Diane talks with Mary McCord, Legal Director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center.
Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
Stories of siblings are everywhere in our culture from famous books like “Little Women” to some of the best known tales of the Bible. They provide morality tales and inform how we think about our own brothers and sisters. An estimated 80 percent of Americans have siblings, and whether those relationships are good, bad or somewhere in between, researchers and therapists say they are some of the most important and longest of our lives. But they are also little understood and often overlooked. Guest host Indira Lakshmanan and her panel of guests discuss what shapes adult sibling relationships.
- Deborah Tannen Professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of many books, including "The Argument Culture" and most recently, "You Were Always Mom's Favorite."
- Geoffrey Greif Author, "Adult Sibling Relationships"; professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work
- Jeanne Safer Psychotherapist; author of "Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret" and "The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling"
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's out today. The vast majority of Americans have siblings, yet there's surprisingly little research on the primal bond between adult brothers and sisters, one that typically outlives our relationships with our parents and certainly predates our ties to our partners and children. Now, emerging research is casting new light on the subject.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoining me in our Washington, D.C. studio, are Geoffrey Greif, co-author with Michael Woolley of the new book, "Adult Sibling Relationships" and Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and also author of a book on siblings. And from NPR studios in New York, Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist and author of "Cain's Legacy: Liberating Siblings From a Lifetime Of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret." So welcome to all of you and thanks so much for being here on this snowy day.
MR. GEOFFREY GREIFThank you for having us.
MS. DEBORAH TANNENPleasure to be here.
MS. JEANNE SAFERDelighted. Delighted to have two siblings in the studio.
LAKSHMANANAbsolutely, absolutely. Siblings in spirit and we'll talk about that notion, too, the notion of emotional siblings. And we'd love to hear from all of you, too, our listeners. We always want you to join the conversation, but especially with this hour. Tell us your stories of special bonds or lasting strains with your own brothers and sisters and what they mean to you after all these years, after those crowded cross country car trips and the fights for attention for your parents.
LAKSHMANANIs your brother the first person you turn to in a crisis or has your sister never forgiven you for being your parents' favorite? You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at email@example.com or join us on Facebook or Twitter. So Geoff, I want to start with you first. You've focused previously on male friendships, single fathers, at risk youths. Your new book is about adult siblings. So why siblings? What is so important about this particular bond?
GREIFWell, this was the third of a series of horizontal relationships that I've been looking at. Most people, most psychotherapists, most researchers on the family look vertically, parent/child intergeneration. I've been looking cross generations and I thought that because these relationships are the longest ones that we have, they're longer than the ones with our parents, longer than the ones with our partners and mostly longer than the ones with our friends, that we needed in adulthood, especially, to get a chance to understand what happens across the lifespan.
GREIFThere's been very little written about adult sibling relationships. Michael Woolley and I focus on people 40 and over. We have interview data from 262 siblings and are trying to write a book for mental health practitioners and others to help them to understand how to deal with this most important of relationships.
LAKSHMANANOkay. Well, Jeanne, you are one of those mental health practitioners and you say that this has been an incredibly understudied area. You say even the father of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud, barely mentioned it. How is that?
LAKSHMANANHe mentioned everything else.
SAFERIt's astonishing, isn't it?
LAKSHMANANHow can he not mention this?
SAFERWe were talking -- I know. There are five references to brothers and sisters in the 400 page index of Freud's complete works.
SAFERAnd there's one reference to siblings and there's also a reference to Siberia and my feeling is that he relegated them all there, but I'm delighted that the people on this show are bringing them back because in my field, it's been an astonishing silence. My book, my first book on siblings, which is called "The Normal One," which was about problem sibling relationships, serious problem sibling relationships, was the first presentation at the APA, American Psychological Association in 25 years. Where are all the siblings?
LAKSHMANANWell, not to dwell to Freud, but...
LAKSHMANANBut I'm curious, you would've thought he was an only child.
SAFERI'm not hearing anything now.
LAKSHMANANOh, I'm sorry. We seem to be having a technical problem with Jeanne not able to hear. Have you got us back, Jeanne? No, okay.
SAFERYes, now I have you, thank you.
LAKSHMANANOkay, right. So I...
SAFERNow, I don't.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, can you hear us now? Okay, we'll come back to Jeanne once that audio problem is fixed. So Deborah, how much influence do our siblings have on us, on who we become as adults?
TANNENWho we become and who we are. The book I wrote about sisters is called "You Were Always Mom's Favorite" and you were right in asking at the beginning whether the sense that one or another was the favorite might not be a factor in your relationship throughout your lives and it is. What fascinated me about sisters, in particular, is that sibling relationships are both clearly hierarchical, that is the older and the younger, that factor never goes away, and they're also so close. And in my earlier work about women and men, I talked about how women's relationships and conversations tended to focus on the question are we close or distant, whereas men's tended to focus on the question who's up, who's down.
