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Adult Sibling Rivalries Aren’t Just for the Rich and Powerful

Adult Sibling Rivalries Aren’t Just for the Rich and Powerful

What HBO’s ‘Succession’ reveals—and misses—about every family’s dysfunction

If you’re reading this, I can make one pretty solid guess about you: You have a sibling or siblings, your mom or dad or both had a favorite, and it wasn’t you. Sorry! It wasn’t me, either. Even worse, maybe you were their favorite for a spell but disappointed them, or your brother swooped in and outshone you. Welcome to adult sibling rivalry, the official term for sort of hating the people genetically closest to you on earth — and, no worries, it’s mutual — all because your parents played favorites. Don’t ask your doctor about it. There is no cure.

That’s the takeaway I was struck with watching the new HBO show Succession, which details the slow-motion train wreck of the Roys, a family of rich assholes. A four-way sibling rivalry plays out between the three Roy brothers and one Roy sister while their aging father, a casually cruel media magnate, rapidly declines in health. The money is almost secondary: The patriarch has long been pulling the strings to create deep distrust among his potential heirs, mostly for his own kicks.

But parents don’t need a dime to bequeath their progeny a turnkey model for all-encompassing sibling hostility. One must only be human, and a little fucked up.

A Constant, Perpetual Game of One-upmanship

Here’s what the poor version of Succession looks like: I grew up in a family of zero dollars but intense sibling rivalry stoked by our mother. It wasn’t always explicitly communicated, but it was always clear: One of my sisters was brilliant and resourceful. The other was a fragile but talented wunderkind. The two in the middle—including me—were disappointing fuckups who wouldn’t amount to much. We spent our lives in such a constant, perpetual game of one-upmanship that the moves on Succession look pedestrian.

One night, knowing I’d wanted to spend the night at a friend’s to go to a party but had been denied by my mother, my older sister sympathetically offered to show me how to escape the house unheard to attend it anyway. She took me through the plan as if it were a heist, down to the critical detail of quietly opening the side door and closing it back without letting it slam. She told me precisely when to return so I’d quietly ascend the stairs before the creaky seventh step would wake anyone.

It worked like magic—except my mother was waiting for me at the exact time I’d been told to return.

The sister who sold me out was not the favored child either, but she clearly wanted to be. So tattling on me was not her way of maintaining the throne, it was the only possible path toward it. It did not bump her to the front of the favorites line for long, unfortunately, but it helped seal our fate forever.

But as terrible as that makes her sound, it’s not entirely her fault. I was a jerk, too. But more importantly, had our mother not encouraged precisely this sort of tattling, it may have never occurred to us to do it. Even if it had, she might’ve stopped it cold by never rewarding it. In other words, the feelings might’ve manifested anyway, but they also could’ve been thwarted.

What Science Shows About Sibling Rivalry

Experts don’t agree on whether sibling rivalry is inevitable or merely the result of dysfunction. But we do know that when it begins, it begins at birth. The second another child is born, the older one notices all the attention and resources have suddenly gone poof.

English researcher Judith Dunn noted in her research on sibling relationships that children as young as 1 can plainly see the relationship between the older sibling and the parent or parents in simple terms: Who gets what attention and what love for what behavior to what extent. By 3, they can actually grasp how they stack up next to another sibling in their parents’ eyes. Next depends on the parent, of course, but assuming the parent makes no effort to avoid playing favorites, that struggle for parental attention, resources or just validation never really ends.

That’s what will keep the children at odds even in adulthood. You will always be who you were in relation to your siblings; you will also spend your life proving it isn’t so. The experience could make you succeed because of being favored or rejected, or succeed in spite of it. It’s anyone’s guess. It’s just up to you to compensate.

When the Blame Lies With Mom and Dad

You would think loving children would not be a zero-sum game, and yet it is. Parents are as vain as anyone, if not more so, as they’ve at least had the confidence to breed themselves forward.

Three factors intersect in playing favorites that demonstrate this to the letter: birth order, gender and “characterological” similarity to the parent. Birth order can mean you’re more favored as the first born or the last (in other words, middle child syndrome is real, and it is horrible). Both the first and last child are considered more representative of the quality of parenting, and so parents tend to put more into them. Gender means a mother is most jazzed on her first-born son, while a father is more often devoted to his youngest daughter. And characterological similarity to the parent is equally straightforward: Mom and Dad tend to prefer the kids who’re most like them.

Succession plays up this deliberate, ruthless cruelty like it’s a technique unique only to the rich. But parents with regular incomes know they’re doing this too! One study found that 70 percent of regular normal mothers could admit there’s one child they’re far closer to. And only 15 percent of children can say their parents demonstrated no favoritism. If you’re reading that right, that means about 85 percent of us are fairly well fucked here, even when our parents have no intention of playing out King Lear. Better yet, the study also found that the correct sense that someone is a favorite in your family, whether it’s you or not, correlates with depression in adulthood. Can’t wait for Thanksgiving, guys!

In spite of this understanding, sibling rivalry is still considered under-researched. In 2016, psychiatrist Anna Fels told the New York Times that in her view, “the psychological field does not give enough attention to the huge impact of siblings.” Psychiatrist Roger Gould backed that up: “As I think about my current caseload, everyone has a strained, difficult relationship with at least one of their siblings.”

What We Can Do About It

If you aren’t one of them, you know one of them. They aren’t all embroiled in actively hostile ongoing relationships, as even sibling rivalries can mellow in old age. They may just be the people who dread going home for the holidays. They may not post a picture on Facebook on international sibling day celebrating the wonderment of siblings, even if you know they have them. They may never mention the fact of their families, because it’s too awkward.

And the problems get worse because we can’t avoid them. Marriages and children bring the whole family back together. But the big one is when a parent dies. Research suggests these are also opportunities to repair the relationship, and some people do. But for others, it’s a final nail in the coffin.

Dealing with a parent’s death and inheritance is considered the numero uno cause of resurfaced adult sibling rivalry for the worse — the stuff that gets made into TV shows. In my case, my mother’s last sick burn was dying without a will, which has given my sisters and me a wonderful opportunity to play out a somewhat-mellowed version of the exact same animosities writ large. It has always made me wonder what it would be like if, at some point, we’d teamed up with one another instead of against one another to set things straight and correct Mom’s mistakes.

In Succession, there’s a very satisfying and true-to-life moment like that. Two Roy brothers, sick of their father’s meddling to divide and conquer them their whole lives, decide to team up and take him down together. They will make things right, they agree. Show him he no longer has this power. In unity, they are bigger than he can ever be. After all, no matter all the hurt they’ve caused each other, aren’t they still brothers? I won’t spoil it. But for anyone who has ever been part of an adult sibling rivalry, I wouldn’t need to. The plot twist couldn’t possibly shock you.

If there’s any upside to not having been the favored child, I only know what it is for me. It’s that I have yet to encounter a single Machiavellian move in life outside of my own family that has ever felt remotely challenging. It’s excellent training for the world. A family’s internal rivalry can make dealing with a workplace asshole easier than a cakewalk. Don’t even try to fuck with me, I would like to tell the world. I have three sisters.