When Siblings Are Friends: The Sibling Effect

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.



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Time To Move to One of Those Active Adult Communities?

A woman in my yoga class announced that she and her husband are moving to Walnut Creek, California, where they’ve purchased a condo in a 55+ active adult community.  Her son, daughter-in-law, and 8-month-old grandchild live nearby, and she wants to be part of her grandchild’s life. Who can blame her?  They opted for the active adult community, hoping to make friends more easily than they would in a “mixed” neighborhood.

Well, my husband and I live in one of those “mixed” neighborhoods where we are now old fogeys surrounded by young families and their kids. For me, the real plus in a 55+ active adult community is a permanent escape from those screaming, snotty, self-absorbed children.  I’m particularly blessed that, among all those brats, a dozen boys under 14 live within a baseball’s throw from our home.  I’m guessing that their stay-at-home moms don’t want to accompany them to the well-equipped park a half block away.  It’s too much trouble.  Instead, they are happy to have their children play their games on their front lawns and the lawns of their neighbors, including ours.  It doesn’t matter that these hellions trample the grass, fall into flower beds, and occasionally bring a car to a screeching halt as one of them runs into the street to retrieve an errant soccer ball.  No, this is their turf and everyone else be damned.

Last year, two of the boys climbed our blooming, fragile crab apple tree to snatch a poorly thrown frisbee.  My husband opened the front door and called them stupid.  He’d barely turned the latch when the boys’ irrate mother stomped up our front stairs.  In full attack mode with a red face and clenched fists, she demanded to know how my husband deigned to call her boys stupid?  “If you have something to say about my children, you say it to me first.”

Ever the peacemaker, I tried to extinguish the fire.  Well, at least to tamp it down.

“Perhaps my husband’s choice of words was a bit too strong,” I said.  “But you didn’t expect that he’d leave the boys to rummage through our tree while he ran two doors down to talk to you?”

Her face was as red and burning as the fire I’d attempted to douse.

“Well,” she puttered, “I guess not.  But you didn’t have to call them stupid.

“But they are,” my husband muttered so softly that only I could hear.

imgres     THE MOTHER turned and, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, scampered down the stairs and across our lawn.






And then there’s the professional trampoline in the same mother’s yard.  This time it’s in the back yard conveniently located for us to view from our bedroom south-facing windows.  I guess I wouldn’t mind the bodies bouncing up and down.  It’s the noise—the thunderous squeals and shouting that can last for hours at a stretch.

I’ve plotted the ruin of that trampoline.  But I’d have to cover my tracks.  Donning gloves and plastic booties, I’d sneak into the back yard in the deep of night and burn the sucker.  Or I’d wield one of those butcher knives and slash the thing beyond recognition.  Just the other day, I concocted another scheme:  I’d ask THE MOTHER if the trampoline would be moving with the family after their new home on the other side of town (Thank you, Lord!) was move-in ready.  (Yep, they are moving.  But not until Xmas which means a whole summer to go.)  If THE MOTHER said “No,” I’d tell her that friends with young children might like to buy it.  At this point, I’d put out the money and have the thing taken to the city dump.

I love our 1864 vintage home.  But, right now, the lure of one of those 55+ active adult communities is mighty tempting.