Growing up with an older brother, I never gave much thought to what it meant to have siblings. Over the years though, as a sociologist who studies families, I’ve become fascinated by these unique relationships. In 2019, I launched the Global Siblings & Inequality Project at Boston University to study how siblings raised in the same household relate to each other as adults. Through research on this important — but often overlooked — family tie, I’ve come to realize that sibling relationships can teach us a thing or two about building bridges in our troubled times.
Our divisions show no sign of receding. This spring, we’ve seen the indictment of a former president followed by the polarized reactions of Americans. We’ve also seen how a beer ad can roil the cultural waters and plunge a company’s stock value.
We don’t have much in common. That’s what siblings I talk with tell me, over and over. But even in the face of scarce common ground, most maintain ties of some sort. While they vary widely in terms of how close they are to each other, complete estrangement is relatively rare. The takeaway: It is possible to stay connected with people with different views from us. But how? And why?
Jolene (not her real name), who identifies herself as a “progressive Democrat,” has been at sharp political odds with her brother for many years. She is dismayed by his opposition to gun control and transgender rights — causes in which she is deeply invested. Are you on a different planet? she would think during their conversations. “Love you brother, but despise your politics.”
Jolene’s story, which I collected as part of my research, will sound familiar to many, regardless of political stripe. We live today in an era of hostility and distrust between supporters of rival political parties, each side believing that the other’s agenda will destroy the nation.
Given this polarization, it’s no surprise that family members with different political loyalties often clash. What gets less attention, though, is how these same family members usually manage, despite the fireworks, to maintain a relationship.
As a society, we are inclined, whether it is the neighborhood we live in or the clubs we join, to move toward spaces populated by people who are like us. Examples of this phenomenon — which social scientists call homophily, or “a love of sameness” — include social networks based on shared lifestyles and interests, as well as race and class. The risk, however, is that we surround ourselves with people just like us, and lose empathy for those who are not.
The “us versus them” mentality of our current politics is shored up by what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls empathy walls. In her book, Strangers in Their Own Land, Hochschild says these walls pose “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.”
As a first step toward cracking these walls, we might consider the simultaneous rivalry and solidarity that characterizes sibling relationships to be part of our political ones as well. Accepting this duality allows us to approach our political opponents with an eye to future cooperation, even when we are engaged in deep battles in the moment. And like siblings, who draw on shared childhood memories in their bonds, we can also build empathy with those across the political divide by acknowledging our shared political histories.
In a society where so many of our relationships are fleeting and easily cut off, sibling ties stand out for their permanence. These are durable, flexible relationships that can withstand bumps along the road. For Natalie, a woman in her 30s, the fact that she hadn’t seen or talked to her sister for a few years after a major blowup did not mean the relationship was over. She knew they would eventually reconnect: “I know she’s there. My sister will always be my sister. We’ll get back to it when we’re ready.”
Sometimes I imagine relationships as having built-in exit doors. For siblings, the exit doors of the relationship swing back and forth quickly and easily. Even when the door is shut for many years, it can open up again.
Siblings show us that repair and renewal are possible when we understand that the relationship is here to stay, whatever the problems. When it comes to politics, the lesson is that we need to acknowledge each other as a permanent presence in our lives. Knowing the other side is here to stay gives us a way to cross the bridge, at least part of the way, to meet those on the other side of the divide. This means putting aside blustery talk of a national divorce between red and blue states in favor of a discourse of interdependence.
Sibling ties, in all of their complex volatility, have a lot to teach us. We may disagree, fight, and even stay away from each other. But we know there is a way to get back home.