Siblings as a Psychological Resource

The death of our last parent heightens our awareness of mortality. Our sense of aloneness in the universe becomes more acute, and our own death seems more imminent. An ongoing connection with brothers and sisters helps keep this feeling at bay or alleviate its intensity. The need to be known by someone consistently over all the years of life — through different moves and major changes — can best be met by siblings.

A long-term, stable marriage meets some of this need, but as more people stay single and nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, this option is becoming less likely. And anyway, even in the best case, your spouse has not known you for as long and in some ways as intimately as your siblings have.

birth order and youThe thread of historical continuity provided in the sibling connection can be a tremendous source of support as people struggle with the emotional challenges of life — suffering through the pain and rejoicing in the victories. In the middle and later years of adult life, nothing else can compare with what siblings have to offer each other, even if they are not particularly close and rarely spend any time together. Your siblings are the people who know the most about you and your roots.

Researchers have found that the emotional health of men at age 65 is strongly connected to having had a close relationship with their siblings at college age. This study of Harvard graduates (males) has been ongoing since the early 1940s when psychiatrist George Vaillant started interviewing the men every five years. In their middle years, a good marriage and good job were the most important variables, but by retirement their earlier relationship with siblings was deemed far more important to their well-being.

The field of psychotherapy and of human psychology generally has paid a great deal of attention to the ongoing relationship of parents and adult children, but has paid scant attention to the sibling connection. Some family therapists today are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of this relationship. Clients are encouraged to contact siblings they have lost touch with, to raise new kinds of questions with those they do have contact with, and to invite their siblings to their therapy sessions. This is always a powerful experience, full of new illuminations and insights.

One of the most exciting parts of personal growth and change is being able to reconnect with your family members in a new way, a way that shows interest in how they experienced life in the family. This is a change from being concerned solely with your own experiences and trying to convince others that your interpretation of “the way it really was” is the correct one.

Each member of a family puts the pieces of the family puzzle together differently, which creates several different pictures. Whenever a family member insists that his or her picture is the “right” one, relationships within the family suffer. Family members commonly diagnose what they believe to be the strengths and liabilities of their family, but the more adamant they are about the diagnosis, the less able they are to grow and change. Every time you set another family member into concrete with a label such as “saintly,” “rigid,” “domineering,” “compliant,” “alcoholic,” “cute,” “mean,” “wonderful,” etc., you also make more rigid your view of yourself. To say someone else is “always like this” is to say something similar about yourself. It means that you only see that one aspect of them and treat them as if they have no other characteristics.

Just as you may think you have other family members figured out, they also may think they have you figured out. But, in fact, family members are often strangers to each other. You may deduce a lot from observing each other’s behavior, but without knowing another person from the inside, you can never be sure about them.

An excerpt from Birth Order and You by Dr. Ronald W. Richardson and Lois A. Richardson.

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