Siblings Relationship + Essay

It may just be the longest relationship of your life, and the one that gives you as much grief as pleasure. The sibling bond, long ignored by researchers, is now thought to be one of the most important in our lives. No other peer relationship involves a shared upbringing, shared genes and shared secrets. Studies show the importance as you get older of having friendly siblings for companionship, reminiscences (stories of family holidays are boring for anyone else) and practical support. Yet there are times when children wish their sister or brother would just disappear. For ever.

And in the seesaw of sibling relationships, it is that between sisters that is both the closest and most competitive. The psychologist Robert Williams described it as varying through life: "In childhood, a girl may view her older sister as a rival; when puberty approaches, the sister becomes an admirable guide to the adolescent world; shortly thereafter, when both are receiving boys' attentions, the sister may again become an unwelcome competitor."

The good news seems to be that however much sisters squabble as children, things improve as they get older. This may be because there's less to prove and even less time to prove it in, but it's also linked to no longer needing to compete for your parents' attention. A study in the journal Child Development analysed interviews with the parents and first- and second-born children in 200 families. It found, as other studies do, that sisters feel closer to their siblings than brothers do, and that the worst ages for bickering are when the oldest child is 13 and the second-born 10. After this, the study concluded, things should get better.

Life events often change the dynamics of the sibling relationship. A study of 60 siblings aged between 25 and 89, in the Journal Of Marriage And The Family, found that having children often brought sisters together (though with the risk of competition over their children's achievements), as did adverse events such as divorce and the ill health of parents. Sisters phone and see each other more than other pairs of siblings, and are more likely to help with childcare, though their favourite thing is giving sisterly advice.

For my book The Complete Book Of Sisters (published in October), I interviewed women who mostly spoke of their sisters affectionately, although this was mixed with regret for those who were estranged from their sisters. Sisters who were close said their sister knew them better than anyone, which meant they could hurt them and also support them the most. "My sisters take no prisoners – when we meet, there's a lot of verbal rough and tumble," said one woman in her 40s. "But if I murdered my husband, I know they'd be round, no questions asked, with a bulldozer to bury the body." And all the sisters I spoke to knew the two golden rules of sisterhood: never borrow clothes without asking and never go after your sister's bloke.

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