Friday, December 8, 2023

Why Adult Sibling Rivalry – & Full-On Feuds – Are So Common

A third of us don’t get along with our sibling(s) – and that, at least right now, includes two princes. We look at sibling feuds, adult sibling rivalry, how we might get on better, and why that’s important. 

Harry and William: it’s the sibling feud being heard around the world – and we’ll no doubt hear the echoes for quite some time. The pair who call each other Harold and Willy aren’t calling each other at all right now, with Harry saying they’re not currently in contact. And it’s no wonder.

In his memoir Spare, accompanying TV and magazine interviews, and the Harry & Meghan docu-series, Harry has made many accusations against William. Don’t quote us on the exact words, but here’s the gist of the allegations. William physically attacking Harry. William once saying “I swear on Mummy’s life” when those “words were to be used only in times of extreme crisis”. William not wanting to associate with Harry at boarding school. William refusing to have Harry as his best man in case he’d go off script in the speech. William having concerns about Harry dating, then marrying, Meghan. William repeatedly ordering Harry to shave before Harry’s wedding.

While few adult siblings have severed their ties completely, approximately one-third of them describe their relationship as rivalrous or distant

But wait, there’s more. William breaking an agreement that his and Harry’s offices wouldn’t feed negative stories about each other to the media. William telling Camilla and Charles there was “strife” between the two younger couples (allegedly Camilla leaked this to the media). William being literally territorial about royal charitable activities in Africa, saying “Africa is my thing, you can’t have it”. William and Kate encouraging Harry to dress in a Nazi uniform for a costume party… the list goes on. It must be hard for William not to tell his side, but he’s surely been advised not to in case this spat further damages the monarchy.

Royal Rivals

In Spare, Harry describes William as both “beloved brother and arch nemesis”. Both things can be true, I guess? No one is suggesting the brothers weren’t close – just that it would be weird if there wasn’t a rivalry given William was, and is, the heir, and Harry ‘the spare’. According to Harry, Charles congratulated Diana, when Harry was born, for producing ‘an heir and a spare’. Harry says Charles sometimes called him “the spare” to his face. Harry says he always knew he’d been “brought into this world in case something happened” to William. Harry jokes (or is he joking?) that he might even be called upon to provide a spare organ for the future king.

As Harry told People: “While I know much of my life may seem unrelatable, I do think most siblings can relate to struggling with comparisons, and my brother and I are no exception”. Harry also told Good Morning America “that there has always been this competition between us, weirdly. I think it really plays into or always played by [into] the ‘heir/spare’ [dynamic] and the British press’ part in that.”

The princes were compared by the media – William more the golden boy, Harry more the party boy – then their wives were compared by the media. Media speculation about a rift between the brothers didn’t help.

“My brother and I love each other. I love him deeply,” Harry said in his 60 Minutes interview. “There has been a lot of pain between the two of us, especially the last six years. None of anything I’ve written – anything that I’ve included is ever intended to hurt my family. But it does give a full picture of the situation as we were growing up, and also squashes this idea that somehow my wife was the one that destroyed the relationship between these two brothers.” He’s suggesting, of course, that the relationship between the brothers had been bad for a while.

The most damning accusation in Spare? Harry alleges that, after the brothers argued about Meghan in Harry’s home in 2019, William “came at” Harry. “He grabbed me by the collar, ripping my necklace, and he knocked me to the floor. I landed on the dog’s bowl, which cracked under my back, the pieces cutting into me.” In his ITV interview, Harry says “he [William] wanted me to hit him back, but I chose not to”.

These are still allegations, so let’s not be quick to judge, but it’s weird that some people have been saying that physical fights are ‘just what brothers do’. There’s never any excuse for assaulting anyone, including a sibling.

Harry writes that, after the alleged attack, he called his therapist. “We’d had a million physical fights in our lives, I told her. As boys we’d done nothing but fight. But this felt different.”

Harry recounts that once, in the back of their father’s car, he and William “traded blows”. Charles asked William to get into the bodyguards’ car. “Now and then I peered out the back window,” Harry writes. “Behind us, I could just make out the future King of England, plotting his revenge.” Revenge? It’s 2023 not 1523, when King Henry VIII, known for beheading those close to him, reigned.

The Start of Sibling Rivalry

Thankfully we non-royals don’t have our sibling feuds and rivalries splashed across newspapers, magazines and online media. But many of us have experienced them.

Our longest relationships during our lives are likely to be with our sibling(s), given we’re part of the same generation and fairly close in age. A ‘sib-ship’, as some refer to it, can be a wonderful thing: providing a playmate then a friend you may be close to your whole life. Dr Laurie Kramer, co-author of the book Siblings as Agents of Socialization, says a sibling’s influence can help you develop positive behavioural traits including good communication, and aid social and emotional understanding of people around you. We should note that being an only child can be great, too.

Not everyone gets on with their sibling(s) during childhood. It’s not surprising: you’re vying for the same toys and parental attention, without necessarily having temperaments suited to each other. You might develop a rivalry, especially if a parent sometimes seems to prefer one child.

