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The competitiveness and jealousy of a new sibling can continue long into adulthood and may affect many other relationships
DETHRONEMENT – it’s a suitably melodramatic term for the moment when a firstborn child is displaced from his pampered position by the arrival of a newborn brother or sister. The accompanying feelings of pain and rage at the loss of that crown can be quite intense and, as most parents can testify, the corresponding behaviour can be equally dramatic.
It usually emerges either as aggressive acts – nipping, pinching, biting, trying to prise the new baby out of its mother’s arms – or regressive responses, such as bedwetting, thumb-sucking and clinging. That competitiveness and jealousy can last well into adulthood, and it’s a common theme in religion, literature and popular culture – think Cain and Abel, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, even Bart and Lisa Simpson.
But it’s never really been thoroughly addressed in the social, psychological and political sciences: a surprising omission, given that more than 80 per cent of us have at least one sibling and that, during childhood, we probably spend more time with our siblings than we do with our parents.
In her book Siblings, Juliet Mitchell, a prominent psychoanalyst and professor emeritus at Cambridge University, aims to address that gap. Mitchell, who is coming to Dublin on Saturday to give a talk entitled The Sibling Trauma and Its Effects, considers sibling relationships to be integral to the individual’s identity formation.
She wants to shift from a traditional, vertical model of family relationships – mother or father to child, or child to parent – to a horizontal or lateral approach that puts the emphasis on brothers and sisters, and the intense competition between them for the attention of their parents.
Mitchell’s analysis is no tender, namby-pamby account of the sibling relationship. This isn’t about a fleeting family difficulty; it’s about real trauma. It’s elemental psychoanalytic stuff, and love, hate, sex and violence are very much to the fore. She believes that siblings threaten our own sense of uniqueness, up-ending our nascent sense of identity.
As tiny children we’re caught between love for our new sibling and a deep, inadmissible hatred of the upstart who seems to have replaced us in mother’s affections. Mitchell says that “the ecstasy of loving one who is like oneself is experienced at the same time as the trauma of being annihilated by one who stands in one’s place”.
Essentially, you’re cast adrift – someone else is “the baby” now, and you’re not where or who you thought you were. Violence is never far away. For the displaced toddler, according to Mitchell, “love and hate turn on a pinhead: the hug for the new baby can easily turn to a throttle”.
Mitchell believes it’s actually normal for displaced siblings to feel violent towards the person who displaces them, even though that might be disquieting for parents themselves.
“I think as parents we don’t want to see sibling violence. When I speak to groups about this, afterwards someone will say, ‘My God, I was the youngest of six, and you’re just reminding me of how my parents always thought that I was safe on the street if I was out with my older siblings. Little did they know that I was being tortured and in terror of my own life the moment they shut the front door’.”
According to Mitchell, the consequences of that early trauma can be fairly serious: irritability, nightmares, a lack of appetite, all of which may leave the child vulnerable to illness.
What’s more, she argues, the trauma never completely goes away, with our peers later taking the place of our siblings. That old jealousy may rear its head in sexual relationships, for example, with the woman who is always expecting her husband to have affairs. It’s the same fear that someone is going to take your place, and the response is similar, too.
“You want to get rid of the person on your ground, whether you’re talking about wars, oil wells or personal relationships. What you own becomes what you are, and you want to get rid of anyone who’s stopping you being who you are. It’s kill or be killed – the reaction is to annihilate.”
Freud argued that in order to marry our wife we need to know, in childhood, that we cannot marry our mother. Mitchell takes the Oedipal complex a step further, arguing that we also need to know we cannot marry our sister if we’re able to marry our sister’s (not just our mother’s) psychological successor.
After all, says Mitchell, the ideal heterosexual relationship probably involves a mix of incestuous childhood wishes “and the contemporary adult desire for someone who is like oneself, but not too alike”.
There has always been a feminist dimension to Mitchell’s work – in fact, she’s probably best known for her classic 1974 book Psychoanalysis and Feminism– and she believes psychoanalysis is still the best way of understanding male domination and female oppression.
“The oppression of women, the denigrated second sex, has an aspect deeper than any social, economic or political force. There has to be something deeper going on, something in our unconscious processes. And psychoanalysis is the one place where there is understanding of how the unconscious works.” But Mitchell admits that psychoanalysis, like all grand theories, assumes “an equation between the norm and the male”. She hopes that her work on siblings will bring both genders into the analytical frame.
With her talk of annihilation, desire, trauma and castration, Mitchell’s psychoanalytic account of sibling relationships is nothing if not colourful. But does the seemingly old-fashioned practice of psychoanalysis still have a part to play in a therapeutic world dominated by the short, snappy fix of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)?
“I’ve looked quite closely at CBT and it will help you in behavioural ways. Psychoanalysis is intellectually different. You go three, four, five times a week, and the treatment lasts two or three years. But full psychoanalysis offers the possibility of real, profound change. It answers the basic questions about life”.
The Sibling Trauma and its Effects