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Adult problems may stem from sibling conflicts

She had big trouble with her husband.

She constantly spoke to him in a rude, denigrating way, and he was ready to leave because of it.

Another client of marriage and family therapist Jane Greer was so enraged by her teenage stepson that she laid it out for her husband _ either the kid left, or she would.

In unraveling such problems _ Why did she keep talking that way? What was the source of such rage? _ the typical response would be to look at the women's childhood experiences with their parents.

But to Greer, who practices in New Jersey, it isn't that simple. Those women have siblings.

"We all know you're supposed to look at your relationship with your parents to see why you're having a problem with your husband or your wife. But nobody tells you to look at how you get along or don't get along with your sisters or brothers _ and that could be having a direct impact on how you're getting along with your spouse," says Greer, who is author of Adult Sibling Rivalry (Crown, $20).

Greer says the first woman realized she learned her unfortunate style of speaking from her brothers.

The other woman's rage stemmed from unresolved conflicts with her sisters _ her stepson evoked competitive feelings (in this case for her husband's attention), as did her sisters long ago. And one sister, who had been deceitful, had caused her no end of family trouble. She saw the same deplorable trait in the stepson.

The person who receives this kind of displacement is what Greer terms "the invisible sibling" _ someone who "evokes old feelings of sibling-hood," positive or negative.

Problems in a relationship may well be legitimate, Greer writes, but "the presence of the invisible sibling is intensifying them. You're less likely to get a handle on them if you can't separate out your unresolved sibling issues."

The influence of siblings goes way beyond marriage, says Greer, who developed an interest in the topic as a result of her dissertation on the effects on marriage of being a twin. Experiences with siblings also shape self-esteem and relationships with bosses and friends, she says.

"The reason our siblings are so important is that they are second only to our parents. They have a direct impact on our sense of identity and self-esteem," Greer says. And in many families, because of divorce, separation, illness or other factors, "you wind up with siblings moving into pseudo-parent roles. So an older brother can take on profound significance as a father figure for a younger sibling growing up."

Problems of siblings _ from minor to severe _ are pervasive in adulthood, she says. "Inevitably you are going to have to work through and come to terms with your feelings about your sisters and brothers, particularly the way you feel about yourself in relation to them."

A relatively minor problem may be a woman who expects her sister to be available for her frequent calls for help. Often there's disparity between siblings' expectations, and anger and guilt result, Greer says. At the extreme, people find themselves unduly wrapped up in the problems of a sibling who's disabled, troubled, or has alcohol or drug problems.

Often problems between siblings aren't played out until there is a triggering event _ family holiday gatherings, a marriage, birth or a parent's illness or death, she says. "We're supposed to go through (such events) and get along with our sisters and brothers. It doesn't just happen," she says, and if ignored, the problems only get worse.