GWEN, 60, HAS SEEN MORE of her older sister Bette, 63, since moving to California several years ago than she did when they both lived in the same state. "I think it's because absence makes the heart grow fonder," Gwen says. "Bette got married when I was 18 and we never spent much time together until I moved out here. She's been here twice to visit, and we spend two or three weeks together--which is about the most time we've spent together in 40 years. We talk a lot about our mom and dad and about old times. She remembers a lot more than I do. She talks about what a brat I was when I was a teen-ager--she remembers a lot of things I don't, but when I hear them, I know they're true."
Gwen and Bette are the rule, not the exception. When we're old, even more so than when we're young, our brothers and sisters are likely to be among our best friends.
Researchers have found that the proportion of people who say they feel close to their siblings rises with age. From their 30s on, most sisters and brothers not only see each other more often but also say they feel closer to each other emotionally.
From the story of Cain and Abel to the tale of "Hannah and Her Sisters," the power of the complex bond between brothers and sisters is hard to deny. Yet until about 15 years ago, psychologists tended to relegate relationships with siblings to a poor fourth place, after ties to children, parents and mates.
Says Carol Holden, a University of Michigan psychologist: "Relationships among sisters and brothers were thought to be either pale reflections of their relationships with parents or defined almost entirely by sibling rivalry."
Now, an increasing number of psychologists believe that relationships with siblings can be among the most important in life. And a growing body of research suggests that sibling ties become more, not less, important as we age. These relationships form the clearest blueprints we have for later relations with peers. Says Holden: "The way you got along with your sisters and brothers when you were young can influence your choice of friends and marriage partners. It can also have a strong influence on how you get along with co-workers."
In "My One and Only: The Special Experience of The Only Child," (William Morrow and Co., 1989), San Francisco author Ellie McGrath describes her own childhood and weighs the advantages and disadvantages of being an only child. "Most only children, myself included, believe that had they grown up with a sibling, they would have learned how to deal with others sooner and more smoothly. They feel that they are a bit slow sensing the dynamics of peer relationships or learning the art of negotiation." Not to mention learning how to fight.
Another reason our relationships with siblings are among life's most important is their sheer longevity. As marriages crumble and friendships fade, "the sibling relationship becomes for many people the only intimate connection that seems to last," observes University of Hartford psychologist Michael Kahn, co-editor with family therapist Karen Lewis of "Siblings in Therapy." The sibling relationship is the only one that has the potential to last from the cradle to the grave. In fact, Kahn notes, a brother or sister is the most likely of all relatives to be at your side when you die.
Even Hollywood has recognized how important brothers and sisters can be to each other. Besides "Hannah and Her Sisters," Kahn cites "Crimes of the Heart," "Fanny and Alexander," "Ran" and "The Color Purple" as examples of recent films in which sibling relationships eclipse romantic ties. Add to this list the critically acclaimed "sex, lies and videotape" and the Australian sleeper, "Sweetie," in which two sisters compete for their inattentive parents' attention.
Given the importance of the sibling relationship, it's not surprising that for some people the major psychological "work" of middle age consists of settling old scores with siblings, according to Wesleyan University psychologist Stephen Bank, co-author with Kahn of "The Sibling Bond." The first thing to understand, he notes, is that it's not normal to feel distant from or angry toward a sister or brother. "Most adults have cordial, mutually supportive relationships with their brothers and sisters," says Bank.
Those who do not, Bank believes, can at least learn to stop seeing their siblings as the cause of the problem and, through therapy, begin to understand that both they and their siblings are victims of the same twisted family dynamics that may have been in operation for generations. In other words, in middle age, estranged siblings may finally begin to fathom the depths of their family tragedy.