Secrets of the sisters sharing a life of love and pain

WHEN sisters Sheila and Janine were very young they were close, despite the four-year age gap. Sheila would protect her little sister from all forms of attack, pick her up when she fell, dry her tears, teach her games and songs and things to do with her hair, and rarely asserted any kind of older sister superiority to exclude the younger girl.

Sheila married at 19, had several children in swift succession, then chose to be a home maker who was also very active in her community. She said she loved her life and was satisfied with her choices, but as the years went on and Janine chose a different path – university, becoming a lawyer, marrying and having children later than her sister, and being able to afford a bigger, swankier home and more frequent holidays than Sheila – their relationship changed dramatically.

"I know we're really still the same people underneath as we were years ago, but in every conversation I have with her now there is a certain, and very open, resentment that I have 'gone beyond her'," says Janine.

"Yes, I have had different educational experiences and followed a career, but I'm way behind her in experience of motherhood and many other things in life, and would really value sharing all my worries and uncertainties about the children.

"She pushes me away now, saying we 'speak a different language', making all sorts of assumptions that we no longer have any common interests. I find this heartbreaking, but live in hope that at some point later in our lives we'll become close again. One comfort is that I know if I were to have some really terrible crisis, Sheila would still come running to help."

One woman I know says she prizes her younger and older sisters' opinions and advice above anyone else's. An eldest sister I know tells her siblings that she has the casting vote in all things to do with their elderly parents' care. Another says she loves her older sister dearly but doesn't ask her for too much advice because her words of wisdom are always tinged with competitiveness and the feeling that her sister considers her to be the perennial "kid sis who's useless at everything". Rather than just offering opinion, her sister would try to take over and manage the situation herself.

Yet another girlfriend says she would never consult her sister over an emotional problem "because she sees me as an extension of herself and would counsel me to do whatever she would do – even though we are very different people".

It can take just one word from your sister to set you off into helpless giggles, but one word from her can also drive you completely nuts or into a convulsion of self-doubt. She can be your closest ally, your fiercest foe, your supporter or your competitor. What seems to be certain is that very few sisterly relationships are always straightforward, sunny and predictable. As one sister put it: "...she's part of the fabric of who I am. So when there's disapproval, you feel it in a place that you don't feel it with other people".

In her absorbing book You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Deborah Tannen examines how sisters' conversations illustrate their relationship. A professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington DC, Tannen's previous bestsellers have included studies of how men and women and mothers and daughters talk to each other – the latter rejoicing in the fabulous title You're Wearing THAT?

The middle of three sisters in her own family, she has "hands-on" experience, but her more objective evidence of the complexity of sisterly interaction comes from in-depth interviews with more than 100 sisters of all ages, creeds, cultures and ethnicities.

"Same-sex siblings tend to operate on the same wavelength and press all the right buttons with each other," she says. "Older brothers often make younger brothers feel incompetent, as can older sisters with younger sisters." Her research reveals myriad insights – daughters reporting how they love to see their mother giggling with her sisters, giving a glimpse of how she was as a girl; how successive sisters have different experience, depending on their place in the pecking order; how some women (particularly younger sisters) feel they have to physically distance themselves from their sisters in order to be themselves properly; and how hurtful and spiteful sisters can be – including a woman who felt she had to cut herself off entirely from her sister when her son was born, so that he would not be "sullied" by that sister's "poison". Extremes of emotion between sisters are often flicked on easily like a light switch. Why so much drama?

"Sisters tend to feel very strongly about each other, one way or the other," says Tannen. "One woman I interviewed told me that she and her sister were very close and talked on the phone frequently.

"Sometimes, when they ran out of things to say they didn't want to put the phone down, so they just left it off the hook at either end, still keeping each other company even though there was nothing more to say."

"One sister said: 'It is just comforting to know she is there, like hugging a cat'. The next time I saw this woman, I said 'How's your sister?' and she said: 'I don't know. I'm not talking to her!' They didn't talk for a year, but by the time the book went to press the sisters were talking again and leaving the phone off the hook once more. I think this shows that they care so much about each other and the other's opinion, that you can be deeply hurt as well as deeply comforted.

"I encountered sisters who said only positive things and others who were entirely negative (about their sisters), and some who finished off each other's sentences or added to each other's stories in an extraordinary way.

"Books about sisters can be schmaltzy, but in my experience many women do say negative things, no matter how much they love their sisters."

It's strange, then, that some women talk about close female friends in terms of ''we're like sisters". From the accounts in Tannen's book, the reality of sisterliness is that there is almost always rough with the smooth, making the comparison rather odd. Maybe what's meant is that our closest female friendships are how we wish we were with our sisters. There have been studies suggesting that having a sister makes you happier. When Tannen asked women interviewees to compare relationships with brothers to those with sisters, most said they talked more often to their sisters and this often meant they felt closer to them. However some reported talking a lot to both brothers and sisters, but talking about different subjects.

Reports that women find sister relationships make them happier could simply be based on the fact that women reported generally speaking more often to their sisters. It's the fact of talking, not the subject matter, that makes the difference, Tannen thinks.

Women's conversation with other women often baffles men, says Tannen, but her research reveals that the gender difference isn't as stark as "men talk about work and sport and women discuss relationships and feelings".

"Banal conversations about bargain sweaters or office gossip are comforting to some, but talking about emotional troubles is the basis of conversations between others. It's the fact of talking and often that women value that and that makes them happy. Women's ways of talking to each other aren't better than men's – they're just different. I have two sisters, talking to one about feelings with one but not with the other. Both make me very happy".

You Were Always Mom's Favorite – Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives, by Deborah Tannen, is published by Ballantine Books, 9.99. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk or call 0800 0153232.