The Love/Hate of Sibling Rivalry

“If I had known she was going to stay, I wouldn’t have said it was alright.”

My parents allege that those were the first words out of my mouth when my sister came home from the hospital on my second birthday. And it went downhill from there.

I’ve always wondered why my sister and I have the relationship that we do – contentious at best, pure dislike at the worst. Was I really that spoiled little brat who couldn’t deal with another sibling in the picture? Did I just want to keep all the attention for myself? And is it, as the older sister, all my fault?

In 1941, David Levy coined the term “sibling rivalry.” Years before, Sigmund Freud claimed the competition between siblings was an offshoot of the Oedipus complex; we competed with each other for our parent’s affection.

More recent studies have removed the weird sexual tension of Freud’s hypothesis, but the idea’s the same — it’s all about attention.

Well, my parents certainly did not play favorites, thank you very much. If anything, they worked extra hard not to create a single shred of evidence that we could use in the inevitable “Mom and Dad like me better” arguments. That goes all the way down to the most minuscule thing, like making sure the amount they spent on gifts for Christmas and birthdays was as close to exactly even as possible. All the tips about making each kid feel special, ignoring small arguments, not taking sides – they must have known and used every trick in the book. I realize now that we didn’t make it easy for them. Actually, they probably deserve sainthood.

But Levy claimed my “aggressive response to [a] new baby” (and, I guess, by extension, my sister’s response to a new older sister) was common — clearly so common that it deserved a name.

I beg to differ. My friends and their siblings always seemed to be close, and I marveled at it. The age gaps between them were close to the one between my sister and me – two years minus three days; she had the earlier birthday, which never went over well – but they actually liked each other. They played together. They didn’t fight. They liked each others’ friends.

They also had a lot more in common than we did.

I was (and, in some ways, still am) a girly-girl – I love jewelry and purses and always enjoy a reason to get dressed up – but getting my sister into so much as a work-appropriate outfit takes serious coaxing. I majored in journalism and love music and artsy things; she’s an engineering major with a thesis project about the MegaRamp. I’m a right-brain thinker; she’s left.

My sister’s not a bad person – she’s smart, driven and actually has a pretty decent sense of humor. But if we weren’t siblings and instead met in school or crossed paths out in the world somehow, I doubt we’d choose to be friends. We’re just two very different people, and the world is full of those – usually, though, they’re not sisters.

It only took 20 years of forced cohabitation, and it probably helps that we rarely live in the same house anymore, but as we’ve grown up, we’ve learned to tolerate each other – dare I say, even like each other? There’s much less fighting now, probably because, well, we’re not five and seven (fine, 16 and 14, whatever) years old anymore, have finally gotten the hang of that whole “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything” idea, and don’t share a bathroom.

We like some of the same music. She’ll occasionally borrow my shoes or a necklace. We text each other occasionally and recently teamed up on Facebook to suggest that Mom’s scanner should conveniently go “missing,” as way too many old, embarrassing photographs were popping up on the Internet,

I learned you’re never too old to make a new friend – even if you’ve known her since birth.

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