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Planning Retirement Online

Beyond the Headlines

May 2012


By Jeanne DavisJeanne Davis

Each month our resident writer and commentator Jeanne Davis goes behind recent news stories to comment on various ideas and subjects that have special resonance for our age group.

Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy this addition every month



SIBLINGS: Do They Shape Our Personalities?

A few months ago there was an incident with my sister that nudged me into reflecting on our relationship. I was giving a brunch on the day following a birthday dinner in my honour. The brunch was for friends who had come from abroad for the celebration. My sister said I must have bloody marys on offer as an aperitif. I resisted. First, I don’t like bloody marys, second, I don’t know how to make them, and third even though she offered to bring the ingredients and make them to her specifications I didn’t want her fussing in my kitchen.

For three days I fretted about these bloody marys. I was already under some strain worrying about the dinner -- the menu, the seating, the speeches. I was near hysteria. I didn’t want to confront my sister and tell her no bloody marys -- I was afraid she would be angry with me.

So, here we are in our upper seventies and I am worrying about upsetting her. My son finally took hold and told me to serve whatever I wanted and forget her request. Problem solved!

In the days following I was drawn to articles in the papers about siblings and their effect on each other. Recent scientific studies were being reported, new books reviewed. There was Jeffrey Kluger’s “The Sibling Effect: Brothers, Sisters and the Bonds That Define Us.” Tim Lott’s new novel “Under the Same Stars” is about sibling rivalry and the fraught relationship he has with his own brother.

The rough-and-tumble world of siblings is now being seen as a primary factor in shaping personality. Previous research focused on parents, DNA and socioeconomics; however recent research suggests that sibling relations influence our lives just as much as our relations with our parents.

As Jeffrey Kluger writes: “Our spouses arrive comparatively late in our lives; our parents eventually leave us. Our siblings may be the only people who truly qualify as partners for life.”

I asked my younger brother what he thought about his relationship with us, his two older sisters. When we were young,” he said, “you two looked after me. Then when we all grew up and married the relationships with our own families were most important, with our spouses, our children, rather than siblings. Now with all of us older and both of you widowed I find I am helping you, looking after you, listening to you when you need advice, helping if I can.”

How do the relationships shape our personality? A good friend, fifty-year-old Jenny M., tells me she comes from a family of four – an older brother, two sisters and a much younger brother. Her mother relied on her older brother to look after the sisters, Jenny and her sister. When the girls were invited to teenage parties he was sent along to watch and when the time came to go home he vetted whoever they were with.
He grew up to be very pompous, to be bossy and order everyone around, including his family and his colleagues. When their mother had to leave the family home to go into a nursing home, the four siblings gathered to sort out the household belongings, to select which items each would like. The older brother couldn’t understand why he couldn’t have everything. After all he was the eldest and the boy and therefore the others had to agree with him. To keep the peace, they did. Now, understandably, their hostility to him has increased and they rarely see him.

Vivian H., a very successful midlife business woman, had an older brother who became aggressive, selfish and controlling. Vivien said she was afraid to do anything on her own without his approval. “But it took,” she says, “a move abroad to study dance and tour with a dance company, to realise I didn’t need my brother’s approval and there was no reason to lack confidence or leadership ability. I realised only by this complete separation just how much he had influenced me and my decision making through my childhood and through my teenage years. Since my return, I have treated my brother as an equal, no longer needing or seeking his approval.”

And what of my own sibling relationship? Reflecting on the recent incident with my sister, I recalled that when we were younger I used to lock myself in my room, fearful that she was coming to hit me. I can’t recall what she might have been angry about.

In our teenage years we were good friends and through our singleton years shared a flat. We travelled together. She often chose the destination but I don’t recall objecting. But we saw each other only occasionally when married and raising children and pursuing our careers. She settled in the UK and my husband’s work took our family to the US.

Now we are both widowed and I am back in the UK. We sometimes spend weekends together, watching TV, discussing the latest political outrages. eating good food and of course, talking about the grandchildren. But I still find myself from time to time choosing my words carefully in case I should say something that will annoy her.


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