Nothing says "I love my sister" like chopping off her hair. Illustration: Kate Hazell

Sisterly love: How siblings make you happier, fitter—and more argumentative

My sister and I bicker all the time—apparently this is a good thing
September 17, 2018

There is nothing that my sister and I cannot wrangle over. The best way to slice a mango, the speediest route from here to there, which of us was responsible for sending a pet guinea pig sailing across the garden pond on a sledge 30 years ago: left to us, it all becomes as polarising as Brexit.

Not that we ever argue. No, we squabble, apparently. Personally, I prefer the term bicker but then, as my only sibling would waste no time in pointing out, that’s because I’m incapable of agreeing with anything she says.

Our arguments—sorry, squabbles—stem from our differences and are fuelled by our similarities. Birth order has provided us with some recurring themes: she thinks I’m bossy, I think she’s babied. As a three-year-old, I dealt with the shock of her arrival in my small but perfectly formed world by making her mine.

Then she discovered autonomy—though not before I’d played hairdressers with her and snipped off every one of her ringlets, arranging them in a tidy circle round her on the living room floor. Was I trying to rob her of some of her cherubic power? Or perhaps I was trying to make her more like straight-haired me.

That impulse certainly didn’t last long—throughout our childhood, we practised an extreme de-identification, extending from the minor to the major: green versus blue, strings versus woodwind, art school versus university.

This sometimes had unintentionally collaborative outcomes. I wouldn’t touch egg whites, my sister refused yolks, so it was no problem if there turned out to be only one egg left at breakfast time—until one of us decided it should be boiled, whereupon the other demanded it fried.

Sister sledge

That siblings don’t always see eye-to-eye is a well-documented fact of life. Think of Oasis’s implosion, the fallout chez Miliband from the 2010 Labour leadership election, or the interminable schisms that keep the Kardashians trending. Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, King Richard and King John: history isn’t short on examples of how, when it comes to strife, nobody quite sticks it to you like a sibling.

There are plenty of sibs who appear to personify harmonious accord, but then they aren’t always quite what they seem. The Brontës? Don’t forget the damage Charlotte did to poor Emily’s posthumous reputation. The Wright brothers? They kept a rather helpful sister in the shadows.

Safe spaces, trigger warnings and no-platforming may be on the rise but home is one place where you can be almost certain of butting up against opinions counter to your own. There are endless reasons why sharing, on average, 50 per cent of our DNA with someone is no guarantee of being able to play nicely at any stage of life.

But science is now keen to remind us of the benefits of having siblings. Apparently, having a brother or sister makes you happier, fitter, more selfless and less lonely.

And then there’s the research conducted by Claire Hughes of Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research, which sparked something of a kerfuffle, when she appeared on Woman’s Hour to discuss it earlier this summer. Not only are siblings good for you, but arguing with them confers increased smarts and social adeptness. Yes, verbal sparring builds mental agility, enhances emotional language, and actually makes you more mature (as a child, that is).

Blended families

It does make me wish I’d started trying sooner to give my daughter a sibling. Given that I’m 42, there’s a strong possibility she’ll remain without one. Or maybe not, because there’s another scenario that’s at least as likely: I will eventually marry and my empress of an only child will acquire a step-sibling or two.

Sibling dynamics in the blended family are as yet under-researched but literature provides some ready, if not exactly reassuring, insights. I’m thinking in particular of Francesca Segal’s perspicacious novel, The Awkward Age—soon to become a BBC miniseries—in which step-sibling hatred morphs into its breathless, swoonsome opposite. The results are downright Grecian, leaving the teens’ parents longing for the reassuring back-and-forth of (step-)sibling discord.

Or, as it’s known in my family, sisterly love. Because there is in fact one thing my sister and I can agree on: none of our tiffs, spats or contretemps has ever really mattered.