive: parents got some things right, and others not so much, like all parents. And they also bear the costs.

If you still feel the pain of a sibling rivalry, it’s worth remembering that: parents are flawed, too. Because it’s all too easy to stew in your own childhood pain, but empathy towards your parents is a path to healing: it will allow you to naturally lessen your anger toward them, so it hurts less.

That said, Joanna should still talk to her mother. She has a right to voice her hurt that her mother is not embracing the grandmother role the way she desires. But instead of reminding her parents of the years of neglect and hurt, she could tell them that she is happy to have both of them in her family’s life. And that she only wants them to show her that they are just as happy that they have a daughter as well as a son. Joanna is not jealous of her brother, but is longing for their love in the form of attention. And there’s a subtle difference in that.

A candid conversation with her parents may also help her see the other side: Joanna’s brother may have had more of his parents’ support, but at the same time, he may also feel dependent, and a failure. His sister is always better. Perhaps now his parents monetary help is no longer a manifestation of love, but a humiliation. Often we compete with our siblings for parental love because we can’t empathize with the difficult feelings of the other side. The emotional cost of such a love is surely greater than that of a childhood pillow fight.

And so Joanna’s parents are afraid, even as their children have become adults, they continue to try equal parenting. They work instead of resting, they listen when one is upset, and still neither side is happy.

Showing love is as difficult as talking about it

Maybe one solution is to change the words we use for siblings early on. Instead of “fair,” parents should say “unique.” Because each child is different and unrepeatable, a being who requires different worries, and different praises. Different mindfulness, different gestures that will convince him that he is the most important thing in the world to his parents … just like his sibling(s).

Joanna was certainly very loved, but not the way she wanted. That is a very subtle but important difference. Every child wants to be loved in a particular way. It is important to be in tune with those needs, see every child as an individual, in his uniqueness.

Zyta Rudzka
Zyta Rudzka
Zyta graduated from the Academy of Catholic Theology with a psychology degree. She was winner of the Gdynia Drama Prize for her drama, “Cold Buffet.” The television version of her play, “The Sugar Bra,” won a gold medal at the prestigious Worldfest Independent Film Festival in Houston. Her works have been translated into German, Russian, English, Croatian, Italian, Czech, French, and Japanese.

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