A growing interest in old siblings reflects the potential increase in their importance at a time when union dissolution is high and birth rates low. For many subjects, a definition merely begins the story. In the case of older siblings, defining the term and exploring different types of sibship remain compelling research challenges. Traditional definitions refer to the cate gory of full siblings, related to one another through two biological parents. This restrictive definition excludes those who are half siblings (related through one shared biological parent), adopted siblings (related through legal adoption), and step siblings (related to one another through subsequent marriages of one or both biological or adoptive parents). In earlier times, acquiring step siblings typically occurred after the death of one parent and subsequent remarriage of the other. Now, step siblings are more likely to result from the remarriage of one or both parents following divorce. For most old persons today, these categories cover the vast majority of siblings; the future will bring an even broader array of adult sibling types in the wake of more marriage like unions that also produce children.
Relatively little research concerns old sib lings in their own right, but in recent decades research on siblings has finally extended beyond childhood. The bulk of studies tend to be psychological or developmental (Cicirelli 1995); to focus on university aged adults; to address assumed traits of sibling relationships such as rivalry; or, when extended into middle age, to explore siblings largely in the context of caring for their parents rather than their direct relationships with one another. The variety of research on adult siblings, including cohort comparisons, suggests a general portrait of change in sibling ties over the life course and of a significant tie in later life.
The sibling bond is unique in the contradictory expectations that it includes the obligations of family membership but, as a tie between relative peers, it should also be relatively voluntary (Allan 1977). This makes siblings an ideal relationship for exploring the ambivalence that characterizes family relationships at both the sociological and psychological levels (Connidis & McMullin 2002). Exploring sibling ties benefits from and in turn helps to extend the theoretical constructs of the life course and ambivalence (Walker et al. in press).
Sibling ties are very active in youth, then go through a period of relative dormancy, and eventually resurface once long term relationships are established or disbanded, children are raised, and paid work is either stabilized or left behind, sometimes through job loss but usually through retirement. On the way to this more active phase in sibling relationships, various life transitions may rekindle bonds between siblings, as they reach out to and for one another. Life changes such as the illness or death of parents and other family members, divorce, widowhood, remarriage, and relocation nearby, often heighten sibling contact and support. Research on the negotiation of the sibling tie in the context of caring for a parent, particularly one without a partner, indicates the dynamics of family life and its interplay with larger social forces (Matthews 2002). Structured social relations based on gender, age, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation play themselves out and are evident in studies across families (families of different races, classes, and ethnic background negotiate sibling ties differently) and within families (gender and sexual orientation influence the respective positions of siblings in the family network, including their relative responsibilities for particular obligations).
Even during times of relative inactivity as measured by contact, emotional closeness persists in the shared memories and reflections of siblings. The observed significance of reminiscence on old age adds a unique quality and value to sibling ties – typically the relationship that endures the longest in most of our lives. Women and single and childless persons have particularly involved sibling ties. Those who have fewer alternative attachments do not simply rely more heavily on their siblings; indications are that they also invest more heavily in them, directly as siblings and less directly as aunts and uncles (Connidis 2001). This means that older persons who have a sister or a single or a childless sibling are also more likely to sustain more active sibling relationships.
The greater involvement of sisters than brothers can be linked to both demographic trends and social structure. Because they live longer, women are more likely to either enjoy or require the company of someone other than a partner. This difference in availability is rein forced by socially constructed gender relations in which age remains a liability for old women who are interested in an intimate relationship (many are not). The stronger sister connections are also reinforced by a stronger culture of caring among women than men that is a further instance of socially structured gender relations.
An area of study that is likely to further our understanding of sibling ties particularly and family ties more generally is the extent to which divisions based on class occur within families when siblings are adults and no longer assume the same class position by virtue of their shared childhood. In the case of old per sons, a related research question concerns the effect of timing – when sibling ties are acquired – on the long term relationship between brothers and sisters. As well, many adults form close bonds with their partners’ siblings that carry into old age; thus, siblings in law and their equivalent are important sibling types about whom we need to learn more.
- Allan, G. (1977) Sibling Solidarity. Journal of Marriage and the Family 39: 177-83.
- Cicirelli, V. G. (1995) Sibling Relationships Across the Lifespan. Plenum Press, New York.
- Connidis, I. A. (2001) Family Ties and Aging. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Connidis, I. A. & McMullin, J. A. (2002) Sociological Ambivalence and Family Ties: A Critical Perspective. Journal of Marriage and Family 64: 558-67.
- Matthews, S. H. (2002) Sisters and Brothers/Daughters and Sons: Meeting the Needs of Old Parents. Unlimited Publishing, Bloomington.
- Walker, A. J., Allen, K. R., & Connidis, I. A. (in press) Theorizing and Studying Sibling Ties in Adulthood. In: Bengtson, V. L. Acock, A. C., Allen, K. R., Dilworth-Anderson, P., & Klein, D. M. (Eds.), Sourcebook on Family Theory and Research. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- White, L. K. & Reidmann, A. (1992) Ties Among Adult Siblings. Social Forces 7: 85-102.