Toxic Siblings: A Menace To Family Relationships, By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory
Sibling animosity expressed in all forms of destructive behaviour is rarely addressed in our culture, because of the deceptive cultural ideology of seeing the family as a bulwark against outside enemies, as a site of love and support, and as having deep roots that are unassailable.
Many years ago, an American told me the story of his brother who had hired assassins to murder him because of the large inheritance their father left them. Fortunately, the people he approached were undercover police and the scheme was revealed to him and their mother. The brother was convicted and sent to jail, but the gentleman was especially distressed at the warm reception their mother gave this murderous brother after he finished serving his sentence. He felt his brother had always been their mother’s favourite. I listened with empathy to this story, but assumed smugly that these were the peculiarities of American society, until I met a retired Nigerian gentleman living in Europe. He told the harrowing tale of being nearly murdered by his siblings when he went home for their mother’s burial. He escaped by a whisker with the help of a police officer friend in town who found out and sneaked him out the back door as the assassins were coming through the front door.
The idea that same-mother siblings could be adversaries or enemies goes against our deeply held cultural assumptions about sibling relationships. In fact, a Yoruba saying goes, “okun omo iya kii ja” – the rope that binds the children of the same mother does not break. It suggests that while that robe may break or fray between half-siblings, it forever remains strong among full or same-mother siblings. This tie is supposed to be a shield in polygamous homes where intrigues and dangers are always lurking. However, my observations and personal experience reveal that same-mother sibling relationships could be just as complex as those with half-siblings. Sibling rivalry in childhood is discussed widely in the U.S. as a natural consequence of children competing for the parents’ attention and approval. It is considered healthy by some who see it as a preparation for a life of competition outside the home, and it might even encourage young children to work harder at their tasks, as they strive to outperform their siblings. Others think parental favouritism is sometimes responsible because of their partiality and preference for a certain child. The rivalry and resentment caused by this could be a life-long problem between siblings.
In Yoruba culture, the relationship between siblings is a little different from this model because of the age and birth order hierarchy between siblings. The status of each sibling depends rigidly on birth order, with older children having more authority and control over younger ones. Very early, parents establish and affirm the social order between their children. By the age of ten, I as the first child, had learnt that I was responsible for my younger siblings, and when our parents were not around, I was some kind of surrogate mother in charge. This is how most first children are generally raised. The expectations placed on older siblings include being ahead in everything as they go through life. They are supposed to be ahead in school, to marry first, to have children first, to be more financially and professionally successful, and in a magical way, to maintain this front-row ranking in all spheres of life as they and their siblings go through life.
…not all sibling hostility ends in murder plots. Still, many relationships are plagued by verbal and emotional abuse, ganging up with other siblings, backbiting, lying, withholding affection, and psychological manipulations. Some of these feelings are not expressed overtly. They are embedded in relationships that seem normal and friendly.
Since life is more complicated, this rule does not usually hold. The true nature of emotions between siblings are revealed as they reach adulthood and as parents age or die. Stories abound of same-mother siblings who turn out to be deadly enemies in adulthood. Until I emigrated, I had always subscribed to the cultural ideology that siblings, especially same-mother siblings, are everlasting friends one could count on, sharing the certainty of Yoruba culture in this regard.
From my experience and the accounts of many in the diaspora, there have been stories of siblings undermining their sisters’ or brothers’ marriages out of envy, spite, or greed. There is the case of a younger sister who seduced and got pregnant for her older sister’s husband. The older sister is hardworking, well-educated, and successful. She invited the less brilliant and struggling younger sister to live with her family, so they could help her out. Seducing her irresponsible husband was a kind of revenge. At times, the pressure on older children to be first in all things also has consequences when they cannot measure up. There are instances of older sisters rushing into ill-advised marriages to blunt the humiliation and aggravation of seeing their younger sisters getting married first. At least in one case I know, the older sister has spent considerable energy trying to undermine and destroy her younger sister’s marriage because her younger sister has a much more successful husband, in addition to being more professionally accomplished.
No doubt, not all sibling hostility ends in murder plots. Still, many relationships are plagued by verbal and emotional abuse, ganging up with other siblings, backbiting, lying, withholding affection, and psychological manipulations. Some of these feelings are not expressed overtly. They are embedded in relationships that seem normal and friendly. This makes it very hard for many in the diaspora who depend on siblings they left behind at home for love and affection. Apart from parents, siblings are assumed to be the closest and most dependable of relatives at home. Sibling relationships are often the longest in our lives because they are there long before we cultivate all other relationships. However, the toxicity of some siblings has to be acknowledged. At what point do we let go so that we could live emotionally healthy and safe lives? Is it really worth it to maintain a relationship with a sibling who is never happy at your success, who only tells you all the terrible things people supposedly say about you, who never shows gratitude for what you’ve done for him or her, and who overtly or covertly wants to undermine you, your spouse or your children?
For those whose siblings remain life-long friends and confidants, it is a great blessing, but for others who have to endure the resentment, envy, betrayal, and greed of siblings, there is always a choice to seek better and loving relationships outside the family. Friends are the family we choose.
Nostalgia and ideology are poor reasons for sustaining sibling relationships that are toxic. The cultural solutions offered by the elders and peacemakers might have been adequate for a by-gone era, but they are woefully inadequate for contemporary times when families are scattered all over the world. In my own family, I have heard ineffective and dangerous platitudes like: “Aburo e ni”, (he’s your junior sibling), “ara agba nii gba” (it’s the older person that should be tolerant), “akitan l’agba” (the older person is a dumpster on which all filth is deposited), appealing to my fortitude to tolerate bad behaviour as the older sibling in family conflicts, where it is evident that siblings acting out of rage and jealousy are out to do serious damage. Conflicts are normal in every relationship but conflicts that are generated by envy, greed, and resentment, “ija ilara”, can never be resolved. “Ija ilara kii tan boro” – a fight caused by envy does not end easily – according to a proverb – that is if it ever ends at all.
Apart from parental favouritism, success – whether professional, financial, or marital – is another deep cause of resentment among siblings. It does not matter how generous, supportive, or kind the successful sibling is, the feeling of inadequacy and being overshadowed experienced by the less accomplished sibling is a toxin that cannot be wished away.
Sibling animosity expressed in all forms of destructive behaviour is rarely addressed in our culture, because of the deceptive cultural ideology of seeing the family as a bulwark against outside enemies, as a site of love and support, and as having deep roots that are unassailable. While all these may be true for some people, the reality for many is that same-mother sibling relationships could be terribly destructive and frightening because they are assumed to be the most intimate and trusted. For those whose siblings remain life-long friends and confidants, it is a great blessing, but for others who have to endure the resentment, envy, betrayal, and greed of siblings, there is always a choice to seek better and loving relationships outside the family. Friends are the family we choose. Biology and shared history are not destiny, as we seek to live loving, productive, and happy lives. We have a choice to remove toxic siblings from our lives.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org