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Hide-and-seek with siblings: A theoretical exploration of siblings in psychoanalysis.


My favourite childhood game to play with my two siblings was hide-and-seek. It was the one game that began with a level playing field and could quickly shift as new players joined in. Cousins and friends were always welcome, while adults were sometimes invited to play. We would all take turns to hide while one of us would shout: 'Come out, come out, wherever you are!' I recall the shared excitement in the mad hunt for the perfect hiding spot or the solitary boredom in closing my eyes and counting to ten. I remember my heart pounding whether I was the hider or the seeker and the moment of discovery that evoked a mixture of relief and frustration. I am reminded of the collective deflation when some adult would call us back to the real world of home time, dinner, bath time or bedtime. 'Don't worry', we would say to each other, 'We will play again soon'.

In the course of my work as a therapist, I often feel like I am playing hide-and-seek with my patients. There are set rules to be followed, the hider and the seeker change roles, new players find their way into the game, and there is a constantly shifting dynamic between excitement and boredom, relief and frustration, and victory and defeat. I have found this feeling to be especially significant in my work with patients' unresolved sibling dynamics. These sibling dynamics are often initially hidden as many of my patients tend to repress their strong affective responses to and memories of their siblings from their childhood. Yet, something happens in the transference-countertransference dynamics that reveals to me a reactivation of early developmental fantasies and needs. Sometimes this presents as a parent-child transference, whereby perceptions and expectations are projected onto me that suggest a desire for me to be authoritarian or play favourites in response to current or historical conflict between lateral figures. Alternatively, this can present as a sibling transference, in which patients engage in an equalitarian manner and seem to desire cooperation and alliance with me in response to lateral conflict. However, I have found that the experience of a parent-transference can shift to a sibling-transference as quickly as 'I found you!' suggesting to me that the vertical and lateral axes are intersecting in complex ways as the relationship between therapist and patient develops.

My personal and clinical experiences have opened up questions regarding the place of sibling relationships in our relational world. Mitchell (2013a) argues that siblings are a biological and cultural necessity, suggesting that 'siblings are there in our minds' (p. 35) in their absence or presence as a general rule. Most of my patients grew up with a close-in-age sibling, who shared their home, school and social lives in their childhood. Even for patients who have a larger age gap with their siblings or grew up as an only child, other lateral relationships with peers, cousins and friends seem to be developmentally significant. I have found that exploring historical material and transference manifestations of siblings (or other significant lateral figures or sibling substitutes) in addition to parents both complicates and enriches the therapeutic process. My patients and I are constantly discovering distinctive and adjunctive developmental influences that siblings may play on the path to intrapsychic and interpersonal development. This shared understanding of the reciprocal importance of absent and present siblings invites a therapeutic process wherein unresolved sibling and other lateral dynamics can be surfaced and resolved.

Contemporary psychoanalysis acknowledges the multiple conscious, preconscious, and unconscious intersections that emerge in the therapeutic process (Harris, 2011), which may include the vertical and lateral axes in addition to transference and countertransference. Many therapists reflect on how their experiences of the transference-countertransference dynamics can influence and enhance psychoanalytic psychotherapy (Gubb, 2013; Kadish, 2016; Saayman, 2017; Van der Walt & Long, 2013). Yet, the identification and exploration of whether these transference-countertransference experiences involve intersecting parent and sibling dynamics is generally absent. Typically, sibling transferences are relatively unexplored, whereas the consideration of parent-child transferences predominates in psychoanalytic work. While some authors (e.g. Coleman, 1996; Kivowitz, 1995) argue that the preference for the parent-child transference reflects the paternalistic, positivist assumptions of traditional psychoanalysis, Bank and Kahn (1982) argue that this preference reflects transference-countertransference dynamics in which therapists assume a parent-like, wise, omnipotent role which may then engender the patient to be more childlike, powerless, and affected by infantile feelings. It is also possible that some therapists may resist the more equalitarian sharing of power that is invited in a sibling-transference in favour of a parent-child transference as this may evoke less discomfort and uncertainty for both therapist and patient (Mitchell, 2000). Lesser (1978) argues that a therapist 'cannot limit himself to any one role. She/he must allow her/himself to be transformed into a sibling as well as a parent. Sometimes she/he may be both simultaneously' (p. 48).