TANNENWe always know all relationships are both hierarchical and we also negotiate how close or distant we are. But that's one of the things that fascinated me about siblings, how do you balance the interaction of the power differences because of whether you're older or younger with the closeness. And just a quick example that captured that for me. Many of you may remember the book "Having Our Say" about the Delaney sisters. And in that book, Bessie Delaney is quoted as saying, "sometimes my sister looks at me in that big sister sort of way. She doesn't approve of me sometimes." And when she said that, she was 101.
LAKSHMANANWow. It never goes away.
TANNENBut her sister, Sadie, was 103. And Sadie is quoted in the book as saying, "the only reason I'm alive is to keep her alive. If she lives to 120, I'll just have to live to 122 so I can take care of her."
LAKSHMANANSo still competitive and still caring.
TANNENCaring. So deeply caring and...
TANNEN...still on somewhat -- you could say competitive. It isn't only that. Youngers often feel that olders are judgmental and that we're bossy, which is often attached to the older sibling. Sheryl Sandberg called attention to that. Women in authority are often called bossy. Why? Because they have to tell people what to do and girls tend not to like the girls who tell other people what to do.
LAKSHMANANWho often with girls I think tend to be either only children or oldest children.
TANNENOften -- yes, yes. And the oldest sister is such an unfair, unjust position. I'm a youngest of three and my oldest sister is very happy that I wrote this book 'cause it gave me so much more compassion for oldest sisters. They are put in the position of telling the younger ones what to do and then, often, they're resented for it. You're not my mother.
LAKSHMANANWell, let me ask about that, Geoff, about birth order 'cause it feels like there are so many factors that go into play that will determine a sibling relationship, you know, the number of siblings, the gender, the birth order and, of course, with every one of those, there's the inevitable cliche that the older children are bossy, that the middle children are the difficult ones, that the youngest ones are the spoiled ones. How true are those cliches and how can you even study or generalize about siblings, given all of these variables?
GREIFThat's actually one of the things that Michael and I avoid doing in the book for just the reasons that you talk about, that you have so many sibling configurations, there's also the age gap, from the oldest to the youngest. There's the fact, also, that parents are in a different place for every child that's born. Usually, parents' income is rising, assuming the parents stay together, so every child is raised in a different family. No child has the same experiences 'cause no child is being raised by -- with the same siblings 'cause the other sibling is engaged in raising them and in being around them.
GREIFSo it's very, very difficult to do a very good look at sibling order and how that intersects with gender, how many siblings there are in the family, the age range and what's happening with the parents and their reactions. Parents sometimes interact with people very differently based on their gender. You may have a father who favors -- who was a middle child himself and he may favor his middle child because he was a middle child. And you may have the youngest favoring the youngest -- a youngest parent favoring a youngest child and so on, and the oldest and the oldest, as Deborah was talking about.
GREIFSo there are multiple factors to try and think about if we want to nail this down. I think the important thing is to think generally about what can individual people do to try and improve the relationships that they have if they are problematic. And many of these are not problematic. They are very loving. Many of the ones that we found are very loving, though there is an element of ambiguity and a level of ambivalence that we need to talk about with relationships with siblings also.
LAKSHMANANHum. What do you mean when you say ambiguity and ambivalence?
GREIFWhen we started the book, we thought we were going to be able to put these into very neat categories as others have done. But we found that sibling relationships across the lifespan, that especially in adulthood change. 70 percent of our 262 siblings said that they had changed their feelings, changed their relationships, had grown in and out of touch and in and out of closeness with siblings over the course of their lifetime. So we found that using a lens borrowed from others of ambivalence and ambiguity -- so for ambivalence, for not really clear -- for ambiguity, we're not really clear why someone does what they do.
GREIFAnd for ambivalence, we're trying to capture there that these are really very mixed emotions that we may have about our siblings that it's not always clear-cut affection or clear-cut estrangement that is a result. There's a mixture that goes in and out as other things happen across the lifespan.
LAKSHMANANWell, so much of this, I mean, I think we think about our language and close male friends say he's a brother to me. Women talk about sisterhoods. We have fraternities and sororities. It feels as if we long to share close bonds with other human beings as an approximation for or even replacement for an ideal sibling.
TANNENYeah, that's absolutely right. In fact, when I talk to people -- I interviewed over 100 women for the book about sisters. Almost immediately, they told me whether or not they were close and whether or not they were the same. So they might say, we're very close even though we're very different. Or they might say, we're not very close. We're very different. So actually being the same or different might not determine whether you're close or not, but that was always the question asked.
