Deconstructing the sibling code

Our relationships with our brothers 
and sisters are perhaps more complicated and 
ego-centric than we’d like to admit. 
What keeps them going?


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Sat 28 May 2022, 8:53 PM

I’ve often wondered why Siblings Day is not celebrated with as much gusto — or fanfare — as Valentine’s Day or Friendship Day… in fact, did you even know there is a Siblings Day? I didn’t, till I did some Googling. There’s also a barely-heard-of Brothers and Sisters Day — it’s coming up on 31 May, and I’ve not really seen it gain much traction on social media. Which is funny, because we knew our siblings before we got to know our friends or lovers or spouses. In India, there are some brother-sister ‘festivals’ — there’s a popular one called Rakhi — but none that celebrates the sister-sister or brother-brother bond. The brother-sister festive showcases are mostly tokenisms, a chance to pretty up, have good food and exchange gifts. I don’t think anyone reflects deeply about the nature of the relationship.

In the media, it’s mostly stories of sibling rivalry — and bitter falling outs — that topline news. With precedents set by the likes of Mary and Anne Boleyn, Liam and Noel Gallagher, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, Julia and Eric Roberts, Mukesh and Anil Ambani, who needs a sibling love story?

I’d once read a line somewhere that stayed with me. “Just because you’re related to your brother or sister doesn’t mean you have to like them.” So, if there was an immediate family member you had to say “I don’t have to like you” to, an overwhelming number would zero in on a sibling. Not a parent, not a son/daughter, not a grandchild. Come to think of it, it would not even be a friend you can tell this to — because friends are the family you choose to like, right?

My own relationship with my brother is a fairly complex one. We basically ignored each other till we became adults; growing up, I thought he was weird and left it that, wasn’t worth my while (or so I thought) to work around it, and he pretty much felt the same about me. We grew closer only after we started living in different cities, well after life threw us a few curveballs. We are still close, though there is a fine line that stops me from assuming we are “alike”, because we are not. And I can’t take him for granted, so I have to work hard: I had to make an effort with his partner at a time when I didn’t know her too well; I have to hear out his concerns about our father — even though I find them slightly exasperating most of the time; and, often, I lie to him about stuff I believe in because I know he wouldn’t “approve”.

It all adds up to one thing. Sibling relationships are hard work. Nothing is unconditional about them, because they are all about give and take.

And that’s what makes them fascinating.

To commemorate Brothers and Sisters Day this coming Tuesday, we delved into the complexities of the sibling code and came up with some gems.

‘We still fight a lot even though we don’t share a room anymore’

Dr Maria Waqar, social scientist based in Houston

“I have two sisters. The younger, Saliha, is two years younger than me, and the youngest, my baby sister Faryal, is 16 years younger. Growing up, Saliha and I literally shared a room for the longest time, and when our parents went through a divorce, we sought each other out, and kept each other grounded. We were really young when they got divorced, but I never felt insecure or lost because I always had my sister. Having said that, siblings can be really mean and cruel, so, yes, we fought a lot. And we still fight a lot even though we don’t live in the same room anymore, I live in the US and she lives in Pakistan [where she’s a banker], and we have very different lives.

Sometimes we fail to relate to each other, because we have very different perspectives on life. At times, it becomes toxic, which is when we realise we need to stop fighting like we did when we were children… it’s not sustainable… That realisation is important to ensure a relationship does not disintegrate.

With my youngest sister, it’s a different dynamic because she’s always been a baby for me. She’s now a graduate, and I really make a conscious effort to not infantilise her any more. She’s an adult and she can do whatever she wants even if I don’t approve of it. It’s difficult, sure, but whoever said life is easy?”

‘If you don’t constantly work on the relationship, friends can take the place of siblings sometimes’

Justin Harper, freelance writer based in Dubai

“In Singapore, where I spent a lot of time, when Lee Kuan Yew [the founding father] died, his sons fought over a bungalow that he owned — it became a public affair and it was really embarrassing, one of them was the Prime Minister at the time. I get upset when I see people like the Ambani brothers falling out — two super wealthy businessmen who want to outdo one another…

The flashpoints of sibling conflict are usually when money or inheritance comes into the picture … or when your brother or sister gets married… or [the difference between] how you bring up your kids, and how they bring up their kids… these can really muddy the waters… As long as it’s a direct relationship between you and your sibling, it’s fine I guess, but the moment there are other factors, it may be a problem.

My philosophy has always been to keep everyone happy, and I definitely never want to fall out over money! How would I handle it? We’ll work it out so we get an equal share, even if I stand to lose some amount. As for the matter of siblings’ spouses/partners, my take is even if you don’t like them much, even if you find them annoying, your sibling loves them — so that should be good enough for you, as they would want you to treat their partner the same way as you treat them.

I have two sons, about three years apart: Will and Freddie, 14 and 11, and they have probably inherited my super competitive streak, and they take on each other in sports, studies… My wife is of Sri Lankan origin, a ‘tiger mum’ with Asian values of pushing them academically. At times, we wonder if this kind of sibling rivalry is ‘healthy’, but then I see my sons together when they don’t know we are ‘spying’ on them… I observe how much they need each other… that’s when I see their real sibling bond... I see that from afar and feel quite jealous. I have two sisters, but, growing up in the UK in the 70s and 80s, they weren’t particularly interested to ‘compete’ with boys and so we didn’t spend a lot of time together.