Whether due to our patients' repression of strong affective responses to their siblings or as a consequence of our own preferences for the parent-child transference, siblings should not remain hidden. In doing so, we may limit the depth and richness of our relational understandings in psychoanalytical psychotherapy. Thus, in order to attempt to fully comprehend the intrapsychic and interpersonal world of ourselves and our patients, we need to more actively engage with absent and present siblings in psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

Siblings in psychoanalysis have been understood predominately in relation to pre-oedipal and oedipal development and this paper will aim to integrate these main theoretical perspectives. While psychoanalytic clinical material has guided the current theoretical understandings, there is an absence of case material on diverse sibling experiences and reflexivity by the theorists themselves that may contribute to biases and tensions in existing psychoanalytic perspectives on siblings. The paper concludes that the gaps in psychoanalytic literature on the developmental functions on siblings have implications for theory and clinical practice. These gaps will need to be acknowledged and addressed so that diverse and nuanced understandings of siblings can continue to be into integrated into psychoanalytic theory and practice.

The emergence of siblings in psychoanalysis

While I assert that the therapeutic process is deeply enriched by the exploration of the intersection of the vertical and lateral axes, finding psychoanalytic theory regarding the functions of siblings in development and beyond is challenging. At the forefront of available sibling literature in psychoanalysis is Juliet Mitchell (2000, 2003, 2006, 2011, 2013a, 2013b) who proposes a psychoanalytic model for conceptualising the matrix of family relationships, whereby the lateral axis refers to the interrelationship between siblings and the vertical axis refers to the interrelationship between parent and child. This body of work has clarified some of my clinical questions and observations regarding the developmental functions of siblings. Nevertheless, there continues to be a 'lacunae between the observation of the clinical material and its transformation into a theory' (Mitchell, 2003, p. 130).

In response, the sibling relationship has become a more popular area of psychoanalytic inquiry in the last two decades due to greater acknowledgement of the significance of sibling relationships in development and their centrality in family experiences (Bank & Kahn, 1982; Charles, 1999; Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2013b; Neubauer, 1983; Parens, 1988; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994; Whiteman, McHale & Soli, 2011). Prior to this, the study of siblings was largely considered secondary to the role of parents in psychoanalysis. If siblings were studied, their role was often conceptualised as parental replacements or displacements. The consensus that siblings have been overshadowed in psychoanalytic theory, research and practice has contributed to attempts to incorporate siblings into existing theories (Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2003). Clinical studies and psychoanalytic observational studies have shown that infants form significant relationships with their siblings during the first six months of life (Bank & Kahn, 1982; Coles, 2003; Neubauer, 1983; Parens, 1988; Rustin, 2007).

Whiteman et al. (2011) argue that it is not possible for one theoretical perspective to fully encapsulate all aspects of sibling dynamics due to the multiplicity of developmental, family, and group differences that influence sibling experiences. Diverse conceptualisations of the role of siblings in development predominate, signifying that different aspects of sibling dynamics have been understood from various theoretical perspectives. Research has drawn upon other disciplines outside of classical psychoanalytic theory to challenge the exclusive focus on vertical influences on development, including developmental, feminist, self psychological, sociological, biological, relational, object relational, and clinical perspectives (Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2013b; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994; Wittenberg, 2009). The potentially more positive development roles played by siblings in attachment, identity and gender development, sexuality, aggression and rivalry, peer relations, and loyalty and care have been given focus by attachment, systemic and family therapy theorists (Bank & Kahn, 1982; Dunn, 1985; Dunn & Kendrick, 1982; Dunn & McGuire, 1992). On the other hand, psychoanalytic theorists predominately view the sibling relationship as fundamentally conflictual and dominated by negative feelings (Coles, 2003). There is a lack of cohesion in theoretical conceptualisations of sibling developmental functions (Bank & Kahn, 1982; Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2003) as research findings from various theoretical perspectives on the potential functions of sibling relationships have not been integrated into psychoanalytic understandings.

Freud's conceptualisation of sibling rivalry has been especially influential in shaping existing psychoanalytic thought about sibling relationships. Freud (1900) acknowledges that children 'feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them--especially against rivals, other children, and first and foremost as against brothers and sisters' (p. 250). This conceptualisation is predominately hostile and conflictual whereby any positivity that occurs in the context of a sibling relationship, such as love, equality and fairness, is viewed as a reaction formation against underlying loathing, jealousy and rivalry (Freud, 1921). This hostility and conflict occurs as a result of the fear of annihilation that the birth of a new sibling evokes. Thus, the central role of siblings in Freudian psychoanalysis is still directly related to the dominant vertical axis in connection to the Oedipus complex and premised by rivalry for the love of a parent during early childhood (Bank & Kahn, 1982; Coles, 2003; Kivowitz, 1995; Mitchell, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2013b; Rustin, 2007; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994).

