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THE SISTER ACT...

I was four when my sister was born. I don't remember much about the event, except for the bit where my mother came through the front door, wearing a leopardprint, fake-fur swing coat, and carrying something in her arms. A bundle that bellowed. A sister, as it transpired. I think that not remembering anything but the coat -- and clearly I did not lick my fashion sense from the stones -- is fairly significant.

I was the oldest daughter and I was not pleased.

According to Margaret Mead: "Sister is probably the most competitive relationship within the family, but once the sisters are grown, it becomes the strongest relationship."

Sibling rivalry is worse between sisters than between brothers-and-sisters, and between brothers-and-brothers. Sharon Corr, in an interview with TV Week in the late nineties, agreed with brother Jim when he said that there was no sibling rivalry in the musical clan. "There were obviously family rants occasionally," said Sharon. "We've had a lot of hard times, and claustrophobic times, too. But along with that we've had good times, and all that experience has helped us mature."

Freud would argue that sibling rivalry in general is an extension of the Oedipus complex: the sisters are competing for the attention of the father not only with their mother, but also with each other.

Sure, okay, Dr Freud, but it's also very possible that the sisters are competing for the mother's attention as well. It's a double bind that serves to underscore Mead's statement, making the sister relationship perhaps more complex than any other in the family. Since the raising of females still focuses largely on socialisation and relating, whatever the girls learned in the family is what they take out into the larger world, thus influencing their ability to make or break their friendships.



Closer

Can sisters be best friends? Can friends be closer and more reliable than sisters?

After all, it's what being a girl is all about: making friends. The sister relationship can be seen as the testing ground for the way in which the women in question sustain their relationships later in life. We may think we are filling the sister-shaped gap in our lives with our pals, but if we haven't sorted out our issues, then the friendships we make won't be all that different.

At the end of the day, it's about commitment. Poet and author Maya Angelou has a lovely quote that puts it all in perspective: "I don't believe the accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings. Gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at."

To me, this takes the pressure off of the friendships, and the sisterhood: both parties need to be willing to do their share of the work. If you find yourself consistently organising, or pursuing, then something is off, regardless of whether it is a family member or a friend.



INTENSE

Vikki Stark is a psychotherapist and the author of My Sister, My Self: Understanding the Sibling Relationship that Shapes Our Lives, Our Loves, and Ourselves.

She writes that in her 20 years of working as a family counsellor, she has "frequently been struck by the intensity of the sister bond. My clients have talked about their sisters with love, longing, sadness, guilt, and bitterness. Sometimes, they were trying to sort out for themselves if blood is thicker than water and whether they should continue to fight for that sister connection when all it brings them is pain".

I know that my sister was a total pain. Always stealing my stuff, always trying to hang out with me and my best friend, always getting in the way, grassing me out for everything, even stuff I didn't do. And yet: one day after school she didn't turn up for the bus. I was 10, and she was six, and she wasn't there, on the bus, where she was meant to be.

The rest of the children clambered into their seats and I began to get nervous. The bus driver fired up the engine and I went into panic. I held up the entire works until I found out that she'd felt poorly and my mum had come to get her. I got teased by the older kids for making such a big deal and I remember shouting: "She's my sister!" Annoying little brat or not -- she's my sister.



WORKING IT

She still is, and we still have issues, and we still manage to get over them. Our relationship goes in waves, of contact and distance, and if I rock with the waves -- because I can only control my own reactions -- then there's no tension. When I am in the States, we can go out and have a laugh, and give each other space when we need it.

There is so much pressure for women to be best friends with their sisters that it can scupper even the slightest chance when things aren't perfect.

Often, our friendships only highlight 'the good stuff' and at the first sign of conflict, it can all go pear-shaped. Trying to solve the problems of sisterhood in the friendship arena isn't the answer either. So what's a sister to do?

Denial is not a technique that many psychologists would recommend, but Stark, writing on msn.com, suggests that writing off the past might be a great way to move things forward: "Imagine how you would relate to your sister if she were a stranger whom you were meeting for the first time and you had no memory of anything that went on in your past relationship.

"To give your relationship a new chance, look at her with fresh eyes. Clear your mind of those past hurts -- they can't help you create a more positive future."


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