LAKSHMANANAll right. We're going to take a short break, but we will have more about adult sibling relationships and hopefully how to make them better coming up. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. This hour, we're talking about adult sibling relationships with Geoffrey Greif, the author of "Adult Sibling Relationships." He's also a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Also in the studio with us, Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of many, many books, including, "You Were Always Mom's Favorite." And joining us from New York, from NPR studio, Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist, who's the author of "Cain's Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret."
LAKSHMANANAll right. So all three of you have written books about siblings. So it seems natural to ask you what about your relationships with your own siblings. Deborah, why don't you start us off? If it's not too personal a question.
TANNENOh, no, no. Not at all. I'm the youngest of three. And getting back to something that Geoffrey said earlier, I have one sister eight years older and one sister two years older and that is a world of difference. At the beginning of the book, there's a photograph of us when I was six, my other sister was eight and then 14-year-old, she was like another adult.
TANNENAnd, yeah, so what that spread is, is very common. And the other comment that Geoffrey made also applies and I make the same comment in my book. We were born into the same family, but it's a different family when each of us is born. And my father -- just as a quick, specific example of that -- he was an immigrant, never graduated from high school, went to law school at night, got his degree in the Depression. And so it took him a long time to actually get into law. So my older sister grew up her entire life with a father who was a cutter in the garment district.
TANNENWhen I was in junior high, my father became a lawyer.
TANNENWell, he was a lawyer the whole time, but he worked as a lawyer.
TANNENWhat a difference.
LAKSHMANANA different home life, absolutely.
TANNENYeah. And we talked about this also, the kind of -- whether you, quote, "go away to college," which was a big deal...
TANNEN...growing up as I did in Brooklyn. So my two sisters went to Hunter College and Brooklyn College. And I got to go away to a, actually state college, but that experience of getting out of the house by going away to college, again, huge difference in our lives.
LAKSHMANANRight. And it might have also created some rivalries amongst the three of you in terms of feelings of favoritism, which is something I definitely want to get back to.
TANNENBut, I have to tell you, it's very funny. Susan Stamberg interviewed us when the book came out.
TANNENAnd at the very end she asked, who's your favorite? Which one of you was the favorite? And we were totally unprepared for that because that was really not something we talked or thought about. And we actually got into a little bit of an argument about it, right there when she went off the air. And she kept it on the air and put it on.
LAKSHMANANGreat moments in NPR history.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Geoff, tell us about your relationship with your siblings.
GREIFWell, I'm the youngest of three and I'm very close to my older brother and my older sister. They're -- we're each three years apart. And Michael Woolley -- and we talk about this in the beginning of the book -- is the second of six. And he has step- and half-siblings. And his are more strained than are mine. So when we try and interpret data -- because we have a lot of the interview data -- we are both coming at this data from different places. And we try to work together as a team to bring both his more strained relationship view of his own siblings to what others are experiencing and my more rosy, I guess you could call it, view of my siblings and how we try and balance out that in interpreting the data that we have in the book.
TANNENI'd say mine is rosy too and maybe that's why we enjoyed writing the books.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, we're still having some audio problems with Jeanne in New York. So we will have to come back to her to find out about her family history. But I'm struck, you know, thinking about what it is that actually affects -- the factors that shape how close we feel or don't feel to our siblings in adulthood. And I want to get back to that piece about favoritism.
LAKSHMANANSo, Deborah, maybe you can take this up. Because it seems to me that a lot of the burden that siblings feel comes from parental expectations. And the dynamic and rivalries that parents can create, I think -- I'm sure, in many cases unintentionally -- but they can pit children against one another by labeling one as the smart one or one as the awkward one, even if that's not longer true when they grow up.
TANNENYes. I think it's the comparison that is constant and can sometimes be inspiring. You can be inspired by seeing what a sibling did. Or it can make you feel either that you are not favored or that you have no chance. So, just some specific examples of that: A woman who told me that her sister asked her, did you ever wonder why I played the bagpipes?
TANNENShe says, no, why did you? Because you didn't.
TANNENHow could a woman who was 5'3" think that she was a giant?
TANNENBecause her sisters were all 5'1".
LAKSHMANANSo it's all relative.
TANNENYes. And the woman who told me that she always thought she was stupid. She graduated number 10 in her class. But her sister had graduated number two.
TANNENSo these comparisons are always there. And in a sense, I think we see our siblings as -- she's you, or he is you, but not you.
TANNENIt's like seeing yourself in a different movie...
TANNENOr a, you know, movie where you get a different part. And so it always makes you compare yourself. And that can be both a good thing, but also can be undermining in a way. Another example -- and, again, Geoffrey said something about parents who might identify, given the role in the family compared to theirs -- a woman told me her older sister was always making -- she always felt stupid compared to her older sister. And she told her mother about it, kind of expecting her mother to say, oh, no, you're just as smart. The mother said, yeah, I know how you feel. I had an older sister who was smarter than me, too.