In addition to serving as rivals for the love of a parent, literature also conceptualises siblings on a vertical axis whereby siblings may serve as compensatory or replacement parental figures. Numerus studies have found that siblings tend to fulfil developmental needs in childhood when parental care is insufficient, unreliable or traumatic (Bank & Kahn, 1982; Wittenberg, 2009), emphasising this as an additional developmental function. A sibling may fulfil, entirely or partially, the responsibilities of the primary caregiver due to the loss or extended absence of parental care. Bank and Kahn (1982) argue that siblings are not likely to possess the maturity, sensitivity and psychological capabilities of a parental figure. In these cases, siblings are placed into positions where parental responsibilities are adopted, contributing to problematic consequences for individual development of the sibling who takes on the parental responsibilities, as well as the sibling who is cared for by a sibling (Wittenberg, 2009).

Siblings have thus been foregrounded as impeding healthy development due to the assumption that siblings may function as compensatory or replacement parental figures in childhood. Consequently, the prevailing understandings of siblings remain fixed in vertical conceptualisations of their potential role in development. In this role, siblings repeatedly fail at fulfilling developmental needs, negatively influencing the development of the cohesive self and healthy object relations. Yet, siblings could have a developmental role to play that is distinctive from and adjunctive to the function of vertical parental figures. This can only be explored if the distinction is made between siblings serving as replacement parental figures and siblings servings as lateral figures, which may only be possible when an adult caregiver is present and responsive. This distinction is important as it may signify that the pathological outcomes are due to vertical fragmentations and ruptures which lateral relationships attempt to compensate for.

Psychoanalytic theory has a propensity to oversimplify development into binary positions in order to claim universality. However, more sophistication is needed to resolve the tensions between distinguishing the vertical axis from the lateral axis (Mitchell, 2003). As such, there is a need to explore how lateral and vertical relationships intersect in the family matrix as opposed to separating the world into the binary of vertical and lateral relationships. By challenging the assumed vertical-horizontal binary, this paper seeks to further Swartz's (2014) argument that 'developments in psychoanalytic theory suggest a relationship between the two [binary positions] that makes them a single part of a whole, and not a binary at all' (p. 21). I assert that we need to establish what is absent in psychoanalytic theories by identifying gaps and tensions in current conceptualisations of the developmental functions of siblings in order to determine what we still need to seek or develop. In doing so, we may begin to understand that parents and siblings intersect and interact in constantly shifting and nuanced ways to shape development.

'Peek-a-boo': Siblings inpre-oedipal development

In response to the tendency in psychoanalytic literature not to explore sibling relationships as significant and distinctive, due to the assumption that they could only serve as rivals for parental love or vertical replacements, some psychoanalytic theories have engaged with the potential functions of siblings in intrapsychic and interpersonal development (Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2003; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994; Sherwin-White, 2007;). Many of these studies concern the functions of siblings in pre-oedipal development.

Even before the possible birth of a sibling, certain transitions such as weaning set the stage for the infant to develop awareness that the mother is making space for another baby. Mitchell (2003) argues that a sibling's very existence stimulates the 'death' of 'His Majesty the Baby' (p. 205). This awareness evokes overwhelming anxiety and threatens the loss of the omnipotent fantasy of being the only child (Klein, 1955). In response, the child experiences innate envy and rage, and destroys all possible siblings that exist in the mother's womb in phantasy (Klein, 1928). The birth of a sibling, real or imagined, is hence experienced as a traumatic attack to the child's omnipotence, making the sibling loathed as the child's replacement (Mitchell, 2003).

The fantasy of being the only child protects the child from the awareness of another lateral figure, such as a sibling, who could replace the child in the family milieu. As the only omnipotent child, one would gain all the attention, love, and inheritance from one's parents, and would never have to develop a distinguished place in the world with others who occupy the same position as oneself. The unconscious fantasy of being the only child and the longing for the exclusive intimacy with the mother is hypothesised to cause conflict after the birth of an actual or fantasised sibling (Charles, 1999; Mitchell, 2011). Rustin (2007) argues that the actual or fantasised birth of another child also represents a relational and existential loss as the child loses its known place in the family and world; that is the identity as the mother's baby.

