A really critical character to my mind is Esau, who was not favored, and – in fact – was screwed by everybody in the family. He gets over it. He has his own life. He doesn’t allow what happened to him as a child to define him. He says, ‘I have enough’. I think that’s the most critical, profound psychological thing in the Book of Genesis. Having your own life. Getting out of being a victim. Acknowledging the favoritism that you didn’t deserve, if you were the favorite. That’s the way out. Jeanne Safer, Ph.D.
Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret (2012) by therapist Jeanne Safer addresses a too-neglected issue—adult sibling rivalry and strife—despite it being as old as…well, at least Cain and Abel and Esau. (Whether you believe such stories are fact or fiction, they do illustrate some common family dynamics.)
As Elizabeth Bernstein writes in The Wall Street Journal about the importance of this topic:
…(O)ur sibling relationships are often the longest of our lives, lasting 80 years or more. Several research studies indicate that up to 45% of adults have a rivalrous or distant relationship with a sibling.
People questioned later in life often say their biggest regret is being estranged from a sister or brother.
Sigmund Freud himself, according to Safer, was a favored son who couldn’t handle his guilt regarding his sister—which interfered with his ability to effectively formulate theories regarding child development.
Safer, on the other hand, has addressed her own complex sibling issues, enabling her all the more to deal with adult sibling rivalry in her therapy practice. Douglas Mock, one reviewer of her book, asserts that “(h)er insights on family social tensions help us to understand the incomprehensible.”
Siblings, says Safer, have their own language of discontent and “grievance collection,” some of which is focused on their parents and some on their own relationship. For example:
- “You were always Mom’s favorite.”
- “Mom and Dad are always at your house but they never visit me.”
- “You never call me.”
Taken directly from the WSJ article, the following are recommended steps to “Putting a Stop to Sibling Rivalry”:
- The first step is to think. Who is this person outside his or her relationship with you? What do you like about your sibling? Remember the positive memories. Identify why you think the relationship is worth fixing—if it is.
- Take the initiative to change. It could be a gesture, like an offer to help with a sick child, a conversation or a letter. Be sincere and don’t ignore the obvious. Say: ‘These conversations between us are painful. I would like to see if we can make our relationship better.’
- Gestures count. Not everyone is comfortable talking about a strained relationship, especially men. But phone calls, invitations to spend time together, attempts to help should be seen as peace offerings.
- Consider your sibling’s point of view. Try not to be defensive. What did childhood look like through his or her eyes? ‘You have to be willing to see an unflattering portrait of yourself,’ Dr. Safer says.
- Tell your sibling what you respect. ‘I love your sense of humor.’ ‘I admire what a good parent you are.’
- And, finally: ‘It won’t kill you to apologize,’ Dr. Safer says.