Of all the relationships a person has during the course of a lifetime, it’s the one with a sibling or siblings that spans the longest number of years and is the most profound trove of shared experiences—at least in theory. While it’s true that some 60% of adults report having close connections to brothers and sisters—the sister-sister bond appears to be the most intimate—nonetheless a pretty sizable number of people do not.
That’s especially true if you grew up with a mother who was loving towards one child and not to another; who played favorites openly and consistently; who constantly compared one child to another; who saw her children as extensions of herself, rather than individuals in their own right; or who orchestrated her children’s relationships to each other by encouraging bullying, ganging up, or scapegoating.
It turns out that these maternal behaviors shape sibling connections in significant and very lasting ways. Research shows that even with a loving mother, a child is quick to spot and react to favoritism; in fact, the pain of recognition actually outweighs the amount of love directly expressed to her or him. With a mother who makes favoritism a part of daily life, the effects are deep and significant.
I might have liked my sister if she weren’t so eager to be my mother’s pawn and megaphone. My mother is and has always been highly critical of me and Julie just loves to get in on the action. I suppose it makes her feel better about herself but it’s dreadful. I’ve endured forty years of it and now only limit contact to family gatherings once or twice a year. Too toxic.
The memories of favoritism don’t fade
The damage done to the sibling relationship—and, interestingly, it doesn’t appear to matter whether you’re the favored child or not—remains consistent from childhood throughout adult life. Although anecdotally at least, many people attribute renewed tension between and among siblings when an aging parent requires assistance, that’s not what one study showed. Caretaking in and of itself is stressful but perceived favoritism appears to be the tipping point. Interestingly enough, the researchers found that when a parent chooses someone outside the family circle as the durable power of attorney for healthcare, the quality of sibling relationships was higher. The lesson seems to be that adult sibling rivalry only needs an opening to make itself visible once again.
The collateral damage that’s hard to acknowledge
When daughters talk about the difficulty they have and had with their mothers, the roles their siblings played are often crucial and telling. But it goes beyond that.
Many adult daughters—especially if they’ve been gaslighted or told that the problem is about them and their supposed “sensitivity”—seek the validation of their experiences from their siblings, only to be disappointed most of the time. Occasionally, though, the script is different and one daughter shared what she considered, at age 54, a breakthrough:
My sisters are all Mom apologists and consider their childhoods either totally happy or pretty close to that. They’ve always made it clear to me that I was at fault for making my mother angry and critical. Finally, last year, my brother admitted that she’d been unfair and even unkind to me and I felt this incredible wave of relief. He saw it, too. It validated so much and swept away the last remnants of my self-doubt.
Unfortunately, the experiences of many women testify to the fact that long after their mothers’ deaths, these patterns of interaction once established in childhood are nearly impossible to change years later and add another layer of loss:
Both of my parents have passed on but my sister and brother remain stuck in their own roles. It’s like we’re always going to be in the living room of the house we grew up in, no matter how old we get. My older sister was Mom’s favorite but she’s always been jealous of my financial success and achievements and lashes out. My younger brother always has competed with me and he still engages in all kinds of one-upsmanship that drive me and my husband crazy. I would have liked my kids to have an aunt and uncle on my side but I don’t want the patterns of the past repeated in the present.
Parental differential treatment and favoritism have the ability to poison the well long past childhood, alas. It’s yet another way that a daughter of an unloving mother experiences loss and feels singled out.
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Suitor, J. Jill, Megan Gilligan, Kaitlin Johnson, and Karl Pillener, “Caretaking, Perceptions of Maternal Favoritism, and Tension among Siblings,” The Gerontologist, 2013, vol. 54(4), 580-588.