Despite the trauma of the existence of a sibling which destroys the fantasy of the only child, the sibling can also be simultaneously loved with the resolve of the child's own narcissism. The existence of another child can confirm the child's fantasy that 'my parents love me so much that they have created another me' (Mitchell, 2013a). Furthermore, the arrival of the sibling means that despite the innate envy, rage and annihilation of the potential sibling in phantasy (Klein, 1928), the child did not kill this sibling after all. As such, 'the ecstasy of loving one who is like oneself is experienced at the same time as the trauma of being annihilated by one who stands in its place' (Mitchell, 2003, p. 10).

Existing conceptualisations of siblings have suggested that a pre-oedipal infant would not be able to fully distinguish between mother, father or sibling as whole objects (Rustin, 2007; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). The experience of sibling as replacement and part object may evoke both loving and hating feelings; however these feelings and associated representations of the sibling as either idealised or devalued are dissociated and split off from each other (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994) to protect the developing ego from contradictory experiences of the self and significant others in the external world. For healthy resolution of the sibling trauma, Neubauer (1983) found that envy and competition between siblings need to be expressed, otherwise undue defences and reactions formations are observed. On a lateral level, the catharsis of unconscious fears and fantasies of destruction towards the sibling is necessary; however a child and her/his sibling do not have the ability to contain the anxiety that accompanies the destruction. Klein (1955) observes that following an actual or fantasied expression of aggression towards a sibling, tenderness towards the sibling who may have been damaged is notable. Hence, Klein (1955) argues that the mother should 'keep in step with the fluctuations between love and hatred; between happiness and satisfaction on the one hand and persecutory anxiety and depression on the other' (p. 118) between siblings, allowing her children to experience their emotions and phantasies towards their siblings and promote reparation between siblings.

Mitchell (2003) argues that it is the function of the vertical, identified as the mother, to prohibit the destructive impulses through non-enactment, as well as differentiate her children from each other. If the child accepts the mother's prohibition against the acting out of hostility, primitive splitting would be joined and ultimately replaced by repression and reaction formations (Kernberg, 1976). The mother needs to be 'enough' (Charles, 1999) to ensure that the vertical and lateral attachment bond remains positive and strong, regardless of the hostile feelings, so that the child can be assured of her/his place in the family and the world (Neubauer, 1983). As such, the vertical function may need to be present in lateral spaces. Symbolically, this creates a structure for the concept of seriality to be internalised by the child, allowing for the management of sameness and construction of difference in ways that are not threatening or destructive (Mitchell, 2003). Therefore, the mother as lawgiver in the sibling relationship is vital in helping the child develop a secure place in her/his sense of self and in association with others.

Numerous sibling case studies exist in the literature, elucidating the paths to pathology when vertical relationships are absent in the family context. When siblings are left to manage their competitiveness without mother (and potentially father) as lawgiver, the siblings have been shown to remain fixated in a 'twinning reaction' (Shopper, 1974) in which the siblings exclude the vertical figure and form a symbolic dual unity. In doing so, siblings have been shown to not develop individual identities and their competition is expressed in covert sadomasochistic forms (see the case of Ann in Shopper, 1974). Alternatively, the pre-oedipal fixation can present as a fight for a strong attachment to the vertical figure to the exclusion of any attachment to the sibling. The sibling can then be experienced as a part-object to be ignored or defeated without conflictual feelings (see the case of Jane in Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). It is possible that the individual becomes pre-oedipally fixated, which could result in a blurring of selfobject boundaries and fixed idealisation or devaluation of a sibling (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994).

Adam-Lauterbach (2013) found that fixation in an infantile sibling position is typical for pathological sibling dynamics, as evidenced by the prevalence of splitting and denial in a sample of adult patients in psychotherapy. To remain fixated in an infantile sibling position impacts on an individual's intrapsychic development and object relations with other lateral relationships, such as partners, spouses, peers and friends (Adam-Lauterbach, 2013; Coles; 2003; Mitchell, 2003). In such cases, sibling and other lateral relationships are regarded ambivalently, with the echoes of idealisation and devaluation, due to the use of primitive splitting (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). Rivalry in these relationships evokes negative, hating feelings in a way that is dissociated from any positive feelings that may exist. While there is a strong desire to eliminate the rival, this desire is associated with fear of discovery, abandonment or disapproval from a vertical figure (Klein, 1955). Due to the inability to hold whole objects in mind (Kernberg, 1984), it may be difficult for such an individual to distinguish between lateral and vertical relationships, as well as maintain the boundaries between self and other. Rosenfeld (1947) termed this a confusional state whereby normal splitting between 'good' and 'bad' is disturbed, leading to ego fragmentation and states of depersonalisation (see Charles', 1999, dissociated and lost patient Sophia). Sibling and other lateral object representations are then likely to be extreme, rigidified, and relatively pure, for example 'the sibling is a totally hated, persecutory monster, or a totally worthless, inadequate nonentity, or a powerful, perfect, all-wise saint' (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994, p. 496). Furthermore, an individual's experience pre-oedipally could impact on how rivalry is experienced in the Oedipus complex in relation to parents and siblings.

