Peggy Is Still Mom’s Favorite
Sibling rivalry often escalates in your 50s and 60s when issues of eldercare and inheritance develop.
“My sister Doris and I haven’t spoken for years,” says Helen, 62, a dealer in fine prints who lives in Connecticut. “Although she’s 5 ½ years older, we were very close as kids and even as young adults. Then we both became busy with marriage, careers, and children, so I didn’t really notice the distancing. One day I realized that I was always the one who initiated contact. When I’d suggest getting together, no time seemed to be convenient. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. She never answered; she just pulled away.
“Perhaps she felt that I made a more successful marriage,” Helen says. (The names of all siblings have been changed.) “Perhaps she resented that I was much closer to our mother. I don’t know. Looking at our photographs as kids, I realize that my sister’s sense of alienation started early. You see our brother, Dave, tall and handsome. You see me, ‘the baby,’ looking adorable. And you see Doris, the middle child, always with an angry look on her face.”
For most of us, sibling relationships are marked by closeness as well as rivalry. Brothers and sisters play together, squabble, support one another, push each other’s buttons, kiss and make up. The competition can be healthy. In many ways, our siblings define us. If brother Johnny’s the daredevil and sister Suzy’s the artist, we may (in a process known as de-identification) be spurred to find our own identity, what makes us special, and mark our own arena. Sibling envy becomes edgier, however, when Mom or Dad plays favorites—singling out one child for special attention or treatment and thus setting up a situation where the less favored sibling becomes resentful and the golden child defensive. In the best of circumstances, such feelings of jealousy are left at childhood’s door. Unresolved grievances carried into adulthood, however, can (and often do) lead to sibling quarrels, cutoffs, even to the courts.
“Who Does Mom Love Best?”
To be estranged from a brother or sister can be very uncomfortable, even painful, but it’s not unusual. Some years ago, psychologists Helgola Ross and Joel Milgram conducted a noteworthy study of adult sibling relationships and found that over half of subjects aged 22 to 93 still felt rivalry with their brothers and sisters, primarily over parental favoritism. For Jeremy, 44, a book editor who lives in a Boston suburb, parental partiality for his sister Marjane, 40, still plays a dominant role in their disintegrating relationship.
The seeds of their conflict were sown early. “I wouldn’t say that my parents preferred Marjane to me,” Jeremy says, weighing his words. “I will say that as a child my sister was—and still is—the focus of all their attention. Marjane is an athlete—she’s good at everything, but gymnastics was her sport. This meant that our parents were constantly busy driving her to and from practice. On weekends I’d be dragged along to interminable competitions. Everything revolved around Marjane’s needs. If I never see another balance beam, it’ll be too soon.”
Years went by. Jeremy, “the studious child,” found his niche in academia, earning a BA and PhD with honors at top schools. Marjane attended a less rigorous college on a gymnastics scholarship, then was shocked when she wasn’t accepted by a top law school. “As an athlete, you can’t just turn that competitiveness off when you leave the arena,” Jeremy says. “My sister was not used to being a failure. She became very bitter. She took her wrath out on everyone, and I felt she begrudged me my success—although she got into law school later. That was a turning point in our relationship.”
Marriage, too, is a common trigger point for adult rivalry, and it has complicated their fractious relationship. “Marjane never had positive feelings for my wife,” Jeremy says. In turn, he has no use for his brother-in-law. “The man has no drive, no ambition at all,” he says. “It’s my sister’s legal job with a small firm that supports the family, which now includes three kids, along with generous child-care and financial help from our parents.”
For Jeremy, it’s still all about Marjane. “Part of my reluctance to have a better relationship with my sister is that any time I see my parents, the conversation is only about my sister and her husband and their kids,” he says. “If you’d ask Mom and Dad how my daughters were, you’d probably get a one-word answer: Fine. Because they have no idea what our kids are doing. I’ve been through various stages of grief and anxiety and all that, but that’s the way it is, and at this point I just accept it. I don’t hate my sister. What I feel about our failed relationship is a deep-seated regret.”