May 31, 2004
From joy to heartache: New book explores the
By Jennifer McNulty
Sisters treat each other like best friends--and worst enemies.
Marcia Millman, right, with her sister, Sandy. Photo
courtesy of the Millman Family
In the new book The Perfect Sister: What Draws Us Together, What
Drives Us Apart (New York: Harcourt, 2004) sociologist Marcia Millman
explores the complicated sister relationship and the familial forces
that shape it.
From the adult sisters who make secret trips to the plastic surgeon
together to the visually impaired youngster whose older sister ditches
her on the way to school, the sister relationship offers unparalleled
opportunities for closeness and estrangement.
The emotional connection between sisters is very important, and
it hadnt been explored in a serious way, said Millman, a
professor of sociology at UCSC, who interviewed nearly 100 women of
diverse backgrounds from around the country and, in many cases, more
than one sister from the same family.
In The Perfect Sister, Millman sheds light on the unique ways
sisters can help each other overcome the sorrows and disappointments
of childhood, and she offers insight into the reasons some sisters never
feel close. For many sisters, a big hurdle is "failing to see the
person who is actually there," or relating to what Millman calls
the "imagined sister. . . the sister we wish for."
I think sisters can help repair the injuries of childhood,
said Millman. It can happen when youre young or when youre
old, and it can create a bond that is very gratifying. But to do that,
women have to look beyond their own perspectives and see their sisters
for who they really are, not as extensions of themselves but as individuals
with unique experiences.
Based on her research, Millman identified the following factors that
shape individual childhood experiences and have lasting effects on sister
Parental favoritism. I think it happens even if
parents try not to let it happen, said Millman.
Older sisters who are tapped to help raise younger children.
Ideally, parents shouldnt do that, but life is not always
Mothers who enlist their eldest daughter as confidante.
Theyre not really thinking about what that daughter needs,
said Millman. Theyre satisfying their own need.
Sisters remain influential figures in each others lives into
adulthood, and Millman encourages adult sisters to step back and assess
each other independently of how their parents did. Its common
for the favored sister to look at her sibling in the same disparaging
way her parents did, but thats very damaging for grown sisters
who want an equal relationship, said Millman.
In families where the mother or father chose one daughter to confide
in, siblings may never form childhood alliances with each other. As
adults, some sisters recognize how divisive that was, and this frees
them to become friends, said Millman. Likewise, it can be difficult
for older sisters who had more than their share of responsibility in
the family to overcome the resentment and anger they often feel toward
their younger siblings. Some siblings seem to get locked inside
a time capsule. We need to stop relating to anachronistic images and
relate to the person whos there in the present, said Millman.
Many adult women also fail to recognize the differences in how they
and their sisters grew up. Instead, they fall into the trap of expecting
their sister to behave or respond exactly as they would, an expectation
that fuels misunderstanding and disappointment, said Millman.
Relationships arent cast in stone, however, and Millman found
that sisters who were close as children didnt necessarily stay
close as adults, and vice versa. Age difference had little bearing on
how well sisters got along as adults. Millman was surprised by the number
of women who reported having had a difficult mother, but attentive mothers
didnt guarantee a close sibling relationship, either.
Despite all these challenges, most adult women expect to be close
to their sister, and its upsetting when theyre not getting
along, she said. Sisters are an important part of womens
Adult sisters often come together around shared experiences, such as
childbearing and caring for elderly parents, said Millman. When
parents get sick, youre drawn into a relationship with your siblings
again, she said. After parents die, siblings become even
more important emotionally, because they are your only tie to your childhood.
In the meantime, Millman encourages women to work on their relationships
with their sisters.
People work at relationships with spouses, partners, and children,
but they dont always think they have to work on their relationships
with their siblings, said Millman. Some sisters are fortunate,
and they have an easy relationship. But for those who dont, or
when problems come up, they need to remember that every close attachment
has conflicts. If they value the relationship, theres a real incentive
to work it out. I think sisters can make up, and theyre happier
when they do. Its worth the effort.
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