LAKSHMANANOh. Oh, no. So, in fact, validating the point, when she was actually being looked to for some reassurance...
LAKSHMANAN...that there was not that issue.
TANNENYeah. So those comparisons are really, really -- in some ways wonderful, like people love to say, oh, we're the same. You know, we both love sushi and we both...
TANNEN...have the same habit. And, oh, you do that just like I do. That's so great. But then sometimes the comparisons can make each of us feel that we somehow were left out.
LAKSHMANANWell, I'm actually the parent of two young boys...
LAKSHMANAN...who are quite different. Just -- their characters are quite different and their interests are quite different. But, you know, I -- as I think many people listening as a parent -- wonder what kind of -- your research, what does it tell us about how parents should behave towards their children to avoid these feelings of favoritism or being put into a box. Jeanne, you're a psychotherapist. I wonder if you can give us all some advice to how to prevent this?
SAFEROne of the things that I discovered that was very important and kind of counterintuitive is, if the parents think about their own sibling relationships when they were growing up and how their parents treated them and what the dynamics were, that they will do less projections onto their children.
SAFERAnd they'll be able to see their children as who they really are, rather than as somehow parts of them and sometimes disavowed parts of them.
SAFERI know, in my own family, my brother was what my father didn't want to be. And I was kind of what he wanted. And this made a lifelong alienation between my brother and me.
SAFERAnd it made it very difficult for my father to appreciate qualities in my brother, which were impressive. He was an outstanding musician. And so was my father. And I wasn't so great. Okay? But I think these -- this is the one thing that we never think about. And it's so remarkable how much -- as someone was mentioning before -- the first-born parent has a particular kind of relationship with the first-born child. And it's not a matter of birth order. It's a matter of identification.
LAKSHMANANSo was your troubled relationship with your brother -- was that part of the reason for writing your book, "The, quote 'Normal' One"?
SAFERIt was the reason. I realized that I had never thought about my relationship with my brother, which is pretty amazing, since I had 350 years of analysis as an analyst.
SAFERAnd it was something that was so painful that I wanted to be -- we were talking before, Deborah was mentioning about how you have mixed feelings about a sibling, you admire them and you fight with them. But, in many of these situations, where there's a serious-problem sibling, all you want to be is not that person.
LAKSHMANANHmm. Hmm. Well, that, you know, that is...
SAFERAnd it affects your whole life.
LAKSHMANANThat's hard to hear. Because, of course, you know, parents...
LAKSHMANAN...are doing our very best to try to...
LAKSHMANAN...bring up our children in a way that they don't compare themselves to each other and that they're each valued for the qualities they have.
SAFERBut it's not conscious at all. This is not conscious at all.
SAFERAnd it can be remedied to some degree through awareness. And that's why I'm so delighted that these books are out. Because this can help people -- it's consciousness raising, really.
LAKSHMANANWell, okay. So what about those of us who are already grown up? Do most people feel close to their siblings? Or do they tend to drift apart?
SAFERIt's a mixed -- it's a very mixed bag. About a third of people, when I wrote "Cain's Legacy," had very mixed feelings about their brother or sister. Some relationships had gotten better over the years. And a lot of them had drifted away. And one of the things that I was very struck by is what I called the geographical proximity fallacy.
SAFERIt's the fancy word by saying, oh, I would be close to her if she only lived closer to me, you know? And then I was thinking, when you were living in the same house, you didn't feel so great. So these relationships are quite, as someone said, quite fluid over time.
LAKSHMANANHmm. All right. Well, we are just being bombarded with emails and calls...
SAFEROh, yes, I bet.
LAKSHMANAN...from everybody who wants to know about their own situation and how to make it better. So I feel I must go to some of these emails right away. We have an anonymous email here that says, I have one sibling and we were raised in a very psychologically challenged environment. While I understand that nurture can be different for different children even in the same environment, at what point does a child become responsible for his or her own behavior towards the other child? And this person is in their 60s now. If how one child treats the other remains abuse throughout adulthood, whether based on childhood experiences or not, is it wise for the abused child -- which I think is in this case the writer -- to eventually just cut ties? Geoff.
GREIFIt's going to vary greatly from one person to the next. These are very complicated, lifelong relationships. We've been talking about the ambivalence in these relationships and this is an example of extreme ambivalence -- a person who is unclear about what to do with this very difficult and historically abusive relationship. We have a notion in the United States and in other countries that we're supposed to get along with our siblings -- a Norman Rockwell view of this.
GREIFAnd part of what we're trying to say here, all of us I think making the same point, that we need to get comfortable with the fact that these are going to be gray relationships, they're going to be ambivalent, they're going to be ambiguous. Yes, there's affection with them. But we may not know exactly what is going on in all of our relationships. To the caller's point, it's going to be a matter of plus-minus, if I engage and try and get close again with this person, is there going to be a downside to that? If I try and separate completely and cut off all contact, what's the downside to that?