Coles (2003) argues that the historical lack of exploration of the significance of siblings is partly due to the fantasy of being the only child. Psychoanalytic theories seem to collude with this fantasy by predominately focusing on the oedipal triad, excluding the possible significance of siblings (Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2003). The consequence of privileging the oedipal triad of mother, father and child has meant that siblings have only been theoretically conceptualised as parentified children or displacements of the parental relationship, leaving the fantasy of the only child intact. As such, the complexity of sibling and lateral relationships and their possible unique functions in development have remained largely misconstrued through the vertical axis. Whether other significant lateral relationships can serve as sibling substitutes in cases of only children and how this may impact on development also remains unexplored. Furthermore, the process of mourning that has been shown to follow the awareness of a sibling or sibling substitute has been mostly repressed in psychoanalytic literature (Mitchell, 2003). Without exploring this mourning process necessary for development, psychoanalytic understandings of sibling relationships will remain focused on pathology. This exclusive focus on deprivation in psychoanalytic literature is associated with this emphasis on pathological sibling relationships, limiting understandings of how siblings and other lateral figures could possibly serve positive developmental functions (Swartz, 2014).

'I found you': The family complex

While some studies on siblings examined the impact of siblings on pre-oedipal development, other studies have been concerned with siblings in relation to the Oedipus complex (Agger, 1988; Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2003; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). At approximately three years of age, the child is hypothesised to comprehend that relationships exist between two other people that do not include her/himself (McWilliams, 1999). This awareness evokes preoccupations with power, relationship and identity, which is assumed to focus on the triangular relationship between a child and mother and father (Freud, 1920). However, Mitchell (2011) argues that the first introduction to and preoccupation with a three-person relationship concerns the mother, baby and toddler, which already emerges pre-oedipally.

Distinguishing relationships into the vertical axis, centred on inter-generational descent and ascent that occur in the hierarchical parent-child relationship, and the lateral axis, centred on intra-generational similarities and differences that occur in the serial sibling relationship, is not an absolute distinction. Many have argued that sibling experiences would interconnect with oedipal experiences and fantasies (Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2003, 2011; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). Thus, early sibling relationships cannot be easily separated from the parent-child relationships as these experiences are embedded in an idiosyncratic and inter-determined 'family complex' (Freud, 1920, p. 414).

Bank and Kahn (1982) criticised the classic psychoanalytical understanding of sibling relationships in which siblings of the same sex served as rivals for parental love and siblings of opposite sex served as displacements for oedipal desires. In order to incorporate siblings into the Oedipus complex, Sharpe and Rosenblatt (1994) expanded the usage of the term oedipal by referring 'primarily to the developmental level of structuralisation and object relations, not to the specific sexual fantasy regarding a parent' (p. 492). By examining historical material and transference manifestations, Sharpe and Rosenblatt (1994) found that oedipal-like triangles developed among siblings and between siblings and parents. Furthermore, they confirmed that sibling relationships were not mere displacements of the parental oedipal constellations. Rather, sibling oedipal triangles existed parallel and at times independent to parental relationships, influencing an individual's sense of self and object relations.

Certain characteristics of sibling oedipal and parental oedipal triangles have been shown to be similar, including intimacy and love, rivalry and competitiveness, morality, as well as guilt and shame (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). The rival, which may be a parent or a sibling, is ambivalently regarded in the competition for the exclusive love of another, which may be a parent or a sibling. The hypothesised underlying fantasy is to eliminate and replace the rival but this evokes conflict and guilt as the rival is experienced as an integrated object with good and bad qualities. As such, destroying the rival is associated with affective concern over the rival, as well as a fear of retaliation, castration anxiety or a fear of loss of love (Charles, 1999; Klein, 1955).

Healthy resolution in the Oedipus complex requires the acceptance by the child that he or she cannot exclusively possess another (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). The oedipal conflict is then repressed and the representations of self and other are of a de-idealised nature. The child identifies with the rival, contributing to a cohesive sense of self that retains the fantasy that a later love object would be similar to the primary love object (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). The authority and moral values of the rival are introjected with the identification, consolidating the superego in place of the archaic all-good and all-bad images that dominate in the pre-oedipal phase (McWilliams, 1999).

