November 9, 2010

Friendship, Relationships & Family

Forging the Bond Between Brothers

My brother was in the driveway, shooting free-throws at the basketball hoop our father had attached to the garage. Every day he shot free-throws until he made one hundred of them, all net. He didn’t count them if the ball even slightly grazed the rim. He was thirteen, and this is the kind of discipline he already exhibited. Being the younger brother, I positioned myself strategically by the nearby fence, several paces closer to the hoop than he was.

“Bryan, please don’t.” He already knew where this was leading.

“What?” I responded. Pure innocence, “I’m not doing anything.”

He frowned but tossed the ball anyways. It flew through the air with a high arc and dropped gracefully through the net, barely even skimming it. The instant the ball left his fingers he rushed the basket with a frantic sprint. But it was too late. The ball didn’t even hit the ground once before I swiped it from the air and ran halfway down our street.

“Bryan!”

“Come and get it.”

“Give it back!”

I grinned like an idiot and jogged further down our road. The chase was on, with me sprinting around the old vacant house down the block, hustling over the cliff edge behind and down to the cul-de-sac on a parallel avenue. This always ended in tears, my own, a half hour later when my brother was finally able to use his superior skills and agility, descending upon me like a justified demon. And oh, revenge is sweet.

***

I was a nuisance in my younger years. I know this because it is a simple fact. And my mind is not foggy enough to cloud over vivid recollections of times past when I would entertain myself by harassing my older brother as he innocently went about his life (i.e. stealing his books while he was reading, kicking his basketball over the fence, messing up his room, etc…).

As such, my relationship with my brother has not always been congenial. Rather, it required an evolutionary course that slowly smothered our sibling rivalries, our arguments, and our fist fights. Through lessons-learned, strong parental leadership, and shared circumstances, our relationship eventually developed into what it is today: a friendship based on mutual respect, loyalty, and a genuine interest in each other’s lives.

I’ve long been grateful for the relationship my brother and I have forged together. But I also know that it was not always like this, and it could have easily taken a course for the worse had we grown up under different circumstances, or if we were never able to bridge the gaps of our individual personalities and interests.

The relationship between siblings is fascinating one. They can be incredibly formative in our development, teaching us what is and is not cool. They can inspire us to be better or be the ones who introduce us to vice.  They can be our closest allies, and yet because we know they’ll always be there for us, we can treat them with a cruelty we would never unleash upon a friend. We can be as thick as thieves during our childhood, only to grow quite distant from each other as adults.

So what makes for a healthy bond between brothers? And how can this bond continue from boyhood to manhood?

Sibling Rivalries

According to Kids Health and Psychology Today, rivalries between siblings often begin before the younger one is even born and may endure throughout their lives and into adulthood. Experts attribute this to a variety of issues such as competition for attention and toys, age differences, each sibling’s individual temperament, and of course, parental attitude and the example they set for their children.

It’s natural for an older brother to be jealous of a new member joining the family. For some reason this smelly pink blob that is incapable of self-directed movement and communicates in sonic sound waves receives all of the attention, while they are left to entertain themselves. Despite the fact that a newborn simply requires more attention, the older sibling may begin to cultivate resentment.

***

I am told that I was at the receiving end of this jealousy-induced resentment at the age of two. I was googoo and gaga-ing over a colorful trinket and sitting on the carpet, perhaps even giggling to myself quietly with fascination over my toy.

My brother was there too, and he’d had enough of me and my ritual of crapping my pants and being applauded for it.

The toy jumped and twirled within my hands as I explored its intricacies and numerous uses. My brother cast a glaring eye in my direction, one in which his pupils dilated to pinpoints and a hot rage burned within his dark, five-year-old heart. There was something wrong with my face. My lips were turned up with a smile that meant I was happy, and that had to change.

My brother trudged behind me and pressed his hand to the back of my head, like palming a small basketball, and shoved my face directly into the carpet. He let it grind along the surface for a brief, satisfying moment until the toy within my hand crashed to the floor, and I let out a piercing scream of pain that enveloped the entire house.

In the corner of his eye, my brother noticed a sharp movement and jumped back. Realizing it was our father, he did the first thing that came to mind. “Bryan!” my brother shouted, his voiced drenched with concern, “What’s wrong?!”

Too late, Pops had seen it all.

***

Though rivalries have the potential to breed life-long resentment and at times even hatred, moderate conflict can actually be beneficial in the development of a child’s social interactions, according to an Adoption Media article, The Joys and Complexities of Sibling Relationships. Children who have a balance of conflict while maintaining a level of warmth and support generally are more socially competent and emotionally mature. This is where family dynamics play an important role.

