In theory, the bond between sisters should be an unshakeable one. No one know you better, right? And one would think a sibling almost serves as a built-in best friend for life. Why, then, can the dysfunction between sisters be so, well, dysfunctional? Where do the deep roots of this conflict begin? As someone with an older sister (there’s 13 months between us in age) with whom I’ve navigated my own rollercoaster of dynamics in the past, I’ve pondered these questions quite a bit in recent weeks. I blame the Kardashians.
Yes, at this point, most of us are well aware of the bubbling contention between Kim and Kourtney, captured on both their long-running E! show and now their revamped reality program on Hulu. Over the years, we’ve seen the two verbally spar and even come to physical blows. This past week, the two eldest of the bunch have made headlines yet again over a now epic phone call in which Kim reveals she and mutual friends of the sisters have a “Not Kourtney” group chat to essentially airs grievances against the 44-year-old sister. While I understand that this all makes for great television, and conflict between sisters is normal — and even healthy at times — I couldn’t help but wonder: What’s really going on here?
“It is important to note that a lot of these issues and conflicts were created all the way back in childhood,” says Stacy Kaiser, licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert to TZR. “The way [the sisters] were parented and the roles they were given in their family can help contribute to these issues. Also, your relationship with your sister is expected to go on a lot longer than relationships with anyone else, and so in someways that creates more pressure to get along, and then ultimately causes more fighting.”
Common Issues Among Sisters
Competition & Jealousy
Competition between sisters, particularly those close in age, is unfortunately quite common, says Kaiser. “Everything from competing over who has the best relationship, job, more money, most athletic, spends more time with parents, and many even compete over which sister is the best sister to the other sister,” she says. (On the subject of the Kardashians, Kim and Kourtney have famously argued over their similar Italian weddings and even holiday decorations.)
Who’s The Boss?
Power struggles are also prevalent in sisterly bonds. Kaiser explains that often she sees younger sisters feeling parented by an older sibling. “In the reverse, the older sibling often feels like they have to take care of or guide the younger sibling,” she says. This “big sister knows best” mentality can also often translate to bossiness in some cases, perpetuating resentment between older and younger children, says Dr. Lee Phillips, psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist. “If one sister has children, they may disagree with the way the other sister parents her children,” he adds.
The Parent Problem
Parent dynamics are often crucial in impacting the relationship between siblings. Again, in relation to the Kardashian clan, the earliest arguments between Kim and Kourtney often stemmed from the alleged preference mother Kris Jenner showed the Skims founder. “Some common issues or conflicts I have encountered with sisters include fairness regarding family matters, especially if a parent(s) passes away,” says Phillips. “One receives more money and feeling like a parent may favor one sister more.”
If there’s a middle sister in the mix, or even simply a neutral one in the center of existing conflict, this seemingly peaceful position alone can cause issues. “If you look at research on sibling position, often times the middle child will feel torn between taking the side of the younger and older sibling when they fight,” says Kaiser. “Specifically, they literally end up in the middle of a fight.” Phillips seconds this notion, adding that this can result in the middle sister feeling isolated, “or she can often be the mediator between the oldest and younger sister.” This isolation theory may hold some weight as a 2016 study of 320 undergraduate students found that middle-born children were more likely to be less family-oriented than their elder siblings.
Things To Try To Improve Sister Conflict
The complexities of sibling dynamics are hardly quick fixes. But, there are certainly steps that can be taken to get in a more positive place.
Remember The Good Times
Sometimes in our anger, it’s easy to spiral and focus on only the person’s negative qualities or even the things that bother you about them. “To try to reconnect, it’s really important to remember the good times you’ve had and the good qualities they have,” says Kaiser.
Spend Some Time Together
When it comes to family, distance can often make the wedges between two (or more) people larger. “Spending less time together at first will keep the temperature lower,” says Kaiser, who suggests carving out “small bursts” of time to stay connected with your sister. “I also recommend having buffers around, get together with your partners, other family members, or friends, to reduce the chances of conflict.”
In that same token, the psychotherapists says to choose activities that bring up good memories between the two of you. “If you were little, and you loved to go on hikes, rollerskate, have a dance party… do one of those things to reconnect.”
Put Yourself In Their Shoes
When you’re in conflict with someone, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision of a specific situation or scenario. Kaiser encourages sisters to think outside of your experience to better understand your sibling’s POV. “Try to put yourself in your sibling’s shoes and figure out how they are feeling about the conflict,” she says. “Channel your empathy for them instead of only focusing on yourself.”
When All Else Fails, Seek Professional Help
Like with all difficult things and relationships in life, sometimes, seeking the help of third party is the best course of action, especially in particularly contentious situations. “Therapist and counselors are trained to help all kinds of relationships, and might have some tools or ideas that you never thought of,” says Kaiser.