GREIFMy only advice would be to not fixed in any one place and to stay open to change in either direction. Because life is full of changes. Parents die. You look at a movie, you read a book and you change your view of things. And I think that's what this caller needs to stay open to.
LAKSHMANANHmm. Still a very painful sentiment after all these years to not know how to deal with that relationship.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got another email here from Jerry, who says, my brother was born in 1935. I was born in 1945. My sister was adopted in 1958. We were really three, separate families. I was closer to my brother than my sister. But I don't believe that adoption was the reason for the distance. It was probably more that my brother died in 1959 and I lost a significant point in my life when he died. My sister and I were never able to close the gap. Was it due to the trauma in my life at my brother's death? Deborah.
TANNENYeah. I'm actually glad that this issue came up. I had an earlier book called, "I Only Say This Because I Love You," about adult family relationships. And I fully intended to have a chapter in that book about siblings who had died. Because so many of the people I talked to mentioned those deceased siblings as still part of the family, still part of their lives. I think it's something important for everybody to keep in mind. When a sibling dies, people often overlook the sibling and the trauma to the sibling.
TANNENThey'll be asking them, oh, how's your mother doing? How's your father doing? When the question should be, how are you doing.
TANNENBecause it is such a huge loss. And I think they often go through the same feelings of, why didn't I do something different? What could I have done different?
LAKSHMANANWhere the sympathy goes to the parents when, in fact, the sibling needs as much sympathy.
TANNENYes. Because a sibling is so much a part of who you see yourself as being. And when that sibling is gone, I think you -- maybe it's even more traumatic, because the whole question of who you are...
TANNEN...I think is called into question. Not to mention the huge, huge gap from that death.
LAKSHMANANWe have a similar point from another listener on Twitter who says that their -- the person's sister died in 2014 from cancer at age 32. My heart remains broken. We were so close. And now I'm the only one left who knows all of our history. That is so painful to read. We have another -- Jeanne, I'm sorry.
SAFERYes. I just wanted to bring up a different side of things...
SAFER...for the moment. It's absolutely true that in many of these relationships, one grieves very profoundly for losing a part of the self, because, of course a sibling is always part of you. But there are times -- and I think we have to honor this also -- where the death of a very difficult or terrible situation with a sibling brings some relief.
SAFERAnd that people feel terribly guilty about feeling this sort of relief. So there's -- that's another side of things.
SAFERWhich we just need to know about.
SAFERIt's certainly not true of every sibling. And I think it's extremely painful. But it's a fact of life for some people.
LAKSHMANANHmm. We have another comment from Twitter. A listener says, when siblings grow older, do you find that political and/or religious beliefs tend to separate siblings or fracture their relationships? Geoff.
GREIFWe actually asked that specifically and we did learn that, compared to other topics -- we asked our sample a series of questions: Can you talk about your health? Can you talk about your children? Can you talk about your relationships? Can you talk about politics, religion, sex and money? And as we can all guess where this is going...
GREIFPeople have the most trouble talking about sex with their sibling, and then money.
GREIFMost people feel relatively comfortable talking about friendships, politics and religion, though there are a lot of people that have grown up and said, I don't know where he or she got his or her political views, but we're on very different pages and we just agree, when we get together for those holidays every so often, we're just not going to talk about politics.
GREIFIt is wise.
LAKSHMANANJeanne thinks that's wise...
GREIFIt is wise.
LAKSHMANAN...says the psychotherapist, to avoid that topic.
SAFERIt's good to know what you can't talk about.
GREIFExactly. The boundaries there are clear, Jeanne.
LAKSHMANANRight. And it's...
SAFERThat's really good. Because having -- being married to someone from the absolute opposite political end of the spectrum, I have learned that from many, many years.
SAFERYou've got to keep your mouth shut.
LAKSHMANANI was going to say, it's not just siblings.
LAKSHMANANIt can be friends and anyone else...
LAKSHMANAN...old Uncle Harry, whoever. All right, Deborah, just a quick question before we go to our break. When it comes to communication, you know, Geoff was talking about what people are comfortable talking about. What is more important? What the siblings talk about or how often they talk?
TANNENThere were a number of studies that showed that people that had sisters were happier and less since adults. And many of the articles written at that time said, it must be because sisters talk about personal things. Well, there does seem to be quite a bit of evidence that sisters are more likely than brothers to talk about personal things. But I found, in my own study, that there were not -- there was no huge advantage to talking about personal things versus not personal things, but it was how often you talked.
TANNENThat, in itself, could be a sign of caring. So one woman I talked to, for example, said she had brothers and sisters. She tried long, hour-long conversations with both. The brothers might be about books and politics. And one brother called her at 5:00 a.m. as a prank. But she still took it as a sign of love, I'm thinking of you.
