Why Siblings Fight (and Why We All Fight Like Siblings)

Siblings fight because they assume love is a limited resource. They assume they have to compete for caring. In other words, siblings are just like the rest of us…

family conflict

Photo Credit: flintman45 via Compfight cc

I was brutal to my siblings.

I beat up on my little brother’s shoulder and I beat up on my little sister’s heart. When we were all grown and had gone our separate ways, I realized what I’d done, and I started to beat up on myself. I felt guilty about being a bully and sad about the lost opportunity to be their friend.

Even after they accepted my apology, I couldn’t forgive myself.

So, instead, I decided to redeem it. By cultivating a sense of companionship amongst my own children. It seemed simple enough. But encouraging mutuality and tenderness between siblings is way easier said than done. Siblings swing quickly upon a pendulum from caring for each other to competing with each other.

What are they constantly competing for?

Love.

They assume it’s a limited resource.

Is Love a Limited Resource?

This is the natural, default assumption for most of humanity.

We think love is a limited resource because most of us have been loved in a limited way by limited human beings. There’s an old Bon Jovi song entitled, “You Give Love a Bad Name.” The truth is, most love gives Love a bad name. It’s conditional. It’s divvied up according to personal preference. It tends to be more consistent with the mood of the lover than any particular quality of the beloved.

As a father, I give Love a bad name all the time. When I’m tired and grumpy, I stink at love. When a kid doesn’t do what I want them to do, I stink at love. When one of the kids acts a little more like I would act, I tend to show them a little more love, which is the same as stinking at love.

Is it any wonder limitless Love sounds too good to be true?

So when true Love happens, we hesitate to believe it, and we hesitate to receive it. We assume there are strings attached. In our conditional and transactional minds, true Love never adds up. So, we reject it and we continue to fight for it, all at the same time.

As a father, there are days when I find the place in my heart that is like an endless underground spring, and Love wells up unearned and unsolicited. Competing for it would be like fighting for water in the ocean. Yet, compete for it my children do. They refuse to believe there’s enough to go around. I can’t blame them. But I do keep trying to Love them from that bottomless place in my heart, as often as I can find it, in the hope someday they’ll believe in Love.

And on some blessed, magical days, it seems like they actually do.

Giving and Receiving

A few weeks ago, my boys had gotten into a fight about something of life-and-death importance—like who was going to read the comics first—and Younger Son ended up in his room with orders to cool down. He eventually calmed himself and was allowed to rejoin the family. I wondered what he did to turn his heart around.

Later in the day, I found out.

I walked into my boys’ shared bedroom and I noticed, propped against a Lego creation on Older Son’s dresser, a newly handwritten and signed note. In seven-year-old print, it read, “I love you.” I looked at that note and I saw three words I wish I had said to my siblings but never could, because I didn’t know Love was a bottomless resource we were free to trade with each other.

The note healed me a little bit, and it healed me a little more later in the evening, when my wife told me what she had just witnessed. Walking past the boys’ bedroom, she had seen Oldest Son bending down. The note had become dislodged and fallen to the ground. He was in the middle of picking it up and propping it up once again against his Lego creation.

It’s one thing to give a bottomless Love.

It’s another thing altogether to have that Love believed and received.

It is truly magical.

Heaven and Hell and Magic

Siblings can make each other’s lives a living hell. Or they can make this life feel like heaven on earth. And, in a way, we’re all siblings in the great big human family, aren’t we? We are free to take the limited, broken love we’ve received and pass it on to others, by beating on their shoulders and beating on their hearts. But we are also free to believe and receive and give away a limitless Love.

What if our lives became a Love note, propped up against the people around us?

What if when Love came our way, we had the courage to receive it and believe it?

What if we bent over and picked up the scraps of true Love we find lying all over our world and put them back in a place we can see them? What if we honored them and cherished them?

I think we’d stop competing and starting connecting.

I think we’d see magic happen.

Deep magic.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: Why We Should All Just Give Up

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Michael Moore

    What role does anchoring play in sibling conflict?

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m not familiar with the concept, Michael. What role do you think it plays?

      • Michael Moore

        By letting siblings commit to concepts, like ‘the scarcity of love’, in their early formation of their world view.

        Anchoring (and addressing it properly) is so big a subject, you may wish to discuss it directly and my email is: best.practice@integritypsychology.com.

        For now, try this generic article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anchoring

        • Michael Moore

          Did you manage to read up on the concept, Kelly? Would value your opinion, if you did…

          • drkellyflanagan

            I did read the Wikipedia page, Michael, though strangely could find few other resources on the web. A neglected concept! But it certainly makes sense. Seems like kids would be particularly vulnerable to this, right? As they have little control over that to which they are first exposed. Points out the importance of all of us going through a deconstruction and reconstruction of our world view.

