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You and your sister: why she's both your biggest supporter and rival

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What makes the connection between sisters so special? Deborah Tannen, linguistics professor, was fascinated by the conversations she had with her sisters. She interviewed more than a hundred women about their relationship with their sisters. Her conclusion: this relationship is both very strong and complicated.

Why Deborah Tannen chose to research sisters – not siblings in general? Because it didn’t take her long to find out that sisters have different conversations. They talk more, and on a more personal level, than they do with their brothers. 

Intense relationship

The relationship of sisters is quite like a marriage, Tannen concludes. A woman told Tannen: ‘My sister and I, we work on our relationship, just like people work on their marriage.’ Sisters have a strong connection, they are each others biggest supporters, but they can also disappoint and hurt each other deeply. In a sense, sisterhood is an even stronger connection than a love relationship: married people can separate, but you can’t divorce your sister. You will share the same youth (even if you experienced it differently), the same parents, forever. 

Rivalry 

Even the closest of sisters have an element of rivalry in their relationship. From the day you were born, you guys competed for your parents’ love. Which one of you is closest to mom and dad? Who got more attention, who got more stuff (toys, presents, etcetera)? Who had the most freedom to do what they wanted (often the youngest one)? 

Rivalry can resurface after years and years, when one of the parents passes away – because of the inheritance. It may sound superficial or childish, but, as Tannen puts it: ‘A friend of mine, who’s a brother, said: “It’s your last chance to collect your parents’ love.”’ An inheritance may cause trouble, but not necessarily, if you to understand each other. Tannen: ‘Rivalry between sisters doesn’t undermine the connection. It arises from it and contributes to it.’ 

Unsteady relationship 

Are there times when you see a lot of your sister, and times when you don’t see her at all? That’s a common thing, according to Tannen. Many women she interviewed, told her how close they were at one point, and then didn’t talk to them for a whole year. This unsteadiness is typical for many sisters’ relationships. We feel strongly connected, yet sometimes the relationship agitates us and makes us long for some air – so we distance ourselves for a while. 

Mirror  

Sisters compare themselves to one another endlessly, in order to decide their position towards each other (and their place in the family). Many women either see their sister as their spitting image, or as the exact opposite. Even if there are several sisters, the difference among them are enlarged – and exaggerated. Or there are several ‘groups’: sister 1 and 2 are said to be introverts, sister 3 and 4 said to be extroverts. This is while, Tannen says, the outside world often sees lots of similarities among all four. 

You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! Sisters In Conversation Throughout Their Lives. Deborah Tannen, Random House. 

Text: Dorien Vrieling - Photo: Daiga Ellaby