Siblings and Rivalry: Do You Like Your Brother?

Ever since Sigmund Freud had his say, the words "sibling" and "rivalry" have been as inseparable as the Smothers Brothers. Freud believed that siblings – and brothers, Especially – had an almost irresistible urge to compete with each other, defeat each other, and strut around like bantam roosters while they were at it.

Freud was not wrong. But his emphasis on rivalry became a doctrine. And it left overshadowed and understudied the less dramatic, but equally significant, peacemaking that occurs between many brothers as they mature out of their childhood needs.

In her personal and perceptive book, Original Kin, Philadelphia journalist Marian Sandmaier takes us on a journey into the adult sibling bond, uncovering the roots of its discontents and its potential for change. In the end, she shows us that adults who create close relationships with their siblings tend to feel more secure, supported and fulfilled.

"There's an old cliche: 'You had to be there.' Well, no one will ever be there in the same way as a sibling," Sandmaier says. "The adult sibling relationship is unique because it offers a rare depth of mutual sympathy."

This has certainly been true between me and my brother Leigh. Three years younger than me, Leigh was my competitor from the start. We fought over toys and friends and the lines that divided the space in our common bedroom. We competed in sports, chess and academics.

This rivalry, with its emotional and physical tormenting, continued into our late adolescence. Then, a family crisis struck. Our older brother became ill.

Almost immediately, my relationship with Leigh began to change. Animosity gave way to an uneasy alliance, then to a growing appreciation and, finally, to a genuine friendship. We discovered that once we put our enmity aside, we could talk about family concerns, and our own lives, with an understanding we could find nowhere else.

Now in our 40s, Leigh and I still have moments of competition. But it no longer dominates the relationship. Trust and affection have emerged as equal partners. My wife and I named our first child after Leigh; I was the best man at his wedding.

Sandmaier, who interviewed 80 siblings for her book, says a family crisis -- the death of a parent, for example -- often triggers this transition from fighting to friendship. But some brothers, she adds, end their rivalry naturally in their 30s or 40s, as they discover that perpetual competition (in business as well as relationships) can be wearing and unrewarding.

Sometimes, Sandmaier says, one brother will refuse to make peace. The past may be too painful for him, or the present too hectic. Often, however, a simple phone conversation or dinner together can help brothers begin to shed the armor that once seemed necessary for survival, but now keeps them apart.

Sandmaier offers no further prescription for breaking the sibling barrier; each relationship has a different set of dynamics. But she says that in her interviews with adult brothers, she witnessed a joy and ease in those who had put their differences aside.

"There was a great deal of hilarity and joking around," she recalls. "There seemed to be a lot of pleasure in their being together, and a deep sense of satisfaction. Each seemed to be saying to the other: 'I know who you are, and I like you that way.'"

What is/was your relationship with your siblings? Write to me at E-Mail.

©2010, Neil Chethik

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For 20 years, Neil Chethik has made it his goal to find out what men really think -- about family, relationships, fathering, aging, sex, and more. He is the author of two best-selling books, Fatherloss (Hyperion) and VoiceMale (Simon & Schuster). He’s been a nationally syndicated columnist, a big-hall speaker, and now, the national media’s go-to guy for what men really think about their everyday lives. Contact: Neil Chethik, P.O. Box 8071, Lexington, KY 40533 or 859.361.1659 or E-Mail or

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