The powerful spotlight currently hovering over sibling dramas in our royal family has illustrated publicly just how deep and painful the emotions of a fractured family can be.
“All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”wrote Tolstoy at the start of his epic story of Anna Karenina, and this sentence illustrates the real and fictional relationships that track back to the original bloodthirsty feud of brothers Cain and Abel. The perception that one sibling is preferred, favoured or luckier than another can incite a primal envy that runs so deep that repair feels impossible.
Of all human relationships, the sibling offers a unique view of ourselves. The one that can share memories, is genetically linked to our past and knows the parts of us we want to hide or forget. They know where the bodies are buried and are likely to be in our lives ongoing. It can be the relationship that first offers up the notion that life is not going to be fair, and that negotiations are often complex and hard won. It’s gives us a place to practise the idea that closeness can overcome the notion that another has to be perfect to be loveable. It shows that we can tolerate the annoyances and grievances in another, just as they must tolerate our own. When this can run parallel to love, then it becomes an authentic relationship. And can lay foundations for intimate relationships in later life.
The apparent sharing of a parents love will be the first place many children begin to grasp the realisation that they are not always solely pivotal to the parents and that disappointment, sharing and sometimes being sidelined is going to be a part of life ongoing. At best, this will be the place to learn that anger, rivalry and hatred need not be a deal breaker, but can be knitted into a loving connection. When this balance is not found, the envy can slip into an adult jealousy that becomes all encompassing and yet still retains the whiny whiff of the beleaguered child
Prince Harry talks openly of his bedroom being smaller than Williams and revels in the gleeful notion of his hair now being more plentiful.
Liam Gallagher labels his brother Noel “a sad little dwarf” Noel responds that Liam wears a large coat to hide his “big belly”
– these are supposedly mature grown men happily chatting to the press with what can sound like the grudging voices of prep school boys. It’s plain that that when these filial peeves are carried into adult life – the body may age, but the hurt and angry child is still alive and wildly kicking inside.
Feuding sisters are just as prevalent. From The Andrews Sisters, through to countless others including Britney Spears and The Osbournes we can observe the public grudges and separations that illustrate their splits and rows.
History, literature, music and show business offer the most open reporting of family dramas as these are easily played out in a public arena and a beleaguered sibling is often only too happy to let the world know how hard done by they are feeling. Throw some cash into the mix and there is a heady mash-up with the added notion of restoring a degree of fairness in getting public attention plus the extra sense of specialness through financial reparation.
The undertones of Prince Harry’s complaints voiced in his book ‘Spare’, start with the starkness of the title and filter through the pages with an overriding sense of his low self esteem brought about by tragic childhood circumstances and then a constant feeling that he was just not considered as clever, necessary or privileged as his older brother. Strip away the heightened spotlight and scrutiny that surrounds our royal family and played out here are many of the basic issues that echo most painful sibling altercations. If these are not repaired in childhood, the splits can run deeply through a family and are hard to change. Uncomfortable childhood issues can start to become noticeable in adult life and even in many apparently more stable family groups, once families are closeted together, especially at celebrations or holiday times, adults can be transported back to infantile grudges and competitive attempts at gaining attention or specialness.
Noel’s memorable line that Liam was ‘a man with a fork in a world of soup’, is a witty insult, but with a brutal sting to illustrate that it is the other that is out of step with the world. This is the the painful truth of the dynamic, as long as we consider the other one to be behaving badly, cruelly or just insensitivity, we can sit back and pass the blame squarely over. The relationship becomes a toxic package that we no longer need to handle, but can throw back at the sibling who we believe is at fault and the root cause of any upset. With all the baggage from childhood experiences, it can be hard to see a brother or sister as the adult they are today.
Of course it’s only too easy to blame the parents in these discordant relationships, but as children move into adult relationships, they have to look at their own place in any trapped toxic dynamic with a sibling. Their feelings are not always easy to outgrow and can fester and deepen into adulthood.
Of course there will be some families where brothers and sisters are definitely not treated as fairly as they should be. Parents are human and flawed. Some will divide and rule, some will deliberately favour one child. Many families will recognise the notion of the golden child, the black sheep, or the beloved baby. It’s well known that children can fall into the well researched patterns of eldest, middle and youngest all having certain traits that are familiar to us, and some of which will resonate. These are within us, but do not need to be deal breakers when it comes to relating as adults. The order of siblings in a family all have a shadow side as well as the perception of their advantages. Most parents do the best they can with the situations they are in and the experiences and attitudes they carry from their own family background. No child gets the same parental experience as their sibling, not even twins. Sometimes life experiences and outside circumstances will also have a dramatic effect on families as the children mature. The parents themselves will not be the same people as each new child enters the family.
In order to move away from toxic and depressing relationships with a brother or sister, there needs to be some serious reframing to escape the draining ties of past hurts and perceptions. The danger of avoiding this is that deep grudges and negative dynamics are likely to reoccur in other close adult relationships.
As relationship therapists at Coupleworks, we are used to seeing squabbling couples who are both vying for control and importance, sometimes sounding like children in a rather unsupervised playground. Tit for tat annoyances, often of a trivial nature will show up a competitiveness that can often be traced back to unresolved attention needs in infancy.
No pleasure is taken by giving ground to the other as there is no empathy, no ability to step into the shoes of the other and really see things from a different perspective. The relationship resembles a boxing ring in which there can be only one winner. Blood will be spilt, but there is no pity for the loser, no idea of any other way than that of being the victor. The relationship then becomes highly competitive with only one sense or right or wrong. Who is the one with the fork in the soup world? There is triumph in the idea that the other will be rendered helpless. The wonderful question ‘do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy? has no resonance for these couples As with warring siblings, there is a deep need for an apology, an acknowledgement that the other is wrong and the betrayal is named. The only way forward is a yearning need for justice. But handing all the control for repair to the other, or sticking with parental unfairness just renders the hurt sibling mired in self-pity and desperate to be the ‘best’ one.
We can’t change our sibling, but we can think about how hurt we feel at the idea of betrayal by someone who is supposed to love us. Underlying the pain is usually grief at the sense of loss of another who should be part of our past and that we could be close to in our future. It’s hard to see that the other will also be hurting. The breaking of old patterns needs a real desire for change. Shifting entrenched beliefs from childhood is a big ask. It may need some honest discussion, a therapist or impartial friend can be helpful as we are easily stuck in defensive positions of self righteousness to keep ourselves safe and be the one with the true perspective on this fractured relationship. It can be a tough job to see that sometimes there are other perspectives, maybe more than two and that waiting for the other to change is a hopeless prospect. One of you has to take the risk and admit their part of the responsibility for an impasse. Self reflection is the only way and if only the faults in the other are visible, it blocks any ability to admit that both people contribute to the ongoing standoff. Sometimes the written word can be the start of repair if face-to-face conversation is too daunting, but this must be done without blame. Harder to do is the admission that the loss brings sadness and regret. It’s a risk, but worth the try – after all what more is there to lose?