The Brown Sisters

The Brown Sisters – yearly portraits of them hang in the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.  They were taken by the husband of one of the women, photographer Nicholas Nixon.

He tracks them across 44 years. Why do I mention this?  The portraits just show the women standing (mostly), but it made me wonder what their relationship was like along these 44 years.  To look at them, they seem to like each other – why else have yourself immortalized together otherwise.  But, they must have fought, loved, cried, connived, paired up and re-paired up over the years.

If you have siblings (regardless of sex), how has your relationship changed since childhood.  Usually, when people talk about a brother or sister, their comments are current.  Or, they carry old feelings from childhood into current – “She’s always been bossy.”  “He never was considerate.”  Sentences that include “always” and “never” scream out “I am still seeing my siblings as I did as a child.”  I call that a frozen image.  Chances are, your siblings have a frozen image of  you, too – “You were always a complainer,”  “You’ve never been responsible.”

Yet, when you hear their comments about you, you know they probably aren’t true.  Sure,  you may have complained as a young child, or you may have been irresponsible during your teen years, but that certainly doesn’t describe you now.  Right?  So, why would you not recognize your descriptions of your siblings may also be outdated.  Frozen images are so …so frozen in your mind, it’s hard to see how your sibling has changed.  Or, perhaps the characteristic (in your sibling and in you) only appear when you are together, or when you are together with your parents.  Having family together often pulls out behaviors and relationship conflicts from long-ago.

February 14 is Valentine’s Day.  If you are still close with siblings, you’ll probably acknowledge them.  If there are tensions or conflicts or even emotional distance, it may not occur to you to send them a V. Day ecard or phone call or text.  Yet, thinking about the Brown Sisters could remind you that the quality of your relationship may have changed over the years and may change again in the future.

If the relationship isn’t as close as you’d like (or as you once wanted), it may not be too late.  Unlike marriage, you can’t divorce siblings; your history is too entwined, and as you get older, this will become even more significant.  When you are old and grey (or older and hair dyed), they will be the only ones who remember when you were little and cute, or who remember those Summer nights when you collected lightning bugs after dinner or when father almost burned the house down trying to grill chicken, or whatever.

As a family therapist specializing in adult siblings, I have the great privilege of helping siblings melt those images, find a more comfortable relationship together (even if  you’ll never be best friends) so moving into old age you’ll have the comfort of the familiarity of those who see the same young face you see when you look in the mirror.

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