- Psychological research has largely ignored siblings, but patterns set in childhood emerge in adulthood.
- Adults may use "sibling transference," unconsciously treating others as if they were a sibling.
- The sibling dynamic can appear in partner relationships, friendships, even co-worker interactions.
For more than a century, psychological research has largely ignored the importance of sibling relationships. Even Freud refers to the sibling relationship just five times in his two dozen volumes of work. Only during the past two decades have researchers begun to conduct meaningful studies on how siblings affect one another’s lives.
Most recently, Karen Gail Lewis, Ph.D., who has been a sibling therapist for 50 years, has tried to address this glaring blind spot in psychological understanding. Earlier this year, she released the groundbreaking Sibling Therapy, which explores how siblings profoundly shape one another’s personalities and lives. Highlighting her cases and research, she illustrates in her book how early hurts or distorted perceptions with our first playmates are often re-enacted in adult relationships.
Lewis claims that many problems in adulthood can be traced to unresolved issues with siblings, as the early sibling relationship is “a laboratory for all subsequent relationships.” This is the time, she explains, when children learn to start, resolve, and avoid fights; to compete, save face, negotiate, and cooperate. When, as adults, they find themselves in conflict, they often revert to the skills or patterns they established with siblings in childhood.
She identifies some specific ways in which the sibling relationship reappears, defines a life, and flows through generations. Often, adults can connect these unconscious patterns to the ways they or their parents related to a sibling.
Parents re-create their own sibling issues with their children
First, Lewis says, parents expect their children to have sibling relationships similar to their own. Parents who have had a strong, positive sibling bond believe their children will enjoy the same dynamic. Conversely, parents who experienced deep conflicts with a sibling may anticipate and fear their children will face the same challenges.
Consequently, mothers and fathers may overreact to normal sibling squabbling. Those with negative experiences, for example, may step in quickly to ease conflicts. Such overeager intervention, Dr. Lewis says, sends the message that “the children cannot solve their own problems.”
Unwittingly, parents may drive a wedge between adult siblings, as adult children often revert to a version of their childish squabbles when with their parents. Lewis identifies the following ways parents may perpetuate arguments and set up their children for long-standing sibling antagonism.
- Labeling and promoting roles that polarize siblings.
- Pitting one adult child against the other. Lewis says that even something as seemingly innocuous as seeking guidance from one child and not the other can create resentment.
- Triangulating by passing information about one child to another, drawing one child into a parent’s personal problems and requesting secrecy, or by sharing dislikes about one child with another.
- Providing money or gifts to one child and not the other, without an explanation or without finding a way to compensate other children.
Siblings recreate parents’ conflicts
Parents also model relationships and communication styles for siblings. Siblings may copy what they see in their parents’ relationships. If, for instance, one parent behaves aggressively while the other is passive, one child may attack and the other may refuse to fight back, mirroring their parents’ conflicts. In some homes, even when parents try not to argue in front of the children, anger permeates the environment and is indirectly transmitted. In turn, children refract and reflect that anger off each other.
“If both parents fight verbally or physically, the children may absorb the tension and spew it at each other,” Lewis writes in Sibling Therapy. "Fights may serve the purpose of distracting parents from their own fights as they now have to discipline their children.”
Siblings transfer their dynamic to a love relationship
Lewis calls the relationship with one’s siblings a “first marriage.” She has identified sibling transference, wherein siblings serve as a training ground for the partners adult children ultimately choose.
“Siblings provide the first experiences of living intimately with peers, people of the same hierarchal level and the same generation,” she explains. Some people are “surprised that how they sometimes feel in their current marriage or love relationship is similar to how they felt in some problematic situations with siblings in their ‘first marriage.’”
Just as people abused by parents often marry abusive partners, children abused by a sibling may make the same choice. One of the few studies on the topic found that when sexual abuse occurs within the family, an unconscious transference of sibling “ghosts” may lead the abused to marry an abuser.
Sibling ghosts at work and in friendships
Lewis theorizes that siblings even bring their ghosts to work. Those who are unhappy in a job or chronic underachievers may have long-standing patterns of self-sabotage established in childhood.
“If the person felt intimidated by an antagonistic sibling now, a coworker’s behavior may trigger those old feelings, leaving that person intimidated and cowed,” Dr. Lewis writes. “Another person whose sibling issues are not triggered may find that coworker quite agreeable or just annoying.”
Several studies have explored how an older sibling influences a younger sibling and how these early relationship patterns stamp friendships. For example, a child who felt inferior to a sibling may choose friends who dominate and make all the decisions. Some even transfer experiences of sibling abuse to friends. If a person was abused emotionally, verbally, physically, or sexually by a sibling in childhood, Dr. Lewis explains, that person may unconsciously be drawn to the familiar pattern in a toxic friend.
Lewis sees her work — counseling siblings — as the key to addressing core issues for her clients. “I love working with siblings,” she says. “I love the intensity that exists among brothers and sisters who love each other yet who fought vehemently over a toy and have the same degree of passion as adults. I find it thrilling to see siblings meet in conflict and tension, to guide their interactions, and to watch them leave having revamped their images of each other and themselves.”
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Lewis, Dr. Karen Gail. (2023) Sibling Therapy: The Ghosts from Childhood that Haunt Your Clients' Love and Work. Oxford University Press
Sammantico, M., Donizetti, A. R.,Parrello, S., & GDe Rosa, B. (2019) Predicting young adults' romantic relationship quality: Sibling ties and adult attachment styles. Journal of Family Issues, 40 (5) 662-688. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X18820381
Combrinck-Graham, L. (1986). When parents separate or divorce: The sibling system. In M.D. Kahn & K.G. Lewis (Eds.), Sibling therapy: Life span and clinical issues (pp. 190-208), W. W. Norton