LAKSHMANANAbsolutely. So maybe scheduling calls every Sunday with our siblings. All right, we're going to take a short break. Coming up, more of your calls and your questions on adult siblings. We'll be right back. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We have three fantastic guests here, talking about adult sibling relationships, Geoffrey Greif, author of "Adult Sibling Relationships," a professor at the University of Maryland, Deborah Tannen, a professor at Georgetown University and author of many books, and Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist in New York and author also of a couple of books about adult sibling relationships.
LAKSHMANANSo Geoff, one of the things we were talking about before the break was the question about favoritism and how that ends up being one of the most important factors that shapes how close we feel or don't feel in adulthood to our siblings.
GREIFRight, what Michael Woolley and I found in writing the book and doing the research is that when we asked people, and again our sample were people 40 to 90, when we asked them did they perceive that their parents played favorites, or their parents -- did their parents interfere, when there was interference, the perception of interference, perception of favoritism both in childhood and in adulthood, it played out to the negative side in the relationship. So it's important. I think it goes back to your earlier question, Indira. What do parents do when they are trying to raise children? To what extent do they get engaged in what their children are doing? Do they encourage sibling closeness?
GREIFWe did find that if one person perceives there was interference or favoritism, whether you were the favored or the disfavored person, it does redound to the negative when you are an adult.
LAKSHMANANJeanne, you wanted to add something.
SAFERYes, one thing that was fascinating that I discovered is that children have some sensitivity and perception of who's the favorite from the age of one and that the person who feels more favored always does a little bit better in life, which is also very painful.
SAFERIf you have a situation where somebody is going to be favored, it's really better to be the one, which is truly tragic.
LAKSHMANANAnd Deborah, your book about sisters was called "You Were Always Mom's Favorite." Is favoritism and rivalry of that kind, is it more pronounced among sisters?
TANNENOh, I don't think so. I think it's a sibling thing. But some of this is almost structural. So for example there are always more pictures of the first child, and that often comes across to the younger ones as the older one was favored. Well, part of it is they had more time because and, you know, you've got a toddler and a baby, you don't have as much time to take pictures, and I think...
LAKSHMANANMaybe the iPhone will change that, hopefully.
TANNENMaybe. Harriet Beecher Stowe made a comment. The first child is pure poetry. The rest are prose.
GREIFHillary Clinton will like that one.
LAKSHMANANThat stings. All right, let's go to the phones. We've got Brian from Houston, Texas, who's been waiting patiently. Brian, go ahead.
BRIANI am the second oldest of seven of us all together.
LAKSHMANANWow, that's a lot.
BRIANIt is a lot. We're all about a year apart from one another. We were raised Mormon, and we were taught that family is everything, and we were very, very close growing up. However, as I became older, I am a homosexual, and that has separated me from my family. And I know that your panel has already mentioned that adult siblings shouldn't discuss religion or political views, but my question for the panel is, what about how those political or religious views affect the dynamic relationships between...
LAKSHMANANYeah, excellent question. Thank you so much for sharing that, Brian. Go ahead, Jeanne, you wanted to respond.
SAFERIt's not an easy thing. A number of the people that I spoke to had -- they said, well, you know, my sister's, you know, wife, you know, she's like a member of the family, but of course my brother's wife is a member of the family. So I don't know what the problem is, she said. And you get a lot of this. And I think it's a very difficult thing. It really -- I think you should definitely bring it up, but don't expect you're going to get the right answer, the engaged, sensitive, related answer. A lot of that depends on what your relationship is.
TANNENYeah, I'm very glad that a caller raised the issue of a gay sibling. It could be that, it could be other things, that for some reason, by definition, siblings see you as not like them. And I think that's very painful. As I said at the beginning, we're always balancing, how are we the same, how are we different. And it may make -- it gives the impression of being far more different than they probably really are because of assumptions about homosexuality, about -- or if someone changes their religion or marries out of the religion, marries out of the race. All of these things can kind of put a spotlight on pressures that are there in all families, but..
SAFERAnd there's a new one now, which is what if the person changes gender.
SAFERMolly Haskell wrote a book a number of years about her brother transforming into a sister.
SAFERAnd what that, what that did to the family relationship. She loved him deeply, actually.
LAKSHMANANAnd that didn't -- it didn't hurt the relationship? That's good to hear.
TANNENAnd there are many wonderful examples of families, the loved, you know, it kind of -- it sounds like a cliché, love conquers all, but there certainly are wonderful examples where families do stretch across all kinds of differences to see the ways they're the same.
LAKSHMANANWell, let me ask, it feels to me as if just, you know, not only from reading books but knowing people, we all know some family who has been riven apart, the adult siblings, over something that we were supposed to learn when we were little kids, which is sharing, people, whether it's sharing the burden of caring for elderly parents or sharing those parents' assets in a fair way once the parents die. How do these rifts happen, Geoff, and how do we get over them?
