Relationships between children in a family are not a given. They need to be worked on…

Iknow it's the time of the year to be looking back at the year gone by and looking forward to the year to come, and that columnists worth their salt are expected to write something along these lines for their end-of-the year columns. And I was sitting down to do just this, when a friend called and told me of a public brawl at a shopping mall. The protagonists had turned out to be brothers who were litigating against each other on some property dispute or the other, and had resorted to fisticuffs in public, perhaps in the spirit of arriving at an out-of-court settlement. This set me thinking about sibling relationships, as a result of which you have been spared my year-end musings.

What is it about contemporary sibling relationships that raises such hackles and results in such angst? On the face of it, one would imagine that a shared childhood, especially a happy one, should result in irrevocable filial bonds that are designed to last contented lifetimes. But, in truth, it is not uncommon to see those who were very close to their siblings as children, being deeply conflicted about the fact that they can't really stand each other as adults. This usually happens when they grow apart in the natural course of their development. Their values have changed, their paradigms have shifted, they think differently and their points of contact have diminished rapidly. I have met several people who said that if they could choose their siblings as carefully as they did their friends, they might not be left with any at all.

Rigid hierarchies

In a family-centric society like ours, sibling relationships are impacted upon by some distinctive phenomena. During adulthood, it should hardly matter who the older sibling or who the younger one is. It is only the comfort of the relationship that matters. However, in our country, we find the need to maintain a rigid hierarchy with the older ones playing the role of the ‘head of the family' and the younger ones being forced to defer. This causes a lot of deep-seated resentment, particularly if younger siblings are more accomplished, more widely exposed or more successful than their older ones. We do need to remember that as we grow older, blind adherence to rigid hierarchies not only doesn't help, but actively hinders the process of filial bonding. Just as we don't seek to play the role of the leader with our friends, we need to stop playing these roles with our adult siblings.

As children, we are rarely taught to resolve conflicts and usually, decades of unresolved emotions, rivalry, hurt, anger and resentment tend to pile up and spill over into our adult relationships with siblings. Often, the incidents themselves may be forgotten, only the negative emotions remain, but these are easily reactivated by certain cues that may remind us of childhood situations. There's an old family therapy aphorism: the larger the family, the more intense the politics. In the old days of unrestrained fertility, large families were the rule and inevitably the politics within the families were powerful. Telephone calls and letters flying back and forth, one sibling cribbing to another about yet another, someone intervening unnecessarily thereby compounding the problem, years of not talking to each other, unlikely coalitions being forged to combat other unlikely coalitions and so on. All in all, more than enough to keep even the next generation occupied. Fortunately, this sort of thing doesn't happen as often nowadays, since a modicum of restraint in fertility seems to have recently made an appearance.

Towards good futures

If what I've said gives you the impression that siblings cannot stay together in companionable harmony, perish the thought! I've known many brothers and sisters who have always been, still are and will always be close, and free of conflict. If you look at successful sibling relationships, you'll realise they practise, whether consciously or unknowingly, a few key behaviours. Realising that siblings who grow together emotionally stay together, they remain involved in each other's lives, but with restraint, using adult relationship patterns, not childhood ones. Siblings who live in the past, stay stuck in past patterns. Good futures are more important than great pasts, and to make this happen, sibling relationships too need to be worked on; they are not automatic ‘givens'. If siblings develop open, conflict-resolving patterns of communication, then obviously their relationships would resemble adult equations. They then learn to live with each others' differences without feeling the need to react strongly to these. In other words, siblings who become friends are generally more strongly bonded for life.

By following these simple norms, sibling relationships in adulthood can be healthy and companionable. The fact that siblings have a shared past implies that a bond already exists. One doesn't really have to start from scratch, and this can be a huge advantage. I agree you can choose your friends but are stuck with your siblings; but it need not be an unpleasant ‘stuck'. They can be blessings and your friends, if you choose to make them that.

Oh, and Happy New Year.

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com