The pathological outcomes of unresolved sibling oedipal and parental oedipal triangles have also been shown to be parallel in some ways (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). The child who is an oedipal victor over a rivalled parent or sibling tends to struggle with excessive grandiosity, a fragile sense of healthy narcissism, and extreme guilt related to fears of retaliation. On the other hand, the oedipal loser tends to feel inferior, insecure and unworthy of love and acceptance (see the case of Emily and Sam in Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). This has problematic consequences for later love object choice as a partner may unconsciously represent the primary rival (sibling or parent) or primary love object (sibling or parent), contributing to problems with sexuality and intimacy due to the echoes of rivalry and conflict. Furthermore, the unresolved triangles may be recapitulated in relation to one's own children who may come to represent the primary rival (sibling or parent) or primary love object (sibling or parent)

Despite the aforementioned similarities, some sibling oedipal triangles have been shown to have a distinctive structure, form, and manifestation of pathology (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). Certain cases have suggested that sibling oedipal triangles may be more difficult to resolve and longer lasting (Agger, 1988; Coles, 2003; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). The complexity seems to be more likely in a family milieu with several siblings, whereby sibling oedipal triangles can develop independently from parental oedipal triangles. This may present a distinctive psychic experience as these triangles could involve several varieties of triangles, such as two children and one parent or three children.

While there are sparse case illustrations of unresolved sibling oedipal triangles, specific dynamics have been acknowledged that require further elucidation (see Coles, 2003; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). While the erotic and aggressive desires in parental oedipal triangles threatens the child's safety, protection, and wellbeing, this is not the case for oedipal sibling triangles as siblings do not depend on one another for security and survival (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). In sibling oedipal triangles, siblings are given the space in the family and social context to experience and in some cases enact their hostile and loving fantasies towards each other (Bank & Kahn, 1982; Mitchell, 2003; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). Case illustrations suggest that the opportunities to enact wishes and fantasies in sibling relationships may be greater due to easier access, contributing to more intensity whether these desires are hostile or loving (Coles, 2003). Vertical figures may encourage this access and grant it exclusivity, such as in the case of Mr Y whose mother and caretakers 'were happy to let the children create a magical world together' (Coles, 2003, p. 16). In other cases, such as in the case of Jake and his brothers who engaged in simultaneous homosexual activities (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994), the desire and enactment may occur between siblings in 'secret complicity' (Klein, 1932). In addition to the increased intensity and greater access to siblings, there are fewer expectations to displace or repress sibling desires as they have become become normalised and tolerated in many cultures (Bank & Kahn, 1982; Mitchell, 2003; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994). Furthermore, it has been suggested that it may be harder to relinquish the erotic and aggressive aims in oedipal sibling triangles due to the potential narcissistic injury associated with relinquishing a sibling battle (Agger, 1988; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994).

Sharpe and Rosenblatt (1994) suggest that the effects of unresolved sibling oedipal triangles on intrapsychic functioning and object relations could be distinctly more difficult compared to unresolved parental oedipal triangles, as well as necessitate potentially different paths to resolution. In their analysis of Jake's case, repression of the oedipal conflict with his siblings did not seem to have occurred. While Jake may have withdrawn from the incestuous activity that occurred between his brothers in childhood, he then began to verbally abuse and emotionally exploit one of his brothers. Jake's guilt and shame regarding the actual fulfilment of these erotic and aggressive aims with his brothers continued into adulthood. The most successful of all of his brothers, Jake still felt 'anguished and hollow about this victory' (Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994, p. 503) as if it had come at the cost of crippling his brothers. For Jake, the origin and course of his sibling oedipal triangle differed to that of his parental oedipal triangle, remaining unresolved and causing significant conflict in adulthood due to the complex interplay between social and developmental factors. Further exploration of cases and clinical support are necessary to more clearly conceptualise the potential significance of oedipal sibling triangles on intrapsychic functioning.

Mitchell (2003) would agree with others who have argued that the sibling experience would interconnect with oedipal experiences and fantasies (Coles, 2003; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994); however, she identifies a distinctive structure that developed from 'the law of the mother' which may be necessary for resolution. While the Lacanian notion of the 'law of the father' has been shown to be symbolically vital for the resolution of the vertical Oedipus complex (that is, the law of castration for trying to stand in the father's place), Mitchell (2003) introduces the 'law of the mother' which operates vertically and laterally. On the vertical level, the mother decrees that children cannot procreate in response to the child's wish to give birth from a cavity within her/himself. This occurs developmentally alongside the awareness that a mother has a sexual relationship with a father which leads to more babies. If the child accepts the vertical prohibition from the mother who says 'it is I, the mother, not you the child, who gives birth' (Mitchell, 2003, p. 72) and symbolically internalises this inner space within, the child is able to have a space 'in mind' in which to hold representations and think creatively (Rustin, 2007). On the lateral level, the 'law of the mother' applies to seriality: 'one is a child in the same position as one's siblings in regards to one's parent or parents, but one is also different: there is room for two, three, four or more' (Mitchell, 2003, p. 53). If the child internalises seriality, this can symbolically frame all future social interactions through the development of a social self in which sameness and difference can coexist.

