Women and Their Sisters

Ghosts From Your Childhood


It’s always sad when sisters close in age don’t get along.  You love each other because you are related, but when you harbor resentments from childhood, it’s hard to like each other. 

Barbara, at 46, is two years older than Yvonne. They live about 30 minutes apart.  They have several children each, including eight year old sons who are best friends.

“But it’s so friggin’ hard,” exclaims Barbara, a petite woman with long straight dark brown hair. Yvonne’s always complaining that she has to drive further to get the boys, or my son gets more attention than hers, or that my husband and I have more money so we buy our children more.

Yvonne counters. “Mom and Dad always help her more than me, and they call her more often.  It’s just like when we were kids; you always got more sprinkles on your ice cream.”

“Grow up, Yvonne,” Barbara hisses.

Yvonne heaves a deep sigh. “It’s easy for you to say.  I know it sounds childish, but I can’t help that’s what I feel. You do get more. You always have. You were the cute, petite one, the smart one, the goody-two-shoes. I was the big lumbering kid with curls going in all directions.  I could never sit still in school, was always getting in trouble.  You were the perfect child, and now you’re the perfect Mom.”

This may sound like childish rivalry but it is very painful and real to Yvonne, who is competent enough to manage a music store and be president of her townhouse association.  But ghosts from childhood have long arms and can reach far into the future if these old images aren’t addressed.

The sisters call asking for help. As Yvonne put it, “We are sisters; our children will have Bat Mitzvah together; we share parents.  Our lives will always be entwined.  So, we have to fix things.”  Yet, they both have their doubts.

Regardless of age, ghosts from childhood permeate siblings’ relationships. There are numerous reasons why young siblings have problems with each other, such as parental favoritism, one child having more socially valued attributes, one having neurological or behavioral problems.  Barbara and Yvonne are affected by the most common reason — crystallized roles.

In most families, children develop roles that balance two opposites:  one child good and the other bad; one athletic, the other musical; one serious, the other funny. It’s as if they are locked into these roles, unable to free themselves.  Unfortunately, this can become a formula for built-in resentment and jealousy. 

In talking about their roles, Yvonne believes she’s never measured up to Barbara.  Even as adults, she feels Barbara rubs her nose in how much better off she is than Yvonne.

She is shocked, therefore, when Barbara acknowledges being in the “good child” role, but explains what a high price she has paid. “I saw what Mom and Dad went through with you; I didn’t want them to ever have problems with me. I was real young when I made a pact with myself; I would never challenge them and would always do whatever they wanted. When they told me I couldn’t take the dance lessons I so dearly wanted, I decided I didn’t really want to dance. I have a gazillion examples like that.  I gave up myself in order to be their good daughter.”

Yvonne is not yet ready to feel sorry for her privileged sister.  “I could never get their approval.  I remember at some point saying if they were going to see me as bad, I might as well do bad things.  I certainly couldn’t be good like you.”

As they share memories from their elementary years, which is when roles get formed, they see where their parents essentially guided them into these contradictory roles, and how their different personalities made it easy to accept them.

Families have a hard time letting a member change the crystallized role. However, when sisters work together, it is doable.

I have Barbara and Yvonne write down all the negative images they carry about the other.  When they compare the list, they are surprised; it is so different from their image of themselves.

The sisters stare at each other.  Maybe they stare at the little girl deep inside.  I imagine new twists to old images race through their minds.  I imagine they struggle seeing past scenes from a new angle.  Who knows what really goes through another’s mind while transformations are happening?

They sit for a long time.  Then, as if simultaneously, they stand and hug and cry.  I wish I could say that things improved dramatically after that.  They didn’t, but this discussion became the foundation for finding different interpretations to the problems they have with each other today.

They make a new pact, this time with each other.  When annoyed, they will check to see if the feelings are warranted today or left over from childhood.

If you have questions or comments or want more information, contact me at:

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis

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