Did you know – ‘Sibling Bond’ is life’s longest lasting relationship?

In India, Valentine’s Day, Fathers’ Day, Mothers’ Day or even Friendship Day are ideas borrowed from the West. Yet, we do have an official celebration day, nay two, to celebrate the bond with our siblings, more specifically brother and sister. They are Raksha Bandhan and Bhaiya Dooj (aka Bhau Bheej, Bhai Phonta)


Earlier psychologists spent a lot of time studying the effects of our relationship with significant others in the development of our personality. In this circle of significant influencers were our parents, spouses and peers. “Siblings have just been off the radar screen until now,” says Katharine Conger.


However, let us consider who really qualifies for the title, ‘partners for life?’ You could say, parents, but they usually leave us during our middle years. Spouses and children come in much later. The oft forgotten answer is our siblings. They share with us the most critical and formative years. “The sibling relationship is life’s longest lasting relationship;” said Stephen Bank and Michael Kahn in their book ‘The Sibling Bond,’ longer, (for the most of us) by almost a quarter of a century, than our ties to our parents.


Sibling Rivalry has been much studied and debated and most of us would agree to the fierce competition that is faced by children growing up in a family. Alfred Adler was one of the first psychologists to point out the significance of birth order and sibling rivalry in shaping personality. Many researchers have added to our understanding of this phenomenon. However, it is only recently that the effect of sibling bonding in shaping who we are and how we interact with the world is taking centre stage.


The comparative proportion of time that we have spent with our siblings is in itself remarkable. We spend 33% of free time by age 11, as per a Penn State research study; and 10 hours a week even at adolescence. That’s a lot of time to breed intimacy and contempt. So the roles of our siblings range from co-conspirators and partners in crime to agony aunts, advisors, later chief rivals, and contenders.


Daniel Shaw of the University of Pittsburgh says, “In general, parents serve the same big-picture role as doctors on grand rounds. Siblings are like the nurses on the ward. They’re there every day.” They share our happiest moments, our biggest challenges and our deepest secrets. In times of adversity, they provide the support and solace that dulls the edge of pain.


You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your siblings. They provide you your first opportunity of practising an equal relationship. In all the bitter fights, you still have to go on facing them day in and day out. It is here that you learn conflict resolution through negotiation, calling a truce or getting even. Though favouritism by parents for one child creates animosity (proven by evidence), siblings still learn to use it to their advantage. The favourite one is sent to negotiate a better deal for themselves, even with a bitter taste in the mouth! Research shows that this sets the stage for peer interactions, whether in school or at work.


Older siblings start off as role models. Their younger brother or sister want to be just like them, whether they can or can’t. The slight difference in age makes them look so wise and all-knowing. They happily take their teasing and hero-worship them. Things change when they grow older. They now want to stake a claim on the family centre stage through cornering a larger share of their parent’s affection or improving their family position. It is here that differences start emerging.  This process, called ‘de-identification’, helps each sibling to create his/her own unique identity.  Kimberly Updegraff termed this process of differentiation as ‘niche picking’.


It is perhaps strange that siblings who fought their way through childhood and adolescence, develop closeness as they grow older. Their memories are of shared fun and joy and not of the ugly fights. “After the shooting stops, even the fiercest sibling-wars leave little lasting damage,” wrote Jeffrey Kluger. How else do we explain the bonding that carries into old age – where they can understand each other even after long gaps and turn to each other for support – when life takes a tumble.


William Ickes, a psychologist, paired up male and female students (who had grown up with an opposite-sex sibling). When he checked in on their conversations, he discovered that girls with older brothers and boys with older sisters were more at ease with the opposite sex. Incidentally, the boys with older sisters were liked more by their partners and the girls with older brothers were more likely to take the lead in a conversation. Thus, we can see how significantly our sibling relationship affects our social skills.


Siblings who have experienced emotional crisis in their childhood such as loss of a parent due to death or divorce or even financial hardship, tend to become even closer, establishing strong bonds for a lifetime. Needing to “lean in” to their sibling support system can happen even in their older years because of failing health or loss and bereavement.


In the dusk of their lives, this bond is especially significant, more so for those who have become single. When one is alone and vulnerable, the need for support and reciprocation is greater. A sibling who is closer in age and life-stage can perhaps empathise more than one’s children.  Studies show that morale is higher when siblings are alive. Just being there is enough.


Even more interesting is the fact that it is not always the healthier or more capable sibling who provides support. Emotional support flows both ways between them. Sisters rather than brothers, interact more often and more closely with their siblings. Is it a surprise, then, that elderly men with sisters are emotionally more secure than those without sisters? Don’t you agree that you need to keep this most ‘enduring and endearing’ link alive? Can this Raksha Bandhan be a good opportunity to renew or deepen your bonds with your sibling?


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