Mitchell (2003) acknowledged that her interpretations of lateral relationships were biased towards the negative in terms of focusing on intra- and inter-sibling abuse in violence, wars and pathology. Nevertheless, a model for the function of siblings in healthy development can be extrapolated from her arguments. While the trauma of the birth of a sibling evokes normal fears of annihilation which stimulate the negative potential for sibling murder and incest, this also has the potential to stimulate healthy intrapsychic and interpersonal development if laterality is properly regulated through 'the law of the mother' and later by culture. The birth of an actual or fantasied sibling initiates mourning for the grandiose self and the necessary acceptance that the self is both ordinary and exceptional. It is the function of the mother or another vertical figure to help the child internalise seriality, without the loss of the child's experience of his/her uniqueness. The child then begins to build an internal structure of healthy narcissism and self-esteem. This is extended to a sibling when the child acknowledges that difference is not equivalent to badness and hate, while sameness is not equivalent to goodness and love. In doing so, the child is able to embrace the paradoxical feelings of similarity and difference in relation to another.

Participation in the reality of two subjects where both the self and other are realised forms the foundation of social functioning (Benjamin, 1998). Mitchell (2003) argues that this is first experienced through the sibling trauma and if the narcissistic loss is resolved, the individual is able to say: 'I love myself, I will love my sibling as myself, my sibling is not myself, I must love my sibling as another who is like me' (Mitchell, 2003, p. 215). A sibling provides the necessary conflict and context for psychological growth in terms of accepting there is space for individual needs, learning to share in a world with relational partners and groups, and experiencing multiple positions while tolerating the tension of opposing desires and identifications at the same time (Benjamin, 1998; Rustin, 2007).

'We will play again soon': Sibling transference-countertransference

In attempts to understand sibling functions from a psychoanalytic perspective, some theorists (e.g. Adam-Lauterbach, 2013; Bank & Kahn, 1982; Coleman, 1996; Coles, 2003; Kivowitz, 1995) have argued the therapist's own unresolved sibling dynamics impacted on how case material has been interpreted and how theory has subsequently been constructed. It can be argued that one's own personal experiences of the vertical and lateral axes might mean that siblings have been denied or celebrated in a defensive way in current theoretical understandings, limiting the possibility of a dynamic understanding. Coles (2003) advanced this argument by proposing that while theorists may have aimed to offer a systematic and scientific theory of development, one cannot separate theory from the 'complex workings of [the theorists'] own minds' (p. 4).

There have been more recent attempts to re-examine the limited theoretical conceptualisations of siblings in connection to their own personal experiences and clinical practice (Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2000, 2003; Sherwin-White, 2007). Accordingly, it can be argued that the psychoanalyst's own actual or fantasied siblings should form a crucial and inseparable part of how psychoanalytic theory is contextualised. The centrality of the vertical axis over the lateral axis in classical psychoanalysis has been postulated to be connected to Freud's own personal experiences. Despite coming from a blended family of ten children and experiencing the loss of his younger brother Julius as a pre-oedipal child, Coles (2003) reflects that Freud's siblings and the trauma of the loss of his brother are rarely acknowledged in his work or autobiography. Mitchell (2000) hypothesises that Freud may have been 'struggling not to reach a knowledge of his own dead brother in his analysis' and hence 'made everything come back to [the Oedipus complex] in order to avoid the dead brother' (p. 239). Therefore, casting siblings into a secondary role or as displacements of the parental relationship in the Oedipus complex may have served to protect the father of psychoanalysis and others from their own conflicted sibling relationships.

