From Dr. Jane's Notebook
Toxic interaction patterns: Forms of sibling rivalry?
Judith Viorst in her book titled Grown-Up
Marriage describes toxic interaction patterns between us and the people in
our lives as forms of sibling rivalry that we learned in childhood. For
most of us, our families of origin were the training grounds where we learned to
negotiate, fight, and survive. Hopefully, they were also the places where we
learned to communicate, cooperate, and compromise. Later on as adults, when we
try to unravel the ropes of our disagreement, it is may be helpful to think back
upon our earlier patterns of communication. Here are a few more thoughts on the
- Conflicts in our roles as spouses. When spouses
experience marital problems, they sometimes lock horns and defend their status
as “the one who is right”. At times, it takes a bulldozer to bring both
partners to the bargaining table. Rather than view the discussion of problems
as the road to solutions, the underlying battle sometimes becomes “there is
nothing wrong with me”. And I agree. Just because we see things differently
and just because we are not meeting each other’s needs, does not make us “the
wrong one”. But perhaps it is unrealistic to think that by living in such
close quarters, we will always get along. Perhaps rules do have to be revised
and updated from time to time. This too does not make us “wrong”. But if we
fear being blamed or we fear loss of face, we may be trapped in a form of
sibling rivalry. We may confuse our need to be right with our willingness to
fix our relationships.
- Birth order may influence our roles as parents.
Raising children requires the on-going adjustment of power in relationships.
Healthy children must eventually develop their own identity, separate and
apart from their parents. When conflicts arise, parents and children may
bicker endlessly for control of their relationship. As they grow, first born
children may be able to intimidate their parents if their parents were latter
born children. They may demand a form of respect that we were not prepared to
give. Both children and parents can make mistakes, and both must learn to
apologize when they are wrong, to forgive when they are right, and to respect
each others’ differences when they disagree. If, however, our pride gets in
the way and we find ourselves competing with our children, we may be
re-enacting old battles. Early in their lives, it is our job to teach and
guide; later on, we will need to let them go with a care package full of
- Conflicts between grown children and parents.
While few of us are comfortable with the aging process, even fewer of us want
to feel treated like “children” by our children. Older adults sometimes feel a
loss of status when their previous strengths seem frail by comparison. Parents
who were once in charge and all-powerful, often have difficulty relinquishing
their authority and allowing themselves to be cared for by their grown
children. But this reversal of roles is a natural part of life. Adult children
need to show their elderly parents sufficient concern, and aging parents need
to show their children adequate appreciation. Most of us simply want respect,
but in the name of stubbornness, some elders may refuse to anoint their
children as their successors; and in the name of stubbornness, some grown
children may decide to abort family traditions.
- Conflicts between ourselves and our co-workers.
Getting angry never solves problems but it may be a knee-jerk reaction that
worked with our siblings. At work, we may find if difficult to take orders, or
criticism, or to follow the rules. We may find ourselves competing with our
colleagues and even our boss. Sometimes referred to as a “bad attitude”,
losing one’s temper at work can be a very costly response. When certain people
or certain situations chronically get underneath your skin, consider whether
these reactions are familiar feelings of entitlement or bullying. Perhaps we
are carrying our lifelong sense of entitlement into the workplace without even
As grown ups, we
have the opportunity to function as a complementary partners. Even if we always
got our own way as children, we do not have the right to make all the rules, and
we do not have the right to punish each other. Unfinished business from
childhood can last a lifetime if we let it.
©Copyright, 2007, Jane R. Rosen-Grandon. All rights reserved.
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