"Psychotherapists are the audiences for modern sibling legends," Bank says. "We don't hear sagas of heroic nomads from great tribal families--like Jacob and Esau. But we do hear about disconnected modern brothers and sisters, living miles apart in distant suburbs, who've become alienated and angry" at one another. When siblings are at war, sometimes it's a fight to the death, and some people never achieve that closeness.
"I tried for years to get along with her," says Hazel, 65, explaining why she wouldn't call or visit an older sister who'd just had a major heart attack. The sister had stopped talking to Hazel and other family members many years before . "I bear no malice against her anymore , but I can't put up with her bitterness, the way she still blames Mamma and Poppa for everything bad that happened to her. I love her and I hope she doesn't suffer a lot. She's my sister, but I just cannot put up with her." As a teen-ager, another sister, the youngest in this same large family, moved as far away from the others as she could and for most of her life didn't call or visit anyone in her family of origin. A brother disappeared, cutting off all contact with his children, nieces, nephews and sisters.
Such "disowned sibling relationships"--in which adult sisters and brothers stop speaking or wind up exploding at each other when they do get together--are often the fallout of parental uninvolvement, neglect or abuse, according to Bank. But by far the most common cause is pathological favoritism. The case of Rebecca, a professional woman in her early 50s whose husband was threatening to leave her because she was frigid, is one of many Bank has seen in which the effects of favoritism are felt long after the parents are dead. Rebecca's parents always celebrated her younger sister's talents and achievements. They praised the younger sister's looks as well as her brains, and believing their praise, the sister projected a self-confidence that made her a magnet for men. Feeling hopelessly outclassed, Rebecca gave up trying to imitate her sister. "Because she felt so inferior and believed she wasn't attractive at all compared with her sister," Bank says, "she rejected her own sexuality."
Although the reasons parents favor one child over another vary from family to family, the underlying dynamics behind pathological favoritism are similar, Bank maintains. "All parents like one thing about one child and another thing about another child," he says. "The question is, at what point do they start comparing them and does it all get out of hand? In a normal family, everybody gets to be the scapegoat and everybody gets to be the favorite. You take turns. One child is catching heat one day and being treated well another day. It rotates. In troubled families, one child remains the scapegoat and one remains the favorite, which leads to all sorts of things, including lifelong sibling discord."
Even in normal families, though, myths often develop about the personalities and talents of siblings that may have little to do with reality. These myths have a way of persisting into adulthood, influencing how grown-up sisters and brothers feel about themselves and each other.
A classic study by pediatrician Frances Fuchs Schachter confirmed the existence of the "Cain and Abel syndrome," the tendency of parents to believe that their first two children are "as different as night and day." Schachter asked 140 mothers to compare their children, two at a time, on a series of personality attributes. She found that 80% of the mothers thought their children had opposite characteristics. If one was viewed as an introvert, the other was seen as an extrovert. If one was seen as fast, smart or strong, the other was likely to be viewed as slow, stupid or weak. Often, siblings themselves act out these differences, so that if parents make a big deal out of one being "good," the other starts acting "bad."
Schachter also found that college students said they were different from their siblings about twice as often as they reported being alike, suggesting that they have internalized their parents' opinions. While most brothers and sisters manage to find their own identities, sometimes their "de-identification" with each other becomes even more pronounced with age.
Much of the time, though, the differences between sisters and brothers are far less dramatic. "I'm an older sister with a younger sister," says Carol Holden, the Michigan psychologist who has studied the experience of being an older versus a younger sibling. "There's two and a half years and nine days between us. But who's counting? My sister and I have gotten along quite well over the years, but a lot of the popular misconceptions have been applied to us, like the older one is the smart one, the younger one is the pretty one."