GREIFWe have a number of those examples in the book about estates that were not settled clearly or people believing the will was going to say something, and then when it got read at the death of the second parent, people were shocked by what happens to the estate, to the assets. These are very complicated issues. Children do not always go through life as successfully as each other, so siblings may end up in different places. One sibling may need more money than the other, and this may be something that the parent is trying to rectify.
GREIFNow I'm not saying whether or not that's the correct thing for a parent to do or if a parent should divide everything up equally. The research does say that this should be discussed before the deaths so people are on board with it and at least have a chance to discuss with the parent or parents what they have in mind, what their thinking is. They may not like it, but that leaves a legacy of openness, which is what parents want to do with all these issues that we're discussing, whether it's coming out as gay, whether it's marrying outside of the race and bringing someone new into the family.
GREIFFamilies, ideally, that area adaptive can discuss these things and then deal with the consequences and not have them be hidden and foisted upon everybody when they're most upset, which is when a parent dies.
SAFERAnd yet I think that sometimes parents who don't make those decisions, don't decide because they feel like it's easier not to.
GREIFYeah, right, right.
TANNENAnd that really leaves you with a problem.
SAFERThey don't want to have to say John gets this and -- right. Right, if they don't want to say John gets this, and Bob gets this, and Mary gets this, then John, Bob and Mary end up fighting about it, and no, I should get that thing because it meant something to me.
GREIFRight, so it's very important.
TANNENSomeone made a wonderful comment to me. He said -- this was about a conflict like that that had arisen among him -- his family with his brothers. It's your last chance to grab the love for yourself.
SAFEROh God, that's right.
TANNENAnd I think that's -- all these things involving siblings and parents come down to that.
GREIFWell said, Deborah, yeah.
TANNENDividing the love, yeah.
LAKSHMANANWow, all right. Right, well, we have an email here, the person writes in and says, my question is about the importance of relationships with your siblings and whether it's still the same if they're not full siblings. This listener has three half-sisters on her father's side but was raised on the mother's side as an only child. It says, my siblings and I get along when we're together, but in reality we have completely different values and beliefs. They are on the far right and very Christian, while I am liberal and secular. We don't keep in touch. I live a few hours away. Are sibling relationships still important if they're not, quote-unquote, full?
GREIFAnd of course the research shows that full siblings are more connected than half- and step-siblings. And that makes sense. And remember when we're talking about step and...
LAKSHMANANDoes it make sense, though? I mean I, for example, I'm an only child. I have a step-sister who is an only child, and we're very close because we're two only children who were brought together.
TANNENIt depends on the people.
GREIFWell, in fact the research has been done to compare how you would feel with that step-sibling to a full sibling if you had had a full sibling. So it's more done in comparison, how do full siblings compare to step-siblings. But keep in mind, when we talk about full and step-siblings, are we talking about a step-sibling that comes into my life when I'm three or when I'm 43, and my parents -- one of my parents has died, and my mother remarries, my father remarries. There's still a step-sibling there. So we have to sort of open up the whole picture about what do we mean by step-siblings, and are they living with me, are they half-siblings living with me or living apart from me.
LAKSHMANANAll right, that's interesting. Let's go back to the phones. We've got Dennis in Mooresville, North Carolina. Dennis, you're on the air.
DENNISThanks a lot.
DENNISI'll give you all a quick setup. I have a brother that's 10, almost 11 years younger than me, and we both attended the same elementary school, a private school, the same private high school, and then we were both sent to the same private college. I graduated in, and in fact sophomore year left home and became the independent one, and as life progressed, I always thought that my parents thought my younger brother was the -- you know, they were always helping him, and they never helped me.
DENNISAnd I took care of my father near the end of his life and was angry, actually, and wrote him a letter telling him that I thought he'd favored my younger brother so much more than me. But he gave me -- here's the conclusion of the story. Before he died, he said, you know why that happened, he said he needed, and I had never thought of that.
LAKSHMANANThat is a really interesting story. I guess it gave you some closure, Dennis.
DENNISIt did, it really did, and now he and I are very close, my brother and I are.
SAFERI'm glad he did that.
LAKSHMANANThank you so much for that call.
SAFERI'm glad he told you that and that you were able to hear it because still, he could've done things a little bit differently, and he could've showed you that he appreciated you in different ways, but I'm glad that there was that acknowledgement, and it worked out for your relationship.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. You know, I don't want to leave the whole conversation on a down note. We've been focused on when relationships go south. But, you know, do we have some up notes here, too, about the importance of enduring sibling bonds?
