11.3: Sibling Types
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- Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt
- SUNY New Paltz & SUNY Oswego via OpenSUNY
- Explain the two main concepts Shirley McGuire, Susan M. McHale, and Kimberly Updegraff found in research related to siblings.
- Differentiate among Shirley McGuire, Susan M. McHale, and Kimberly Updegraff’s different sibling relationship types.
- Describe different ways that siblings maintain their relationships.
After examining the literature related to siblings, Shirley McGuire, Susan M. McHale, and Kimberly Updegraff realized that two main concepts were commonly discussed in the literature: hostility and warmth.44 Sibling hostility was characterized by such sibling behaviors as causing trouble, getting into fights, teasing/name-calling, taking things without permission, etc.45 Sibling warmth, on the other hand, was characterized by sibling behaviors such as sharing secrets, helping each other, teaching each other, showing physical affection, sharing possessions, etc.46 Research has shown us that warmth and hostility have an impact on sibling relationships. For example, individuals who have higher levels of sibling warmth are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior.47 Individuals who have sibling relationships that are high in hostility are more likely to report higher levels of aggression, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.48
Sibling Relationship Types
McGuire, McHale, and Updegraff knew that these two dimensions were distinct from one another, so they set out to create a typology of sibling relationships based on hostility (high vs. low) and warmth (high vs. low). You can see this typology in Figure 11.3.1.
The first type of sibling relationship is the harmonious relationship. Harmonious sibling relationships are characterized by low levels of hostility and high levels of warmth. In these relationships, the siblings get along very well and have very low levels of problematic conflict. Often siblings in this category get along so well that they are very close friends in addition to being siblings. When it comes to long-term outcomes, harmonious siblings were found to have lower feelings of loneliness and higher self-esteems.49 Research has also found gender effects. When sibling pairs are both female, they are more likely to report harmonious relationships than the other three sibling relationship types. At the same time, the combination of gender and birth-order also makes a difference. Males who are the firstborn are less likely to report harmonious sibling relationships.50
The opposite type of the harmonious sibling relationship is the hostile sibling relationship, which is characterized by high levels of hostility and low levels of warmth. These relationships are marked by high levels of conflict between the siblings, which can often be highly physically and verbally aggressive. Furthermore, individuals in hostile sibling relationships are more likely to internalize problems as well as experience lower academic success, social competence, and feelings of self-worth.51 These people often perceive their siblings as rivals within the family unit, so there is an inherent competition for scarce resources. Often these resources are related to parental attention, respect, and love.
The third sibling type is the affect-intense relationship. Affect-intense sibling relationships are marked by both high levels of hostility and warmth. These sibling relationships are as nurturing as harmonious relationships and as dominating as hostile relationships. These relationships are also perceived as more satisfying than hostile sibling relationships.52 In one study examining affect-intense sibling relationships, researchers found that 38% of siblings from divorced families reported their sibling relationships as affect-intense as compared to only 22% of siblings from intact families.
The last type of sibling relationship is called the uninvolved, which is characterized by low levels of both hostility and warmth. Uninvolved sibling relationships typically don’t have any of the problems associated with affect-intense or hostile sibling relationships. They also do not report any of the benefits that have been found with harmonious sibling relationships.53 Uninvolved sibling relationships also appear to develop later in life. “Perhaps the separation processes and increased focus on peers that begin during adolescence stimulate the development of an uninvolved sibling relationship.” 54
Sibling Relationship Maintenance
One area where communication scholars have been instrumental in the field of sibling relationships has been in relationship maintenance, or the communicative behaviors that one engages in to preserve a relationship with another person. In one of the earliest studies to examine sibling relationships in the field, Scott Myers and a group of students explored the connection between relationship communication and sibling communication satisfaction, liking, and loving.55 Equality, receptivity, immediacy, similarity, and composure were all positively related to communication satisfaction. Composure, equality, similarity, and receptivity were all positively related to sibling liking. Equality, similarity, and receptivity were positively related to loving one’s sibling. The researchers also noted that individuals who perceived their relationships as more formal reported lower levels of loving their siblings. This first study helped pave the way for future research in examining how relationship communication impacts sibling relationships.
In a follow-up study, Scott Myers and Keith Weber set out to construct a measure for analyzing how individuals use communication to maintain their sibling relationships.56 In their research, Myers and Weber found six distinct ways that siblings maintain their relationships through communication: confirmation, humor, social support, family visits, escape, and verbal aggression
The first way that siblings engage in relational maintenances is through confirmation. Confirmation messages help a sibling communicate how much they value the sibling. Sometimes it’s as simple as telling a sibling, “I’m pretty lucky to have a brother/sister like you.” This sentence can be an easy way to demonstrate how much someone means to you. These types of messages help validate the other sibling and the relationship.
