Charlotte Bronte, novelist and one of the world's most famous sisters, wrote, "You know full well as I do the value of sisters' affections: There is nothing like it in this world."
Now that I'm in my 30s, I feel the value Ms. Bronte speaks of in a different way than I used to. My sister Sara, four years younger than me, has been my best friend since before she was even born. I remember rubbing my mother's pregnant stomach and praying that the being inside would come out a girl. I wanted nothing more than to have a sister -- the longing was almost primal. It's hard to describe, but I imagine that it reflected my desire for a confidante, a partner in crime, someone both similar and different from me -- and that someone had to be a girl.
As children, Sara and I were inseparable. We created our own imaginary world, peopled with dozens of characters that we'd take turns acting out. This game drove our parents nuts. But it was our way of insulating ourselves from the turmoil of our parents' marriage and the anxiety we felt about our places in the world. When our parents divorced, I was 18 and away at college. She was 14 and entering high school. My sister and I turned to each other for support and advice, which I think made her grow up faster than her peers. I took her with me shopping, to parties; we shared friends and coming-of-age experiences. She was never my tag-along little sister, but rather my contemporary and trusted BFF.
In my 20s, I went through a rough time, and our roles shifted. I was no longer my sister's fierce protector; suddenly, she was protecting me, but she also moved on with her own life. My long-time relationship crumbled and left me a mess. She got engaged to the man of her dreams. For the first time, I felt competitive with my sister, and this felt horrible. I'd be lying if I said I didn't envy her life -- or my perception of her life -- while pitying my own. Eventually, after some nasty throw-down fights, self-reflection, and finding balance within ourselves, our relationship is stronger than ever. We've learned to appreciate and accept each other as individual, adult women. Here are seven things I've learned along the way:
Give and receive advice carefully.
These days, when my sister and I offer each other advice, it's less egocentric than it once was. The advice is not so much about how we would do things and more about ways we think would best, and realistically, help the other person. We've also learned not to give unsolicited advice. Although it may be volunteered with good intentions, it's not always welcome. Restraining commentary has in turn taught us to be better listeners. And by listening more, we found a new way of supporting each other that moves away from a kind of codependence that sisters like us who grew up extremely close sometimes have.
Respect each other's differences.
As children and teenagers, my sister and I had similar interests. Now that we are both older, our priorities have shifted, and, as women, we've taken different paths. I still love going out on the town or will stay up all night writing, while my sister would rather relax at home and get to bed early. We no longer impose our lifestyles on one another; we find other things to do together like working out, grabbing dinner, and shopping (some things never change).
We've also found that mindless activities like cooking or shoe shopping are good for us since we've spent so much of our lives analyzing and trying to make sense of weighty issues like our family dynamic. Of course we still complain about our parents to each other -- but we're putting effort into cultivating a new relationship, and that means doing things differently from we've done in the past. Just because we're sisters and know the most intimate details about each other's lives doesn't mean we have to sit there and parse them apart all day. It's important to have fun together.
I know that if she doesn't come to every one of my readings, she still supports my writing career. She knows if I don't share her enthusiasm over the latest episode of True Blood, I'm not passing judgment on her taste. Sisters can be ultra-sensitive when it comes to minutia, especially if they've grown up with the intense bond that my sister and I shared as children. But reading too much into the small moments of life is tiring and a waste of energy. The benefit of being sisters is that we don't have to prove our love and devotion to each other.
Make an effort to get to know each other's significant others.
My sister's husband admitted to me that he felt a tremendous guilt for taking my best friend away from me. Then I felt guilty over his guilt. The truth is, all relationships shift as people come in and out of our lives. The solution to the impasse my brother-in-law and I reached over "sharing" my sister was to build our own relationship. My brother-in-law and I both made an effort to show interest in and express admiration for aspects of each other's lives that are important to us. Giving each other authentic support helped banish any uncomfortable feelings of jealousy we -- okay mostly I -- had. Although you can't force a friendship with your sister's significant other, a genuine bond is possible, and your sister will appreciate the effort. It's always fun introducing someone I'm dating to my sister because I'm excited for her to get to know someone close to me. And if my boyfriend and my bother-in-law just happen to strike up their own friendship, I know he's a keeper. Double dates, dinner parties, family vacations? Bliss.
Know how to keep a confidence.
Some things are better left unsaid. In the heat of family arguments, I'm sometimes tempted to open my big mouth and blab about my sister. This is just unacceptable. Uphold the Sister Code with the utmost seriousness.
Compare childhood memories.
Okay, senility is still a long way off, but neither of us is getting any younger. Talking about those fuzzy memories helps keep us connected to our past, while still experiencing the fullness of the present and feeling integrated as a person. And, as my sister says, "There are some things only sisters know about each other."