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May 31, 2004

From joy to heartache: New book explores the sister relationship

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 hadn’t 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 you’re young or when you’re 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 relationships:

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 shouldn’t do that, but life is not always ideal.”

Mothers who enlist their eldest daughter as confidante. “They’re not really thinking about what that daughter needs,” said Millman. “They’re satisfying their own need.”

Sisters remain influential figures in each other’s lives into adulthood, and Millman encourages adult sisters to step back and assess each other independently of how their parents did. “It’s common for the favored sister to look at her sibling in the same disparaging way her parents did, but that’s 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 who’s 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 aren’t cast in stone, however, and Millman found that sisters who were close as children didn’t 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 didn’t guarantee a close sibling relationship, either.

“Despite all these challenges, most adult women expect to be close to their sister, and it’s upsetting when they’re not getting along,” she said. “Sisters are an important part of women’s emotional lives.”

Adult sisters often come together around shared experiences, such as childbearing and caring for elderly parents, said Millman. “When parents get sick, you’re 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 don’t 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 don’t, or when problems come up, they need to remember that every close attachment has conflicts. If they value the relationship, there’s a real incentive to work it out. I think sisters can make up, and they’re happier when they do. It’s worth the effort.”

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