A second relational maintenance tool that siblings can use is humor. Being able to laugh with one’s sibling is a great way to enjoy each other’s company. Often siblings find things completely hilarious that outsiders may not understand because of the unique nature of sibling relationships. Siblings also can lovingly make fun of each other. Now, we’re not talking about making fun of someone in a demeaning or mean-spirited manner. For example, one of our coauthors has an older brother who loves to give him a hard time. Recently, our coauthor misspelled something on Facebook, and his brother was right there to point it out and give him a hard time. In some relationships, this could be viewed as criticism, but because of the nature of their relationship, our coauthor knew the incident should be taken in jest.
The third way siblings engage in relational maintenances is through social support. Social support is an individual’s perception and the actuality that an individual is loved and cared for and has people he/she/ they can turn to when assistance or help is needed. Between siblings, this could involve conversations about one’s romantic life or even about parental concerns. Another way that siblings often provide social support is by giving and seeking advice from her/his/their sibling(s).
The fourth way that families engage in social support is through family events. Not all families are big on family events, but some families participate in close-knit gatherings regularly. Some siblings will avoid these events to avoid seeing their other siblings, but many siblings see these opportunities as a way to keep their sibling relationships going. One of our coauthor’s family has problems getting together each year during the holidays because of how busy their schedules are in December. Instead, our coauthor and family go on family trips. Over the years, they’ve gone to Australia, Alaska, Hawaii, The Bahamas, San Francisco, New York City, New Zealand, and many other places. Currently, they’re planning trips to Belize and back to Hawaii. The family looks forward to these vacations together. In addition to these trips, our coauthor’s father also arranges periodic family reunions for his side of the family. Our coauthor and their sibling often end up rooming together because both are single. Ultimately, both look forward to these reunions because it gives them a chance to catch up.
It’s often great to attend family events, but we usually only like to attend when we know our sibling will be there. In these cases, we often use our siblings as a form of escape. In fact, some siblings will only attend family get-togethers when they know their sibling(s) will be there. We often have a range of reasons for why we need to escape when we’re interacting with our family, but we are sure glad our sibling(s) are there when we need that escape.
The final relational maintenance strategy that siblings have been found to use is verbal aggression. Verbal aggression is generally not viewed as a positive tool for communication. However, some sibling pairs have realized over time that verbally aggressive behavior allows them to get their way or vent their frustrations. However, in the original study by Weber and Myers, the researchers did find that all of the other relational maintenance strategies were positively related to sibling liking, commitment, and trust, but verbal aggression was not.57
- Shirley McGuire, Susan M. McHale, and Kimberly Updegraff examined the literature related to siblings and found that there were two common variables: hostility and warmth. Sibling hostility is characterized by such sibling behaviors as causing trouble, getting into fights, teasing/name-calling, taking things without permission, etc…. Sibling warmth, on the other hand, is characterized by sibling behaviors such as sharing secrets, helping each other, teaching each other, showing physical affection, sharing possessions, etc.
- Shirley McGuire, Susan M. McHale, and Kimberly Updegraff found four sibling relationship types. The four different types of sibling relationships are based on the degrees to which they exhibit the combination of hostility and warmth. First, harmonious sibling relationships are characterized by low levels of hostility and high levels of warmth. Second, hostile sibling relationships are characterized by high levels of hostility and low levels of warmth. Third, affect-intense sibling relationships are characterized by both high levels of hostility and warmth. Lastly, uninvolved sibling relationships are characterized by low levels of both hostility and warmth.
- Scott Myers and Keith Weber discovered that siblings generally maintain their relationships using several relational maintenance strategies: confirmation, humor, social support, family visits, escape, and verbal aggression.
- Think about your sibling relationships. How would you describe your sibling relationships using the four different types of sibling relationships discussed by Shirley McGuire, Susan M. McHale, and Kimberly Updegraff? If you don’t have siblings, think of a famous pair of siblings. Based on what you know about their relationship, how would you describe their relationship using the four different types of sibling relationships discussed by Shirley McGuire, Susan M. McHale, and Kimberly Updegraff?
- Think about your sibling relationships. What relational maintenance strategies discussed by Scott Myers and Keith Weber do you use with your siblings? If you don’t have siblings, think of a famous pair of siblings. Based on what you know about their relationship, what relational maintenance strategies do these famous siblings use?