            • Michael Moore

              Absolutely, Kelly.

              Kids are vulnerable and will continue to be as adults (in some cases, even when they are aware of what’s happening).

              It occurred to me that most of your posts can be run through the filter of anchoring (and, if you are interested, there’s a simple graphic that I use to help people do just that).

              Keep well…

              • Michael Moore

                As for web references, there is actually an excellent resource at Psy-Fi – and this link http://www.psyfitec.com/2009/11/anchoring.html takes you to the exact reference on anchoring. Enjoy…

                • Michael Moore

                  Hope all readers have found this topic (of ‘anchoring’) as fascinating as I have. Wishing you all a pleasant (and warm) weekend…

  • charles carlstrom

    I agree with your statement “siblings fight because they assume love is a limited resource.” I would go further we want love to be a limited resource. There is that very human part of us that screams if you love us the same I am not special!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I like that next step, Charles. It’s hard for the human mind to conceive of a Love big enough to see every person as equally beloved and special. For us, special is a relative term. Maybe for Love, special is an absolute term?

  • Christina Haas

    One of the worst parenting moments I had was also my best. My older two kids had been fighting and were relentless with each other AND their babysitter. She was a soft touch, and knew our family was going through a rough divorce, so she was very forgiving. One day, though, the behavior was so bad, even she had to throw up her hands. My kids got an unusual consequence that day to write each other a love letter. It had to be sincere and at least 50 words (they were young, something like 6 and 8). I still love reading those little letters when they spat now as teens. As I look at it now, especially with kids going through a divorce, there is even more fear of there not being enough love to go around with all the other upheaval. I guess that’s the fear for all of us really . . .. Thanks for another perfect post!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Christina, I love the “consequence!” My wife will occasionally have the kids make penance through acts of kindness toward each other. How much more productive is that than a timeout, right? Your kids were lucky to have a creative mom, even during a stressful time.

  • Donna B

    I love this post….it came exactly when it was so desperately needed. Thank you thank you thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Donna, I’m glad this came when you needed it. That’s my hope for every post, that just one person would come across it at the right moment. Happy that it was you today!

  • Thank you again, Kelly! Another great post. However, it does bring to mind when I am stingy with my love for my husband and it makes my ego scream with humiliation! I could so relate to your line about beating up on yourself after reflecting on how you would be so mean to your siblings. Please tell me there is hope for change! I sometimes grow weary of my so often anger and temper with my husband. He, however, is so gracious and pretends it doesn’t happen, which of course sends my ego flailing in greater humiliation! lol! I need to learn to laugh at myself a lot more so maybe then it would help me to stop being such a witch with a “b”!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I know what you mean, Jenny. The irony is that the very same ego that beat up on my siblings was beating up on me for having beat up on them. And the part of me that says I have to redeem it in my kids to forgive myself is all ego, too. It sounds like there are moments where we need to be as gracious to ourselves as others are to us!

  • Ginny

    Several thoughts…
    Stinking at love- Ouch. Not so much with my kids as they are all out of the house, but with my husband who doesn’t respond to people the way I think he should. Ironic isn’t it? When I self-righteously respond to him, I stink at loving, too.
    The receiving love part reminded me of a quote by Brennan Manning, “How glorious the splendor of a heart that trusts it is loved.”
    And finally, I have to receive unconditional love for myself before I can give it away.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Ginny, I love the Brennan Manning quote. A beautiful man who, ironically, often had a hard time receiving the very love he wrote about. Perhaps it is that tension which keeps a person writing.

  • KJ

    Connecting and caring for one another is all well and good, until there’s only one slice of pizza left on the table. Once that occurs all bets are off. Love can only overcome so much

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re right, KJ, in that situation, a pizza cutter would be much more handy. ; )

  • Catherine Martinez

    Kelly, every time I read your posts I get tears in my eyes and am not sure it’s because I wholeheartedly agree and it makes me feel good to read the posts or if I’m sad that I’ve not done what could be done to remedy a problem. Either way, I love to read your writing. It reminds me every time that maybe in the midst of all the horrible “stuff” going on in the world today that we have something to hope for, something to share and something to work for to better ourselves. I think it also helps to heal people who read your words. Anyway, I’m not that articulate, but I just wish more of my family members “get” the truth of all of us scared, hurt, searching people looking to fit and love and be loved. I send them your posts hoping they get “touched” by it too. Thanks for having seeds to plant and encourgement.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Catherine, thank you for this. It can be a fine line between feeling hope for the future versus shame about the past. I do hope you can receive my posts hopefully, as often as possible. : ) Thank you for speaking up and sharing such kind words with me today.

  • Connie

    “It tends to be more consistent with the mood of the lover than any particular quality of the beloved.” — What an insight. Perfectly stated!

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