When I grew up, it was about getting the right dynamics in place, and sometimes that can be hard work. My sisters live in the UK, I’ve been living overseas, and I see them for a few days in a year, I would tend to gloss over grudges and bad feelings… Life’s too short — and my sisters, luckily, feel likewise.

If I compare my own sibling relationships with what my sons share, the irony is that you may assume full-grown adults, in their 40s and 50s, will be different from 12- and 14-year-olds… but you see similar rifts appear, and you realise you are arguing about some of the same issues!

We need to constantly work at it, put in the maintenance to keep it going. Because if you don’t, friends can take the place of siblings sometimes. That’s something that wouldn’t happen with your parents, because, unlike siblings, you cannot find their surrogates as easily.”

‘The hardest part about being twins is that not everything is equal’

Morgan and Alexandra Venison, co-founders of branding/communications agency Genii & Co

“For us, the best part about being siblings — and twins! — is that we may have an argument, which can be horrible and personal, since we know so much about each other, but in an hour — or maximum a day — we’re back to being best friends. And at the end of it, we know we’ll always be there for one another, even if, at times, we are really harsh and say things to each other we wouldn’t tell our spouses or boyfriends or friends: with them, we probably wouldn’t be able to get away with it, but with each other, we can.

There’s ‘unconditional love’, but that’s accrued with a lot of effort. We resolved to ensure we would not have a fractured relationship. We actioned it, talked about it a lot, and actively worked on it.

The hardest part about being twins — and we guess pretty much the same rule applies for siblings per se — is that not everything is equal. There was a time in our younger years when we drifted apart for a while, we felt we had an identity crisis and needed to seek our own identities… and then we came back.

And then, when we were in our mid-20s, Morgan got really sick — and that was an eye-opener even though it was horrible. That actually got us together and [made us] become best friends.

Although we are twins and we work together, we are clear about our separate identities: one of us is a dyed blonde, the other’s a brunette [laugh], we have separate groups of friends. But what to do if either one of us is dating someone who doesn’t like my sister? Simple: he doesn’t stand a chance, he’s out [laugh].

Us joining forces to become business partners was very much the result of the industry changing… We spotted an opportunity, and put our skills (PR and journalism) together to make money.

How we click as an A-team? We were both raised a certain way, we both have the same aspirations and goals, and we both know how hard the other one works. The business lessons you learn when you work together are actually what you learnt growing up with that person. Compromise is factored into our relationship because, in our subconscious, we are so used to it.

Trust — implicit trust — is another huge factor. We know how well we balance one another out. At times, one of us is having a bad time, the other is on a level playing field, so that person needs to get the other off the edge — this is also a throwback to our younger years.

There are stress lines, yes. We tend to take out a lot of stuff on each other as we can be totally vulnerable [with each other]. Often, there’s judgement drawn — but it’s actually good to have someone judging you because you may need to be given a reality check once in a while.”

‘Does it make sense to give up on a relationship over money or property?’

Melwyn Abraham, director, Matrix Consulting, Dubai

“I am the eldest sibling; my second brother Nelson, who I wasn’t particularly close to while growing up, is five years younger than me; the youngest, Oscar, 10 younger than me, I was phenomenally close to — I was almost like a father figure to him. But as I grew older, I started getting close to Nel, and he was the best man at my wedding. Oscar turned out the smartest of us all, and there’s been a role reversal: I go to him for advice these days!

Nel migrated to Australia four years ago, but we are in touch all the time, and meet up whenever we can; Oscar, like me, is in Dubai. Our wives get along really well, and we are all godparents to each other’s kids.

Sounds like a dream, right? How did it turn out so well? We made a conscious decision to not let external factors — even parents or spouses — affect our relationship. It was a conversation that took place when Nel married out of faith and he came to me for support, and we decided, then and there, whatever happens, at the end of the day, we’ll support each other no matter what. Oscar was still pretty young back then, he was in college, and we got him up to speed soon enough.

So, yes, differences of opinion do pop up once in a while but we have a bond that ensures we overcome them. Given the amazing relationship we have, it pains me when I see rifts tearing apart siblings — especially if they are part of the extended family.”

Oscar Abraham, corporate lawyer based in Dubai

“When I was studying [for a law degree] in India, my teachers in law school would take on cases in family courts. Many cases that came up had to do with non-equitable distribution of inheritance that would lead to a breakdown of sibling relationships. Even extended families would take sides… and, ultimately, these would never end well.

It’s hard to judge that kind of a situation from the outside: does it make sense to give up on a relationship over money or property? Well, I wouldn’t know till I’m in those shoes.

Our parents set a clear template: they would only be responsible for us till the time we ended our education — and from thereon, it was expected that we would, individually, manage on our own, tread our own path… not fight over inheritance.

Growing up, our understanding of sibling ties was framed by our eco-system: my mother had seven siblings, my dad three. They were very close. And we believed this is what sibling relationships should be like.

I mean, there are siblings who are estranged, we’ve seen this within our extended family and friends’ circle… two siblings wouldn’t even be in the same room. Fortunately, all three of us have made conscious efforts to keep our closeness going and not let time and distance affect it. It’s important to let our kids share the same kind of relationship we [brothers] share, so we do Zoom calls as often as possible, and try and meet up somewhere once every year. All of us together.”

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