By Natalie Gil
“I suppose there are sisters that don’t compete. I have never met one,” wrote the American author Lisa Grunwald. And our finances — still considered the main measure of our worth and success even as more of us open our eyes to the flaws of this capitalist logic during COVID-19 — can inflame the competition and comparison that already exists between sisters. Money is powerful enough to rupture even the tightest sisterly bonds.
Lucy*, 31, and Florence*, 24, both work full-time in professional services in the City of London. Lucy earns £150k, her sister is on £33k. “Being a very competitive person and from a competitive family, my gut feeling about this is not super happy,” Florence admits. “We probably do less together because I can’t justify spending £25 on a Barry’s Bootcamp every other week.” Instead of dinner at expensive restaurants, they tend to compromise by meeting up for brunch or drinks.
Lucy’s high salary and the similar nature of their careers means that Florence feels pressure to boost her income in future. “I want to be on equal footing with her and I like doing nice things that cost money. But I definitely won’t be at Lucy’s level any time soon.” In the meantime, she is enjoying living vicariously through her sibling. “I love hearing about her bougee purchases and bringing her back down to earth sometimes — shout-out to the £700-a-night stay at a spa hotel!”
But the sacrifices that Lucy is forced to make for her money in terms of work-life balance, and the age gap between them, makes Florence feel better about her own situation. “There is no time of day, night, weekend or holiday which isn’t up for grabs by work,” Lucy concedes. “The older I get, the more I realise there must be a middle ground between my salary and control over my life.”
Heartbreaking as it may be, it’s common for finances to cause fissures in friendships and romantic relationships. As one of us starts earning more or less than the other, the other struggles to keep up and once-close relationships inevitably fall by the wayside. But when the person earning double, treble or even five times your salary is your sister? It’s not quite as easy to let the relationship fizzle out.
“Being a very competitive person and from a competitive family, my gut feeling about this is not super happy. We probably do less together because I can’t justify spending £25 on a Barry’s Bootcamp every other week.
Dalton Conley is the Henry Putnam University Professor of Sociology, Princeton University and author of ‘The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Become.’ He posits that economic and social inequality among adult siblings is the norm, not the exception, as over half of all inequality is within families, not between them. “Siblings have correlations in net worth that are only about 10 to 20 percent, meaning that there can be vast differences,” he tells Refinery29, adding that these “definitely can” put a strain on sibling relationships.
“The main issue caused by wealth earning gaps between sisters is that it can be seen as a measure of success,” explains Counselling Directory member Sabrina Williams, who says wealth/earnings gaps between sisters are incredibly common. “It can be seen as a decider as to who is successful and who is less successful or not successful at all. This can play into old family dynamics and can bring up feelings relating to positioning, competition, sibling rivalry and favouritism.”
The lower earning sibling may feel insecure, inadequate and ashamed of the gap, Williams adds. It can even “bring up shame, embarrassment and the need to protect the higher earning sibling,” if parents or friends react negatively to their prosperity. “Essentially, the biggest issue is it causes a reflection of value as indicated by earnings, affecting confidence and self image.” A sisterly rivalry will likely feel heightened if you’re in similar lines of work and/or close in age.
Dee Holmes, Senior Practice Consultant at Relate, says wealth or earnings gaps between sisters comes up as a topic in the counselling sessions she conducts with women. Often, the disparity is caused by different life choices. “Perhaps one of you decided to follow your passion and be an artist and your sister went to work for a bank. These were choices you both made and they come with their own pros and cons.”
Shawna Alpdemir, 31, earns up to $150k (£117k) per year as a customer success manager, while her younger sister Sibel Alpdemir, 25, makes between $45-$50k (£34–38k) as an art studio assistant. The sisters, who work from San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, accepted their “roles” in terms of career paths and finances in childhood, says Sibel.
“I’ve known I was going to go into the arts professionally from a young age, so I accepted the future I had to look forward to,” she admits. Sibel always expected to earn the least in the family. “I knew my sister was going to go into a field that guarantees a higher base pay.” Given her low financial expectations for herself, she’s satisfied with her current wage, but the chasm between the sisters’ incomes does cause friction.
“There have been times when my holiday presents haven’t been on a par, or I haven’t been able to comfortably pick up a bar tab the way I’d like to. Sometimes I feel a twinge of annoyance from my sister when situations like this come up.” Sibel also wishes they could plan more trips or activities together. “I don’t make those suggestions very often, though, because right now it isn’t something I can afford to keep up with.”
The main issue caused by wealth earning gaps between sisters is that it can be seen as a measure of success. This can play into old family dynamics and can bring up feelings relating to positioning, competition, sibling rivalry and favouritism.
On the other hand, Sibel thinks there’s greater pressure on Shawna, as the eldest, to be successful, lead the way and provide a safety net. “I’ve noticed the way that has weighed on her.” Shawna admits to feeling this, too. “I think my parents expect to rely on me financially in their old age more than my sister. That’s a complicated feeling sometimes. I do feel a need to be financially well-off so I can help support my family if the need ever arises.”
To anyone feeling like the black sheep in a family of high rollers, Dee recommends seeing if you can change your perspective. “If you find yourself feeling jealous, think about all the things you are grateful for. Maybe your sibling earns more but doesn’t enjoy their job. As hard as it may be, try to avoid comparing yourself to others and do what fulfils you, fits with your values and makes you happy.”
With honesty, openness and understanding, it’s possible to prevent money from driving a wedge between sisters. Reflect on how you feel about the difference between your finances, “then push aside assumptions and make time and space to check in with your sibling to see how they feel about it,” says Sabrina. Discuss ways to make this issue more comfortable within your relationship. Have conversations in which one of you talks at a time and you each only speak from the ‘I’ position, using phrases like “I feel….”, and acknowledge how the other is feeling, she adds.
Do “wealth neutral” activities (COVID-19 permitting), such as a walk in the park or movie at home. Or find a middle ground that allows you both to contribute in your own way, like Shawna and Sibel. For a holiday they planned pre-COVID, Shawna planned to cover the larger expenses, while Sibel had saved to cover drinks, meals, etcetera. “It’s like with any relationship. You split the expenses however they make sense because you care about each other,” says Shawna. “If we go out for drinks, my sister will pick up a round or two, and I’ll grab the rest. Ultimately, the money doesn’t matter as much as the time you spend together.”
*Surnames withheld to protect the interviewees’ identities.
Originally published at https://www.refinery29.com.