Family Dysfunction Part I: Sibling Rivalry

In probate litigation cases, attorneys frequently observe that “this family is really screwed up,” or, more professionally: “this family is completely dysfunctional.”

That’s a conclusion.  I think we can do better than that.  It seems to me there are patterns, or common qualities, to many of these cases.  Some of these patterns arise frequently, others only periodically.  So, in a series, which begins with this post (and for which there is no planned schedule or timetable), I will offer my thoughts on the patterns of family dysfunction that I see arise in probate litigation matters. [I acknowledge that my opinions are based on no expertise in psychology or any other related science, only the experiences of my own life and legal practice.]

I start with the ever popular “sibling rivalry.”

People spend much of their lives seeking validation.  Not necessarily love – just validation:  “you’re ok.”

If you stand in any bar, cocktail party, or community gathering, much of what you hear can be boiled down to a simple conversation that goes on endlessly but in many varied forms:

Person Number 1: I think you’re ok.  Do you think I’m ok?

Person Number 2: Yes, I think you’re ok.

Throughout life we look for that validation from people around us – in childhood that validation is most important from our closest family members – including siblings.

As I see it, sibling rivalries that lead to litigation can result from two variations of the sibling rivalry theme.

  • Unresolved Childhood Sibling Rivalries

During childhood, validation from siblings is not always forthcoming.  Children struggle with their own identities and self-esteem issues, which at times makes it hard for them to validate their siblings.  Eldest children often have a particularly difficult time validating their younger siblings.   In our adult lives we have the opportunity to fix the existing validation issues with our siblings that were created during childhood.  So, if one child felt un-validated by a sibling, in their adult relationship the sibling who was perceived to have failed to adequately validate can fix the relationship with mature actions of validation.  “You matter to me, and I want to stay connected to you in our adult lives.”  When this doesn’t happen, issues arise that may play themselves out later in family fights over parental control and estate settlement.

  • Adult Distancing Sibling Rivalries

In addition, after siblings launch and go their separate ways, with some “succeeding” more than others, new inter-sibling validation needs evolve and there is the potential that our adult relationships with our siblings give rise to new validation issues (or exacerbate existing ones).  This is especially common between siblings who have reached differing levels of accomplishment in their adult lives.  In the adult world, some of us rise and some of us fall on that illusory scale of social importance.  Some people go to college, some do not.  Some go to better colleges.  Some achieve more success in their respective professions.  Some earn more money.  Children who rise higher than one or more of their siblings, will often create a need in the less successful siblings to demonstrate that notwithstanding their social status, they still think of their siblings as important people to them.  When this doesn’t happen, the sibling rivalry issues may also arise.

I should note that validation is different from love.  Love is more demanding and complicated.  It is nice if your siblings really love you, want to spend holidays with you, call you regularly; but in my experience siblings don’t need to love each other to avoid family dysfunction, so long as there is validation.