No Friend Like a Sister: Exploring the Relationship between Sisters
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
No Friend Like a Sister gives a rich account of the relationships between sisters. Jenny Neale used focus groups (women aged between 20 and 60) and individual interviews (the youngest woman being 20, the oldest 91) to explore experiences of being a sister. Several key themes emerge: the complexity of sister relationships, the challenges to be faced in this relationship and others within the family, the meaning of reciprocity and support, intimacy and friendship, coping with adversity, addressing difference, and maintaining strong connections with one’s siblings over time and distance.
I agree with the author’s view that when family dynamics have been explored, the relationship between sisters has often been taken for granted and not received the same attention as other family relationships. The focus is often on the child-parent bond and if the sibling relationship has been explored it has, as the author argues, usually focused on its functional nature. Other factors such as friendship and intimacy have not been looked at in depth. This book, with its fresh perspective on family life, fills a gap in the current literature and encourages us to take another look at the “depth of feeling in the sister relationship”.
The sister relationship can be compared to a strong friendship where its intensity and intimacy means those involved may go to extraordinary lengths to maintain it. For many in the study, the sister bond sustained them through difficult times, and the nature of the bond meant this relationship had a special place in women’s lives. As one sister commented:
There’s a sense of security. They’ve always known you. They might think you ought to comb your hair and put on other clothes and tell you that, but you know you’re in the right place. You do things for each other and really care for each other.
One of the strengths of the book is its portrayal of the complexities and realities of the sister relationship. It reveals that, as with other relationships, this one will at times be rocky and even severed. The book explores the hard times and respectfully shares women’s stories and their painful and hurt feelings when the relationship has become difficult and they are struggling to find a way to recapture its intimacy. What remains significant, and what is so eloquently portrayed, is that sisters may adopt extraordinary and at times costly strategies to mend a broken sisterly relationship. This can often involve moving to another city, offering intense care and support, and, if necessary, sacrificing other relationships in order to be closer to one’s sibling.
Although about sister relationships, the book encourages us to think about other relationships and their place in our busy lives. One is encouraged to ask what it is that sustains us, how we uphold such relationships over time and through life changes that may prevent us from devoting enough time to them. The book also helps us think about what happens when conflict arises and how we work to address it so that relationships can continue being positive and fulfilling. And probably most importantly, the book reminds us how important relationships can be for our long-term wellbeing.
There are many highlights but two chapters I particularly enjoyed were those on intimacy and difference. These, like others in the book, celebrate the relationship but also sensitively explore the challenges sisters may face both in relating to one another and to those who are also significant in their lives. The chapter on intimacy challenges traditional views that locate intimacy within couple relationships, and encourages us to think about alternative frameworks, such as those offered by feminist writing, that might lead us to a richer account of the nature of intimacy.
The chapter on difference reminds us that while this can be a source of conflict, it can also be a source of strength and become central to learning how we can get along with each other. As the author suggests, even when sisters have contrasting personalities, beliefs, and dreams, the strength of the bond means they will work to locate similarities, attributes, and strategies that will bring them together. Their desire to sustain the close relationship means they are likely to mediate their differences and identify ways of respecting and enjoying difference.
This well-researched book is written in a way that will reach out to a wide audience. It challenges researchers on family life to think differently about what goes on within families, and to review our interpretations of kinship relationships. It provides rich material on how relationships are constructed and sustained, and what they mean to the participants and those around them. It challenges us to think again about the central place of relationships, their role in sustaining broader societal relationships, and, when things go well, acting as a haven in which we can be cared for, loved, and supported. Lastly, but most importantly, this book is for sisters, who will see in it their stories treated sensitively and respectfully, made visible, and celebrated.
Robyn Munford is a researcher on family relationships and Professor of Social Work at Massey University.