This post was originally written for Post Grad Survival Guide.
One of the hard parts of growing up is watching the people you once thought you knew everything about turn into strangers.
You realise you never really knew your parents. They hid so much from you. And as you and your siblings go your separate ways in the world, you also become strangers.
Yet we don’t always view it this way. So many people seem to progress into adult life still seeing their siblings as rivals. As people to compete with. It’s as if life is a zero sum game and the more one sibling succeeds, the more the other must lose.
One sibling gets happily married and the other acts as if they just took the last cookie and deprived them of something. One sibling enjoys professional success and the other reacts as if they stole the TV remote and restricted their options.
I’ve observed this numerous times in siblings in their forties, fifties, and beyond. It happens within my own family. They still maintain the same dynamic they did as children. At this time of year, discussions of fraught family relationships are everywhere, but most are more focused on managing the tension than considering the destructive underlying narrative.
Siblings are not rivals.
Once you’re autonomous adults living away from your parents, you’re not really competing for anything. You’re just humans who happen to have the same parent or parents or to have been raised by the same people. Unless you’re Serena and Venus Williams, you have no reason to view each other as opponents. Sibling rivalry extending into adulthood might be the most literally childish thing imaginable.
It’s easy to see where it comes from. As this Guardian article explains, sibling rivalry usually grows from the perception that their parents don’t treat them fairly. Whether that’s the intention or not, siblings become antagonists when they feel they need to compete for parental attention. This is more intense if they are close in age, the same gender, or twins. Younger siblings tend to be jealous of the freedom older ones get. Older siblings tend to feel resentful of the extra care parents lavish on younger ones.
Yet you ultimately have to internalise that, if your parents still make you feel you need to fight for affection as an adult, that’s their problem.
Love can only be unconditional, not earned. The more you try to win love, the more you end up loosing.
If a parent genuinely does favour one child, nothing will change that. It doesn’t matter if you out-earn, out-succeed, out-run, out-smile, out-learn, out whatever your siblings. Your parents either hold you all in unconditional positive regard, or they don’t.
And they should.
Chances are, you and your siblings are running distinct races.
You have different careers. Goals. Ambitions. Dreams. There’s enough room in the world for both of you, without needing to push each other out the way.
As the cliche goes, the only person we ever need to compete with is ourselves. Any time we spend comparing ourselves to anyone other than who we were yesterday is wasted.
For children, parental love is synonymous with everything good in the world, so competing with siblings for it seems justified. As adults, the good things don’t come from our parents, we have to get them ourselves. Our siblings have nothing to do with that.
If you don’t pay attention, you can miss the transition in your relationships with your siblings. At a certain point, the best you can hope for is to be friends, or at least cordial. Should you grow up to discover they are verifiably horrible people and friendship is impossible, you are entitled to let them go.
There’s a widespread assumption that we have to get on with all our family members. But it’s possible to just not be friends without hating each other. I don’t agree with the notion that we owe something to anyone related to us, because that belief traps a lot of people in abusive or plain miserable family dynamics.
Still, it’s a lot easier to get on once you stop seeing them as rivals. You can choose to be friends and support each other. You can choose to have nothing to do with each other.
As a kid, I was fairly certain I was adopted.
Everyone thinks that at some point. But I did have evidence. I don’t have a birth certificate. There are no pictures of me as a newborn, or younger than about three weeks. My parents claim they forgot to put any film in the camera, the late ’90s equivalent of ‘oops my phone died!’
More important, I felt like my older brother and I were too different to be related. People do frequently assume we don’t have the same parents.
Without disrespecting his privacy, I’ve always felt that my brother is doing better at life than I am by almost every imaginable metric. He has 3 degrees, in incredibly difficult fields. He spends his spare time running marathons and winning awards and doing charity work. He travels all the time and has friends everywhere. He doesn’t appear to struggle with confidence or self-doubt.
In spite of all that fodder for jealousy on my part, and despite us not speaking for years at one point, we get on well these days. He has always made an effort to support me during depressive periods and I appreciate his willingness to put up with it. I recognised when I was younger that there was no point in viewing life as a competition and that the dynamic playing out among so many siblings is destructive and pointless.
Our parents didn’t treat us in different ways because he was the favourite. They did it because we are entirely different people, which was freeing to understand.
The issue with family relationships is that we’re not encouraged to regularly assess their value and meaning. We stay in the same dynamics. We expect to relate to family members in the same way our entire lives.
So unspoken beliefs, like the idea that siblings are inherently rivals, don’t get questioned and the old conflicts emerge at the rare times when we’re expected to be around family.
But you can’t fight for love. Especially not from your parents.