“The Normal One” and the “Difficult” Sibling

When you look in the mirror, your difficult sibling always looks back, though the image is distorted. In the shadows lurk parts of yourself and your past that you don’t want to notice. Behind the reflection, silently influencing the interaction, stand your parents, your grandparents, and all their siblings. Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., author of The Normal One

From the intro to Jeanne Safer‘s book about the so-called “normal” sibling—The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling (2002):

Nobody knows I have a brother. My best friends never hear his name. He has always been a source of embarrassment and discomfort for me, but I’ve never wondered very much about his impact on my life. Being his sister feels vaguely unreal and irrelevant; my destiny has nothing to do with his.

This is astonishing, because I am a psychotherapist who has spent years trying to understand my own and my patients’ childhoods. Somehow I’ve managed to erase my own closest relative.

I am not alone.

Safer’s relationship with her troubled older sibling, now deceased, is by no means unique. She interviewed over 60 other “normals” who meet the following description:

Cheerful caretakers, mature before their time, they are supposed to consider themselves lucky to be normal. They feel tormented by the compulsion to compensate for their parents’ disappointments by having no problems and making no demands, and they are often unaware of the massive external and internal pressure to pretend that nothing is amiss.

Safer identifies a syndrome she calls the “Caliban Syndrome“—taken from the relationship between Miranda and Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest—and describes four components:

  • premature maturity
  • compulsion to achieve
  • survivor guilt
  • fear of contagion (dread of magically catching the disability)

Being aware of these, of course, can help the “normal” come to terms with his or her role and identity—and possibly figure out whether a better relationship can be achieved with the other sibling.

In 2012 Safer followed up with Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret.

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.”

The following are Safer’s 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.
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