In addition to the lack of reflexivity in theoretical development, certain biases in prevailing theoretical understandings of siblings have meant that siblings as potentially positive development figures have been left out of clinical practice. Many authors (Agger, 1988; Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2003; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994) have argued that the intensity of the primitive feelings stimulated by siblings and the associated sadistic fantasies and castration anxiety could be stronger than the incestuous desires and murderous fantasies toward parental figures. Consequently, the affective experience of sibling relationships may have been repressed and denied by therapists as it related to their own personal experiences and those of their patients. Mitchell (2003) argues that despite evidence of affective experiences relating to siblings, many therapists seem to deny these conflicts in their patients or interpret them as if they were vertical Oedipal conflicts. Sharpe and Rosenblatt (1994) found that patients seemed to find it more difficult to identify and resolve conflicts around siblings compared to parental pre-oedipal and oedipal issues, which could suggest a lack of engagement with sibling relationships in clinical practice. Perhaps it has been easier for both therapist and patient to keep the sibling hidden.

The denial of the significance of sibling relationships in psychoanalytic psychotherapy has been shown to influence transference and countertransference (Bank & Kahn, 1992; Coles, 2003; Mitchell, 2003). In cases where a sibling transference was denied by either therapists or patients, the therapy became 'stuck' (see Coles', 2003, experience with Mrs K and Mitchell's, 2003, experience with Mrs X). While 'all the loves, ecstasies, hatreds, jealousies, rivalries of patient-to-analyst-as-sibling' (Mitchell, 2003, p. 106) can be witnessed and release the countertransference of the therapist, this needs to be interpreted laterally and vertically. However, parent-child transference and sibling transference can be difficult to differentiate due to the interweaving of both parents and siblings in shaping development (Coles, 2003). Thus, transference-countertransference analyses and interpretations would need to make space for the lateral functions of siblings, which may be a complex and enriching process for both therapist and patient alike.

Mitchell (2003) argues that some therapists may not have explored the significance of siblings in their own personal analysis or training, suggesting that the 'therapist as sibling' may remain hidden. My relationships with my own siblings, including my memories of hide-and-seek in childhood, have formed a fundamental part of my development and experiences as a therapist in complex ways. Nevertheless, this requires continued reflexivity regarding how these ever-shifting dynamics could impact on my clinical work, as well as endeavours such as writing this theoretical paper. To be able to do so, I have needed to create a space, in my own therapy, supervision and 'in mind' (Rustin, 2007), to hold the complexities and intersections of the vertical and lateral axes in my own developmental experiences and those of my patients.

I have discovered in my work with my patients how dynamic psychoanalytic psychotherapy can become once I invite the lateral axis into my thinking and into my clinical work. The variations in developmental experiences of siblings for my patients are vast and complex: love and hate, provision and deprivation, as well as the vertical and lateral axes, which seem to be subterraneously related. While Mitchell (2000, 2003, 2006, 2011, 2013a, 2013b) has offered an innovative way of thinking about the developmental functions of siblings in psychoanalysis, the conceptualisation of the vertical and lateral axes seem two-dimensional and static at times. The vertical and lateral axes are constantly shifting and intersecting in the past and the present, in the family and in the social milieu, as well as in the transference-countertransference in the therapeutic relationship. As such, we may need to also introduce the longitudinal axis--time--to explore how past, present and future are constantly intersecting and interacting when it comes to how siblings shape our development. In doing so, we may be able to more fully understand how patients relate to themselves and others, not only in early development but over the course of their lives.


Siblings are a common relational experience for many; yet, they can remain hidden in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. In our clinical work, our patients may repress the significance of lateral figures due to the intensity of the primitive feelings evoked by absent and present siblings. As therapists we may also avoid the lateral axes by casting siblings into a secondary role and instead remain focused on the importance of vertical relationships. The lack of cohesive theoretical conceptualisations of the potential developmental functions of siblings may also contribute to this avoidance. Thus, the significance of siblings and other sibling substitutes remains hidden. This paper has shown the necessity of continued interrogation of what therapists observe and experience in the therapeutic process, as well as how we engage with psychoanalytic theories to guide our emerging hypotheses. Siblings are represented as a biological and cultural necessity for our psychic functioning, whether real or in fantasy, absent or present (Mitchell, 2013a). If siblings are kept hidden in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, we lose the space to process the necessary trauma of a sibling where we can mourn ourselves and others as omnipotent. As we discover the functions of siblings in our development and how these functions intersect with parental functions, we can begin to understand that there is space for individual and social needs in a world where the vertical and lateral axes are idiosyncratically and inter-determinedly connected.


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Claire Hart is a counselling psychologist in private practice in Krugersdorp, Gauteng. She is currently completing her PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand in the area of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and Practice. Claire has a special interest in the potential developmental functions of siblings in psychoanalytic theory and practice.

Claire Hart

University of the Witwatersrand
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Date:Mar 22, 2018
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