GREIFAbsolutely. We interviewed two sibling sets, and they're separate chapters in the book that Mike and I did, and one was a group of brothers, and Mike and I got a chance to play some music with them, too. They're all musicians. And they decide to frame everything as always positive. They will not accept or interpret anything as negative if it's done their way. They just say that you can't mean that negatively, I'm going to take it positively. And that's one way...
LAKSHMANANWhat a healthy way to think. To impute good motives.
GREIFIf we all entered all of our relationships, you know, expecting the best until we hear the worst, and that was their message, I think, to us, and they were very close with their dad, and they all four hung out a great deal together and got a really good sense of being male, of being brothers and of accepting each other for who they are.
LAKSHMANANThat's a wonderful story, and I like that about assuming good motives because why not. Deborah?
TANNENYeah, I'd just like to quote some of the things that people told me about their siblings. She was there when I needed her. She's the only one who knows what it's like to grow up in my family. Our family, she's the repository of my memories. And we heard that from the woman who said that she felt she had lost that when her sister passed away. We can be silly. We can laugh together. It's like we're kids again. All she has to do is say one word, and we burst out laughing.
TANNENNow of course there's saying one word, and you have the other response, but the laugh...
TANNENLaughing together is a bit part of it.
LAKSHMANANYeah, all right. We have an email from Larissa, who says she wants to know if the research has looked at the way siblings' relationships change when the children become caregivers for parents and all the strain that results.
SAFERYes, in several different ways. Sometimes it can be terrible because one sibling abdicates, and the other is left holding the bag, and sometimes somebody can rise to the occasion, and the relationship between the siblings can be transformed. I have several stories like that, which were remarkable, two brothers who really didn't like each other, and I knew both of them, and I could see why, the one who was the most difficult one became the caregiver of these very troubled parents, and it really made a difference.
SAFERThey found love together. And the one said, I thought we'd never talk after they died. But now we have a relationship. So it can happen, even with really problem situations.
LAKSHMANANWe have a listener, Debbie from Peoria, Illinois, who says she has a brother who is 11 years older who doesn't have his life together. The parents have died, and now she has to be the parents.
GREIFThat happens -- it happened in about 10 percent of our cases, we found that there was a sibling taking significant care of another sibling, and that is sometimes a reversal of what happened when they were young, and people experienced bad luck throughout life and end up in a one-down position. Deborah talked about the hierarchical growth that goes on. Sometimes people go in a negative direction and start off well and just have bad luck and need more assistance than others.
LAKSHMANANAll right, well, I want to read this one last email from Ann in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who says, do siblings have any idea how their relationship affects their parents? I have daughters who have not spoken to each other for years. This causes me much stress and sleepless nights, and when I'm gone, will they have any regrets about their behavior and alienation? How can I get them to consider reconciliation?
TANNENWhat strikes me is that probably it's beyond the point that the mother can do it.
TANNENAnd maybe if she just totally backs off, there might be more chance of their getting together. But of course not knowing the specifics of the situation, I don't know what it is. But it's such an important point, that sibling relationships reverberate back.
SAFERIt's up to the siblings now. It's up to the siblings. They're grown women. The mother can't really do anything. I think I agree with you, absolutely.
LAKSHMANANAlthough that sounds very painful. So okay, on a positive note, what can parents take away from all of this, those of us who are still rearing our young children? And, you know, we who have adult siblings, I love your message, Geoff, about just assume the positive, don't assume the negative in anything your sibling says to you. And I love yours also, Deborah, about just make an appointment to call your sibling, even if it's 5:00 in the morning, although probably not 5:00 in the morning. But give us some last words of wisdom.
GREIFThere was something really important that Mike and I found about fathers, and we haven't talked a lot about brothers. By the way, the younger brothers in our sample are looking a lot like the younger sisters in our sample. So I think there's been an age shift. But we found that if a father is perceived as being close with his siblings, his children are more likely to be close. So fathers can take a very active role in sending the message that it's important that I stay in touch with my siblings and work things through and give their children that role modeling.
SAFERThere's something else I think that we can say, too. Even when there's a problem sibling, which is my area, that if you understand the relationship, and you really think about how your sibling saw you, and you saw them, that that can be a very important thing in your life. Even if the relationship outside isn't so great, you can have more of a three-dimensional life yourself when you understand your sibling relationship, no matter what it is.
LAKSHMANANAll right, Deborah, last thoughts?
TANNENYeah, absolutely. Schedule time together. Try to say the positive things that you feel. Often we think them, but we don't say them, you know, how important you are to me, how much I appreciate how you took care of me when I was young or something that you did for me. And use email with caution.
LAKSHMANANThat's good advice for every part of our lives. All right, Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University, Geoffrey Greif of University of Maryland, Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist in New York City, all authors of books on adult siblings who have helped us so much this hour with this wonderful topic. Thank you all so much for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan. Thank you all for listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
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