Kirsty*, a 35-year-old policy adviser, had a rivalry with older sister Olivia during their childhood in New Plymouth. “Olivia was always so perfect. Top of her class, pretty, never pushed boundaries, saved every cent she earned in her part-time job. I was often told [by teachers and parents] that I should be more like Olivia and she’d gloat over it. Being compared affects your self-esteem.”

When Kirsty started getting better grades than her sister, Olivia would often be petulant and sometimes mean in a way that their parents wouldn’t pick up on. “Whereas I’d get told off for losing my temper with her. I sometimes wished I were the only child.”

Things changed when they became adults. Living in the same town, and both having young families, the sisters get on pretty well now and see each other at least once a month. “It’s better now that no one’s comparing us, and we’re not comparing ourselves to each other. And we don’t have to live together, so there aren’t those everyday niggles. We can appreciate each other’s good points. That said, after a few days with Olivia over Christmas, I was ready to take a break from her!”

Holding Onto Adult Sibling Rivalry

Sometimes sibling feuds and rivalries continue well into adulthood for reasons including grudge-holding, parental favouritism, or very different personalities. Jane Mersky Leder, the author of The Sibling Connection: How Siblings Shape Our Lives, has written a Psychology Today article called ‘Adult Sibling Rivalry: Sibling Rivalry Often Lingers Through Adulthood’.

Mersky Leder says that for a third of us – yes, really, one in three – “discord sown early endures for a lifetime. While few adult siblings have severed their ties completely, approximately one-third of them describe their relationship as rivalrous or distant. They don’t get along with their sibling or have little in common, spend limited time together, and use words like ‘competitive,’ ‘humiliating,’ and ‘hurtful’… They push each other’s buttons without knowing why or how and recast themselves in childhood roles that never worked in the first place.”

“Some try to diminish the relationship (and their feelings) by emphasising the importance of friends and spouses instead,” Mersky Leder adds. “Others become very analytical, piecing together all that went wrong between them, thereby detailing the impossibility of ever finding common ground.” (You could argue that Harry is doing the latter.)

Several women told me they’ve experienced sibling rivalries but never talked about it, even with their sibling(s) or their parents. It’s something they’re embarrassed about feeling, because they don’t want to be petty.

Letting Go Of Adult Sibling Rivalry

Squashing sibling feuds and rivalries can benefit both of you, and your wider family – even if only for your mother’s sake at Christmas. Most sib-ships are salvageable.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen – an author, journalist and co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast – has written an article called ‘11 Ways to Become BFFs with Your Siblings As Grown Ups’. I’m going to jump in and say you don’t have to be BFFs, just friendly.

Some of her tips? Ask yourself what your sibling’s positive attributes are. Try not to fall back into childhood roles or patterns. Meet them where they’re at in life, rather than judging or trying to fix them. Let an old grudge go, even if that’s hard. Create clear boundaries – for instance, no raised voices. Niece and nephew relationships can often soften sibling relationships.

My suggestion is to try to see things from their perspective. Recognise that, in some ways, they’re not the same person you grew up with. Recognise that the dynamic between you doesn’t define either of you. Maybe even tell them you’ve historically had a certain dynamic (e.g ‘you’re bossy, I’m sulky’) and you hope that can change.

Sibling Distance Rather Than Sibling Rivalry

Let’s backtrack briefly to the somewhat startling stat that approximately a third of adults describe their relationship with a sibling as ‘rivalrous’ or ‘distant’. Yep, that’s a lot. But also, it’s perhaps not surprising given globe-trotting tendencies, an unstable world, and a loneliness epidemic.

Sibling relationships are sometimes called ‘fluid’. Dr Geoffrey Grief, a professor who co-wrote the book Adult Sibling Relationships, found that, in a study, that 70 percent of siblings described their relationships as ‘changed’ when they grew older.

An article called ‘Staying (Or Becoming) Close With Our Siblings As We Age’ by Lilly McGee says “studies suggest that satisfactory sibling contact later in life correlates to increased health and positive mood. Yet it’s not easy to gain or maintain closeness as adults, especially when our lives take us physically and emotionally far away from one another. Most of us are no longer able to simply walk across the living room to see a sibling – now, we might need to take a plane.”

Given many of us don’t live in the same town, country or hemisphere as our sibling(s), how might we improve or sustain sibling bonds? Perhaps schedule a time to talk on the phone or video chat. If there are more than two siblings, start a group chat to keep you updated on each other’s lives. When you can, visit.

How might you overcome emotional as opposed to physical distance? Create new memories. Do something together that you normally wouldn’t (maybe a hike, or a hug). Put together a photobook of you both. Maybe even tell them you’d like to be closer.

Basically, whether there’s emotional or physical distance – or both – try to cultivate a friendship on top of your ’sib-ship’.

Dr Jonathan Caspi, a world-leading expert on sibling relationships, says that “sibling relationships are so important, but they are often overlooked. If you feel like you are grounded and connected to your family of origin, they are like your home base. You’ve got these people you can always come back to.”

William and Harry, though – it’s hard to imagine their relationship improving anytime soon.


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