Green-Eyed and Grown-Up

12th May 2011

Sibling rivalry doesn’t end with teddy bears and toys. Heather Harris confesses all.

From Cain and Abel to Kylie and Dannii, sibling rivalry is as old – and predictable – as time itself. For the two biblical brothers, it was God who brought out the green-eyed monster in both of them. For the Minogues, it was Simon Cowell.

And, on a more sombre note, who can forget Derrick Bird, whose killing spree in Cumbria last year may have been prompted by his resentment of his brother? The absolute horror of this case was heightened by the shocking realisation that sibling rivalry doesn’t stop at childhood. Apparently believing he had been robbed of his inheritance, Bird shot dead his twin brother, along with eleven others.

For most of us, though, the words ‘sibling rivalry’ conjure up images of tantrums and telling tales. We think of older children resenting the birth of a baby, or brothers and sisters jealously competing on the sports pitch, the exam room or in front of the bathroom mirror.

When psychologist David Levy first introduced the term in 1941 it was defined as ‘the aggressive response to a new baby’. Sigmund Freud saw it – unsurprisingly – as an extension of the Oedipus complex: brothers in competition for their mother’s attention, sisters for their father’s.

And for most it’s harmless. Just a part of growing up.

Journalist Judith Woods, who has interviewed several adults consumed with what others might consider as petty juvenile jealousies, observes that ‘Overt rivalry in childhood is upfront, dynamic and character-building, a necessary rite of passage that enables each child to find their niche in the family… But,’ she goes on, ‘sibling envy in adulthood is a stagnant, secretive emotion that finds its insidious expression in anger.’

Karen Doherty, a mother of four and co-author of a new book Sibling Rivalry; Seven Simple Solutions, is equally concerned. ‘Sibling envy is like a festering wound and it sours our relationships to the point where we can’t bear the idea of our own siblings being successful, or even happy, and instead take pleasure in their failures.’

The chart-topping Gallagher boys should take note. Oasis might still be making them millions had Noel and Liam left their destructive jealousies in their playpen. And Serena and Venus should watch themselves too, as those Williams Wimbledon smiles do appear increasingly strained.

Its not just the celebrities who suffer, of course. Shelley, 37, hasn’t spoken to her sister for over five years, after her big day was ruined. “I was utterly traumatised when my younger sister deliberately set out to get pregnant with her first child in time for the wedding so that she would be the centre of attention. She did and she was!”
I confess to having more than a passing interest in this subject. As the only girl and a middle child, a life in therapy loomed – but I emerged into adulthood incredibly unscarred. Until last Christmas...

…when, as we were sitting post-turkey, my younger brother announced nonchalantly that he was ‘writing a novel’. Now, to put this into context, you need to know that he is a cartoonist. He excelled with the pencil and me with the pen. That was always the deal. Everyone recognised this, and sibling rivalry was left to other families – not us.

Then there was a blip. We both ran the London Marathon in 2006. I trained for four months and lived the life of a nun. He downed a pint of cider on the start line and beat me. The green-eyed monster was straining at the leash – ready to be released as we entered again in 2007.

This time he collapsed at around 20 miles, leaving me to take the family glory. Outwardly I was sympathetic; inwardly I was shockingly elated.

And now he is writing a novel. Those dreams of book signings at Waterstones, with Spielberg bidding for the film rights, now have my brother centre stage – not me. And it’s a hideous feeling.

But I’m not alone. Approximately one third of adults describe their relationship with their siblings as ‘rivalrous or distant,’ according to a study in Psychology Today Magazine.

“Every time I walk into my sister’s house,” Zoe, now 38, admits, “I feel my stomach contract with horrible feelings I’ve never been able to put a name to.” It’s a miserable state of affairs, as she explains. “My sister is four years older than me and has the sort of fabulous life I will never have: a handsome French husband who earns so much that she can stay at home with her two gorgeous children – a boy and a girl, obviously – an amazing social circle and designer clothes. I work for a relative pittance in the social-care sector and I haven’t had a date for two years… Without meaning to, she makes me feel like a failure – and she always has.”

This feeling of failure is at the heart of all the research on sibling rivalry – and it’s certainly true for me too. It’s natural for us all to compare ourselves to our brothers and sisters but, as Judith Woods explains, ‘There’s often an irrational tendency to blame them for our own limitations’.

So when my brother triumphantly rings to tell me he’s finished Chapter Three, he doesn’t do it to send me into a psychotic jealous rage. He actually thinks I’m joking when I tell him that I will change my name by deed poll and emigrate if he ever gets published, rather than face the constant reminder of my failings as a writer.

So if it’s not our own brothers and sisters making sure that jealousies extend beyond the playground – then who is responsible?

Not surprisingly, yet again it’s poor guilt-ridden parents. According to observational studies, children are sensitive from the age of just one year to differences in parental treatment. Developmental psychologist Judy Dunn reports, ‘That little 15 month old is watching like a hawk what goes on between her mother and older sibling. And the greater the difference in the maternal affection and attention, the more hostility and conflict among the siblings.”

And, ironically, it’s often the less gifted who gets more of the parents’ attention. As Caroline, a mother of two sons, now in their late twenties, explains, “My younger son has dyslexia whilst his older brother was academic. Looking back, the reason they lost contact in adulthood is because the older one was always resentful of the sympathy and extra time we gave to his younger brother whom we perceived as the ‘underdog’.’

So what can we do to make sure that the road to sibling harmony runs smooth? All family therapists seem to offer similar basic advice: parents can reduce the opportunity for rivalry by refusing to compare or type-cast their offspring, by teaching positive ways for their children to get attention from each other and from the parent, by planning family activities together and by making sure each child has enough time and space on their own.

So that’s it then. If my parents hadn’t labelled me the writer and him the artist, I’d be offering to proof-read my brother’s first manuscript, and giving him my list of literary contacts.

Instead, I’m secretly hoping he develops a hideous case of writers’ block… lasting approximately five years. By which time, my own three children will have grown up free of jealousy due to the endless hours of individual attention I will have given them – hours which I should have spent writing my own novel.

Or alternatively I’ll just emigrate…

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