Consider this quote from American author Linda Sunshine: “If you don’t understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, you were probably an only child.”
For many of us, that about sums up what can be the most complex of relationships. And best-selling writer Cathy Kelly doesn’t shy away from it in her latest book — and although the sometimes tricky interactions between sisters has been a theme of previous novels, the relationship itself is the main focus of her latest offering, Between Sisters.
“The idea for actually writing about sisters came from my last book, It Started With Paris,” recalls Kelly. In the book, she points out, one sister Leila, has a great job and a stunning lover, while the other is a single mother struggling to keep everything going.
“There’s this block between them,” says Kelly. She found it difficult, she says, to portray the necessary level of coldness and estrangement between sisters – possibly because of the close, loving relationship she enjoys with her own sister, Lucy — and carried out much background investigation into the psychology of the relationship before writing about it: “I did a lot of research on the tricky sister thing,” she says, adding that it appears that parents’ attitudes impact quite significantly on the quality of sibling relationships.
And also, that a parent’s own level of emotional development can influence the nature of their offspring’s bond. In Between Sisters, the girls’ mother left when they were young, and the sisters were brought up primarily by their grandmother Pearl, whose attitude, Kelly believes, strongly contributed to their warm, supportive adult relationship: “The attitude of the care-giver is so important,” says Kelly.
“Pearl is a very calm, grown-up and mature woman. The girls felt loved equally and they were an enormous support to each other.
“Pearl was very emotionally aware, and as you and I know, so many issues relate to how parents deal with the kids.”
There’s no doubt about it — when the sister bond is a good one, say the experts, there’s nothing like it.
“When you have a good relationship with your sister you see the world from a place of confidence,” says psychotherapist Anne Colgan. “You feel valued, you have fun and you have a confidante.”
However, when the relationship is lukewarm, or cold and difficult, it can cause hurt, warns counsellor, Bernadette Ryan, of Relationships Ireland.
“It can be a relationship that is fantastic and very close – or hostile and divided. When a sister relationship goes bad it can be deeply unpleasant. Betrayal by a sister is a double-whammy; it hits very deeply.”
One of the strongest factors indicated in how sisters relate to one another, is the mother-daughter relationship, says Ryan.
“It can either be close or distant, or contentious and it can influence the relationship between sisters,” says Ryan, who explains that siblings will naturally become “caught up in competition for the affection of the mother.”
It’s impossible to look at the relationship between siblings in any other context besides that of the parents and family, she believes. “The relationship between sisters cannot be looked at in isolation. Everything has to be framed in the family dynamic and in the expectations of the parents.
“It’s always within the context of the family,” says Ryan, who adds that the “fertile or infertile” nature of a sibling bond is deeply embedded in the family context. An examination of the family dynamics behind the different relationships, she suggests, can often explain the love, hostility, or sheer indifference characterising different sibling relationships:
“Patterns are laid down in childhood,” she explains, adding that it’s often only later in life when people get a chance to reflect, see those patterns and perhaps avail of an opportunity to ‘clear the air.’ “One sister can feel the mother favours them, while the other feels ostracised.”
Perhaps a mother always tended to go places with one particular sister rather than the other, she suggests.
“I do think favouritism can be an issue down the road. If there are painful emotions or unresolved issues to do with a sister relationship, it’s best to try and heal them— but remember, you can only take responsibility for your own actions and control your own response.”
Relationship patterns laid down in early childhood can be changed , she says, but only with genuine emotional investment from both sisters. “It’s a very early dynamic set-up and it goes through the family. When siblings come together and talk about the past, everyone will have a different version of the same situation. “Our family of origin has a huge influence on how we relate to each other. We never know what’s going on for the other person,” she says, adding that the running order in the family also has an influence on relationships.
“The eldest sister may supposed to be responsible for example, the middle sister can feel overlooked and the youngest can be over-indulged. “The dynamic that can result in the eldest sister being perceived as bossy, the middle as incompetent and the youngest as a spoiled brat!”
“Remember, sibling relationships can be affected by the non-verbal messages children receive from their parents as well as the spoken word – and give rise to feelings of inferiority or superiority, jealousy or hurt,” adds psychotherapist Anne Colgan.
“If a parent has a favourite daughter it can impact on that relationship with her sister,” she warns. “There can be jealousy on the part of one, or a feeling of superiority on the part of another. It’s often about the non-verbal messages that the parents give, such as in giving more attention to one daughter.
“You can have also have these spoken or unspoken labels,” she says, “the ‘good’ child, the ‘bad’ child. There can be a lot of verbal and non-verbal messages, and this can really influence them— one sister can be insecure about herself whereas the other one is being built up by the parents.
The difficulty for all of us, she believes, lies in accepting ourselves as we are and not trying to be someone else. There is really no recipe for a strong healthy relationship with a sister, other than you have to have a good relationship with yourself,” Colgan believes.
“It’s very important to have a good relationship with yourself and ask ‘is this my stuff’ or ‘her stuff’?”
If you want to understand why a relationship with a sister may not be the warm one you yearn for, “look at your roots in terms of how you were perceived in your family,” she advises.
Which of course, for many people, is another kettle of fish entirely…