Sally, 32, works for a public-health nonprofit in Brooklyn. She and her husband love their jobs, but they’re never going to have lots of money. That never used to bother her, but after her younger sister Amanda got married, things changed. Amanda’s husband comes from a super-wealthy family, and now Amanda lives in a huge apartment in Manhattan, spends every weekend someplace cool, and seems to have all the time in the world to do whatever she wants.
Sally and Amanda were always close (they’re only two years apart in age), but lately, things feel … strained. Everything seems easier for Amanda; her towels are softer, her food is organic, and she just doesn’t have to worry about the same consequences. Sally is ashamed of feeling envious, and knows that she should be satisfied with her life — like she was before Amanda met her husband — but whenever they hang out, she can’t stop thinking about how tired and stressed she is by comparison. Meanwhile, Amanda is constantly inviting Sally to come on trips with her, but it only makes Sarah feel worse. She doesn’t want to be the “poor” sister. She misses their old relationship, but she knows that things can’t go back to the way they were. Or can they? Should she address it? Or better to allow this slow drifting-apart to happen?
You know how this story goes: Fortune smiles upon one sibling, the other gets jealous, their relationship tanks (sometimes bringing a person down with it, if we’re getting biblical), and everyone loses. It’ll continue to repeat itself throughout human history because we are innately social creatures and our instinctive monkey brains tell us to size each other up — I look at that shiny, pretty, tasty-looking thing you have, and get cranky when I can’t have it. Babies do this. Chimps do this. Rational adult women with respectable careers and good friends and well-stocked refrigerators do this, too.
Jealousy between siblings carries a particular sting because your first self-preserving impulse —distancing yourself from the source of your envy — won’t work. For starters, you and your sister started out on a relatively even playing field. You have the same genes, ate your childhood breakfasts at the same table, and heard the same bedtime stories. You can’t make yourself feel better about the chasm between your respective socioeconomic statuses by concocting reasons for how Amanda had a leg up in life, as you might for any other envy-inducing person (“Oh, she must have a trust fund, or she probably got that job because her cousin worked in that office …”). The truth is, you and Amanda are probably quite similar, both in nature and nurture, but you’ve each made different choices in your adult lives and here you are. Are you mad at her for being wealthy? Do you wish she wasn’t? It’s okay if the answer to both of those questions is yes. But don’t tell your sister that, because it would be a trap.
“Your jealousy stems from your own issues, so start with yourself,” says Amanda Clayman, an L.A.-based financial therapist. “It might seem honest to confess these feelings to your sister, but the person who’s hearing this revelation probably won’t respond perfectly — because that’s a very hard thing to do — and then it would be easy for you to feel justified in blaming her. Like, ‘Hey, I was feeling crappy before, but then you said the wrong thing, and now I’m feeling legitimately mad because of what you said.’” Fights will ensue, the relationship will continue to unravel, and what was once a vague distance will become a definitively frosty one.
Instead of fixating on what divides you, try to remember what you two have in common. Sure, you could let the relationship wither — plenty of sisters grow apart, and I’m sure many would cite latent jealousy and/or financial disparity as (one of the) reasons they’d prefer to spend Thanksgiving at home these days. But it sounds like you and your sister don’t want that —and while no one can drive you nuts quite like your family, no one can understand and love you quite like them, either.
Clayman says focusing on what binds you and your sister together is an important psychological trick to stop jealousy in its tracks. “Often, when I’m doing a workshop with clients, I’ll start by saying, ‘Everyone in this room has either more or less money than you.’ It’s a way of calling attention to the cues and signals that give us information about where we stand relative to the group that we’re in,” Clayman continues. “We are motivated by social cohesion, and anything that threatens that is uncomfortable.”
Thinking about envy in those terms can help us understand what’s going on. Studies have consistently shown that people gravitate toward others in their own socioeconomic class, no matter who or where they are — so when two people (like sisters) are very close and suddenly experience a major disruption in their socioeconomic similarity, that would be disturbing to both of them.
Clayman points out that your sister probably feels shame, guilt, and frustration around this too: “Being envied is just as dangerous to social cohesion as being envious, so your sister might overcompensate, or be angry at you because now she’s got this problem of your jealousy to deal with.”
“As a therapist, do I see jealousy and envy between siblings? Absolutely,” says Clayman. “Do I see it within groups of friends? For sure. These dynamics are complex. But are you no longer going to be friends with this person because they booked a really great gig or got a big bonus? What if they don’t work again for ten years? How are you organizing these principles in your life?”
So, Sally: This is an opportunity to peer into the black box of your own priorities, and it’ll dredge up old, mucky family stuff that you’d rather not explore (your mom loved her more, but Dad thought you were the smarter one, etc.). You might try therapy or, at the very least, some weird conversations with yourself; both are worthy exercises in figuring out what you do value, and how to make peace with it. What roles do you want your money, your sister, and your sister’s money to play in your life? Maybe you do wish that you were wealthier, and your sister’s situation is aggravating that chip on your shoulder. Or maybe it’s something else entirely.
And in the meantime, try inviting your sister into your own comfort zone. My friend Alison, the youngest of three girls, has learned that hanging out with her much-wealthier middle sister works best when she calls the shots. “Whenever I’ve had resentment, it’s usually because I’m doing stuff on my sister’s terms,” says Alison. “I’m going out to dinner at the expensive restaurant that she picked, or I’m going to Paris with her and it’s really indulgent. It’s alienating, and I can’t contribute, and I feel like I don’t fit in. But then, every time I invite her to do something with me, on my turf, we reconnect and I realize that we’re not that different. When you have less money, it’s normal to assume that the wealthier person won’t want to slum it. But when it’s your sister, chances are she’s just happy to spend time with you.”
Your sister now has the ability to throw money at problems, but that doesn’t mean she can’t understand your problems anymore, and it certainly doesn’t mean she doesn’t care. It’s also worth considering that her life might not be as fantastic as it looks and she might need you more than you think she does. Has it occurred to you that you might be withdrawing as a way to punish Amanda for having so much? The problem is that by depriving her of you, you’re also depriving yourself.
Another upside to becoming comfortable around Amanda again — besides the obvious — is that you might find that it’s heavenly to let her treat you from time to time. Being a mooch is one thing (and a bitter mooch is the worst) but if you realize that someone just wants to host you for the sake of your company (while you get to drink their wine and use their Jacuzzi and order room service), it’s not so bad. And when that person is your sister, it’s a pretty sweet deal.