When Siblings Are Friends: The Sibling Effect
In her New York Times Ties article, “When Friends Are ‘Like Family'”, Deborah Tannen explores friendship for a book in progress.
As the author of The Sibling Connection: How Siblings Shape Our Lives, I read Tannen’s piece with great interest. I guess you might say that I’m a sibophile (I just made that up. You won’t find it in the dictionary.) I believe in the sibling relationship with all of its twists and turns and the many ways siblings help us understand why, how, and the way we are .
Of course, it’s not an either/or between siblings and friends. Tannen points out that comments by the people she interviewed “shed light on the nature of friendship, the nature of family, and something that lies at the heart of both: what it means to be close.”
- “Her friends are more precious than her sisters because they remember things from her past that her sister don’t and can’t, since they weren’t there.” Our siblings have been there since the beginning. How many of us have a best friend from childhood? Sure, some of us. But not many. From high school? Perhaps. College? Probably. But these friends have no memory of us as kids, possibly not when we were adolescents. Unlike our sisters (siblings of both genders), the majority of our friends were not part of our lives in our most formative years. While it’s true that our siblings don’t always remember the same events in the same way we do, they were there and can offer their take which can be eye opening. And as older adults when our parents have died, siblings are the only ones who can reminisce about our immediate and extended families.
- “Many grown children continue to wish that their parents or siblings could see them for who they really are, not who they wish them to be. This goal can be realized in friendship. “She gets me,” a woman said of a friend. “When I’m with her I can be myself.” According to one large study, two-thirds of people said a brother or sister was one of their best friends. Jill Suitor, a sociologist at Purdue University, and her colleagues polled 274 families with 708 adult children (ages twenty-three to sixty-eight) and found that the majority had good feelings toward their siblings. And when you ask older siblings to name their closest relative, they say they feel closer to siblings than to any other relatives except their children.
- ” . . . family conjures longevity, love, support.” Precisely. Siblings often provide, not just conjure, “longevity, love, support.” For example, I have known my sister since the day she was born. (She is six years younger.) Can’t say that about any of my friends. Sure, we’ve had our issues over the years (No relationship is perfect.) but have worked through snafus and are as close as two humans can be. Though she lives in another state, we talk and email often. When the second-to-last of our surviving aunts died recently, she represented our immediate family at the funeral. I was in Mexico and could not travel back to the U.S. When I need information about, say, our grandparents and want to compare notes, I call my sister. When I have concerns about my adult son, I often call my sister. When my parents were dying, my sister and I worked together as a supportive team. None of my friends could have fulfilled that role.
- “When a friend dies, a part of you dies, too, as you lose forever the experiences, the jokes, the references that you shared.” True. But what about the death of a sibling? For adult surviving siblings, there is the sadness of the loss of family history. One sibling I interviewed for The Sibling Connection said, “Our parents were both born in Europe. As a younger person, I was never concerned with the details of my roots. In the last few years, I’ve been very concerned because my kids have been asking me. I always depended on my brother, but he’s no here. My historical roots . . . my local historian is gone.” Verifying the past, resolving long-standing conflicts from childhood, and pulling up family roots are tasks cut short when an adult sibling dies. Who are our checkpoints? Not parents who are old or dead, nor spouses who entered into our adult lives. And rarely friends because the majority don’t “go all the way back.” Our siblings can be the only verification of our previous lives.
- “Just as with literal families, friends who are like family can bring not only happiness but also pain, because the comfort of a close bond can sometimes morph into the restraints of bondage. The closer the bond, the greater the power to hurt – by disappointing, letting you down . . . ” To be fair, this applies to siblings, too. Siblings who are close—and brothers and sisters whose connections are frayed, sometimes for good—have hurt one another during childhood and beyond. We may have said something hurtful in the heat of the moment or competed for parents’ attention or forgotten an important event. My sister let me down by not consulting me before she suggested that my parents move to her town. My brother let me down by not supporting my desire to give my mother a proper funeral. And then there were the issues around our inheritance. (The illness and/or death of parent can be a dicey affair.)
We all have friends who are “like family.” Eighty per cent of us have at least one sibling. Both relationships can be loving, supportive, fun. But unlike friends, our siblings are the only ones who go all the way back and can help us understand where we came from and where we’ve gone.