Did You Marry Your Sibling?


Perhaps you’ve never thought of it, but if siblings are relatively close in age, childhood was their first experience of living with someone of the same generation. In fact, the early childhood sibling relationship could be considered a laboratory for all subsequent (adult) relationships. Did they learn to fight cleanly, or did they counter-attack, withdraw, or use blackmail (like tattling)?

If you think about it, the way your clients are dealing with conflict now, in their current marriage or love relationship, may feel familiar to them for how they felt back in their “first marriage.” As therapists, we can consider this a sibling transference. 

Let’s see how this works with Carl and Stephanie.

Carl and Stephanie, in their 40s, sought help for their relationship. Carl became depressed for two years after losing his job as a realtor during the housing slump.  When the market recovered, he didn’t. Now the marriage was deteriorating.

Shortly after the loss of Carl’s income, Stephanie, who had been a stay-at-home mother, went back to work to support the family. Initially, she was supportive of Carl, but after two years, her sympathy had been replaced by anger and resentment. She was furious that it seemed Carl had given up looking for work. When he’d tell her there were no jobs available, she’d scream, “After more than two years? Well, get something! Pump gas, I don’t care, just do something.” She had no idea why she was so enraged at her husband. “I know he’s tried to find a job, and I know he feels awful that he isn’t working. Lots of people are out of work now. I know I’m overreacting, but I’m still furious at him.”

Carl had no idea why he couldn’t motivate himself to job hunt. He told me, “I tried for a while and then gave up. I hated hearing, ‘Sorry, but we don’t have anything.’” He was disgusted with himself. “I want to work. I’m a hard worker; I’ve been a good provider for my family. Ok, I had a bad two years, but I should be able to get back on my feet. I don’t know why I can’t.”

They were stuck: Carl not being able to job hunt; Stephanie with anger being her only reaction to his unemployment. As I often do when couples are stuck, I asked about their siblings.

Carl had one sibling, an older brother by two years, whom he adored. He said his brother was considered the intelligent one. He described himself as not a good student. “I was a good back-up in most sports; never the star.” Ironically, despite his brother’s initial advantages, Carl was the one to leave their rural Kentucky hometown and go to college. Even with his unemployment now, he was financially more successful than his brother.

Stephanie was the oldest of five children. Her father had died when she was eight years old. “My mother had to work to support us. We girls are all nurses now, just like Mom.  My two brothers, though, are ‘thumb-twiddlers;’ I don’t think they have ever held a job for more than a few months.”

It became clear to me that Stephanie would not be free from her rage at Carl until she understood how she, unfairly, transferred her old images of her lazy brothers onto her husband. While they were thumb-twiddlers, Carl was a victim of the economy. 

The issue for Carl was slightly different. At one point, he said, “I used to be embarrassed going home to visit my family. I’d drive up in my used car that was still in much better condition than my brother’s broken-down trucks. I was so aware how much better dressed my kids were than my nieces and nephews. No one ever said anything; I don’t know if they were resentful, but I felt awkward. Like, what right did I have to be so much better off than they?” Later, he admitted, “This sounds crazy, but I actually feel better visiting them now than I ever have.”

Carl had not been bothered by being more professionally successful than his brothers until he hit a crisis. It was like an unconscious awakening that he had been disloyal in violating his family’s rule by being a better provider than his smart brother.

He came to realize that his self-sabotage of serious job hunting came from his transferring onto his wife the resentment he imagined his smart brother felt about his financial success. He was supposed to be a backup, not a leader.

In one of our last sessions, Stephanie acknowledged, “I forgot. While I only talk about my brothers as lazy, I also adored one of them—who reminded me so much of you, Carl. I’m sure that was my initial attraction to you.” 

Carl started laughing. “One of the things I loved about you, right from the start, was how smart you were. Remember? I used to say you reminded me of my brother.” 

As a couple, they had been drawn to each other, in part, through their transferred feelings from their childhood sibling. Until they had understood this dynamic, they had no resources to break out of that cycle and work together.

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis is an AAMFT Professional member holding the Clinical Fellow designation and a veteran marriage and family therapist. She has been in practice for over 50 years and is the author of numerous books and professional articles on marriage, gender communication, single women, and adult siblings. For years, she has presented at national and state AAMFT conferences, as well as for many other organizations, both nationally and internationally. Her newest book is Sibling Therapy: The Ghosts from Childhood That Haunt Your Clients’ Love and Work.

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