Families that cultivate a strict “we stick together” atmosphere in the household foster positive sibling relationships, whereas families that take more of a hands-off approach or regard sibling conflict as an issue of little importance may have further trouble down the road. According to an Ohio State University sample study, approximately 44% of adult siblings remained either intimate or loyal, another 34% congenial, and 22% either indifferent or hostile. For those who remain affable towards each other, the study points to two theories that address why siblings stick together in adulthood: One is attachment, and the other is due to the norms that parents have instilled in their children. Those who retain resentment and hostility often have deep-rooted and lingering issues that were never addressed or alleviated as they grew older. According to Dr. Laurie Kramer, one of the foremost experts on sibling relationships:

“It’s not all that important whether you’re spaced closer together or farther apart….What’s really much more important are the social behaviors that children learn in their early years that they can use to develop a positive relationship with a sibling. That’s why it’s important for parents to encourage siblings to be engaged with one another and develop a relationship where there is mutual respect, cooperation and the ability to manage problems.”

Appreciating Differences

A younger sibling will often try to differentiate himself from his older brother or sister. This is what researchers call “de-identification.” The younger sibling works hard to carve out his own niche and personality so that he isn’t in direct competition with his sibling and is able to gain his own identity.

Appreciating the different strengths and characteristics of our brothers may be the big key in overcoming rivalries and fostering a strong bond into adulthood. The separate interests my brother and I have pursued have formed a complimentary set of characteristics and skill sets that we both recognize in each other as valuable. For example, my brother exhibits a fierce sense of discipline that I cannot help but look up to. It is one of his natural traits that I attempt to emulate with my own endeavors. Likewise, I believe that my inherent wander and thirst for adventure has been at least part of what has inspired him in his own travels and wilderness outings. Instead of feeling like we’re in competition with one another or one of us feeling left in the shadow of the other, we feel confident in who we are as individuals and are able to appreciate what makes us both alike and unique.

Circumstances

Dr. Kramer has found that sibling relationships that start out well in childhood, where on balance siblings experience more positive interactions than negative ones, tend to continue to be healthy into adulthood. The tone for sibling relationships is set early on and influenced not only by parental guidance, but the circumstances siblings experience together.

In the first months of my middle school years, my family moved from a small mountain town to the sprawling suburbia of southern California. The culture was vastly different from what my brother and I were used to. The population was enormous, and of the thousands of kids that attended Ensign Middle School in Costa Mesa and Newport Harbor High School, we knew not a single soul. For my brother the transition was equally unsettling, and it was in the initial weeks of attending our new schools that we started to become inseparable allies.

Middle school and high school are the two primary places that you will be introduced to the majority of the world’s assholes. This is a fact. Here you encounter the bullies whose physical intimidation brings terror to those who, for whatever reason, just don’t make the “cool kid” cut.

For the first time in our young lives my brother and I had no one our own age to rely on but each other. My brother had just started driving, and it is possible that our friendship was further strengthened by our need for personal self-belief and mental resilience. We found this in the heavy metal band Metallica. Because we were so terrified of going to school every day (fear of being made fun of or judged or having to speak in class; petrified by the thought of causing a ripple in what we perceived as a still pool of social understanding) we rocked out to Metallica every morning on the way to school, letting the electric guitar crunch fill our hearts with heavy metal confidence.

Eventually we assimilated, finding our own friends and carving out a community that benefited our individual needs. But this took a long time, and the years that led to our eventual comfort in an unfamiliar setting is what it took for my brother and me to truly appreciate each other. This was the time that we developed a bond and a boundless dedication to each other.

Staying Connected

Even if your relationship with your brother was always great when you were kids, you still have to work to maintain that bond and connection.

Though my brother and I do not live close to one another, we are still very much involved in each other’s lives. One of the things that we do to stay close is simply talking on the phone frequently (we probably talk about two times a week, if not more, depending on what is going on in our lives).

Since we do not have the opportunity to see each other often, we make it a point to meet up several times a year to spend some time together, even if just for one weekend. And at least once a year, we will go on some sort of trip together. This year, for example, my brother and I and several of our friends took to the High Sierra mountains for a five-day backpacking trip into Dusy Basin of Kings Canyon National Park in California. We scaled shale and granite cliffs, built fires, swam in alpine lakes, got rained on, argued about proper tarp placement in creating a shelter to play cards in said rain, drank whiskey-you know…mountain stuff.

The year before that, my brother flew out to visit my girlfriend and me in Thailand. We went fishing, snorkeling, and cruising around on motor scooters on thinly populated islands. We ate tarantulas and drank cobra whiskey. Putrid stuff, by the way.

It has been cultivating positive experiences and memories such as these that have been, in large part, the most important aspects of our relationship in adulthood. I imagine others have their own versions of what my brother and I do to stay in touch.

This is what has worked for my brother and me. But pointing to a set of guidelines or a quick-fix recipe for executing and expecting amiable sibling relationships seems unrealistic. Relationships are as unique as the individuals who make them up and even under the best of circumstances, things don’t always work out the way we plan or hope. So this is where I’d like to turn it over to the AoM community-

How can we become better brothers? What are some of the issues that you have faced that have either been a benefit or detriment to your relationship with a brother (or sister)? How might we better grow together rather than apart? Share your experiences with us in the comments.


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