Family Therapy Chevy Chase MD
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
[To be fair, the spoilers in question are a decade and a half old, and this show is driven by characters more than plot, so knowing what happens does not actually spoil it. Still, you have been warned!]
Arrested Development is one of my all-time favorite TV shows (except for maybe the fourth season) and recently I realized one of the reasons why: it is one of the few sitcoms which consistently depicts adult sibling interactions.
The Bluth family—who aptly personify the titular arrested development—provide ample schadenfreude for those seeking catharsis in their own sibling relationships. They routinely insult, belittle, and lie to one another. They intentionally expose each other to humiliation, degradation, and even violence. They attack each other verbally, emotionally and sometimes physically. They encourage one another to make foolish or dangerous choices.
They are unremittingly and inexcusably awful people. That much is obvious. But what makes them so funny? Why do I enjoy this show so much? Arrested development apologists could probably name 100 reasons easily, but I am here to argue one in particular: the exaggerated, i.e. exaggeratedly terrible, nature of the Bluth sibling interactions highlights subtle patterns and dynamics that are familiar and relatable for many of us—and we can learn a lot of what not to do to have healthy, positive relationships with our adult siblings from observing their missteps.
For example, one of the running gags in the series is that the brothers routinely try to steal—or just have sex with—one another’s love interests. Now, for most viewers, the idea that seducing your brother’s girlfriend is wrong is neither revolutionary to consider nor difficult to actualize. However, that is not the end of the lesson.
As children, siblings naturally compete with one another for love and attention from their parents or other attachment figures, and there is a simple evolutionary explanation: children who receive the most love and attention tend to survive and live more comfortably than those who receive less. This competitive tendency can become so ingrained in sibling dynamics that later in life adults resent or envy the good things that happen to their siblings because it feels like something is being taken away from them—even when of course that is not the case.
So, how can you avoid being a Bluth? Tip #1: Make a conscious effort to congratulate your siblings on their accomplishments, and to celebrate their good fortune. Remind yourself that materially, it costs nothing to be happy for them, and the benefits are immense: they may be more willing to celebrate you in the future—or even disposed to sharing their good fortune with you one way or another. Whatever their response, choosing to build your siblings up rather than tear them down is an empowered choice, and you can be proud of yourself for it.
Which brings us to our next example of bad Bluth behavior: in multiple episodes and across various settings, the two oldest brothers undercut each other mercilessly to try, in vain, to win their father’s approval. If children are naturally predisposed for their parents’ love and attention, it is the responsibility of parents to reassure children that they do not need to compete—they are all loved, and there is plenty of love, and attention, and approval to go around. The Bluth father does the opposite: in fact, he uses his sons’ attachment insecurity to wield power over both. This is particularly terrible parenting, and I do not like it one bit.
That said, once children become adults, they can look honestly at the forces that shaped their childhood—the good, the bad, and the awful—and decide which should continue shaping them as adults. So, if you grew up in a home wherein your parents frequently pitted you and your siblings against each other, how can you avoid being a Bluth? Tip #2: Foster relationships with people who appreciate and reinforce your unique talents and personality. Measuring yourself against your siblings probably does not accurately capture all of your strengths as a person. You as a whole is much more than who you are by comparison. (And Tip #1 works well for this too.)
Finally, the Bluth siblings routinely distract from or defend their own flaws and mistakes by calling attention to each other’s flaws and mistakes. This is a common human behavior in all relationships, but for adult siblings it is especially destructive since they are very old relationships, and we often have a lot of ammunition saved up. And that is why this avoiding being a Bluth in this case requires not one but two tips. Tip #3: Invite your siblings to heal with you by being honest, and specific, with them about the ways their words or behavior have hurt you. Remember, the point of bringing it up is improve the relationship, not to gloat or to punish. And that means making room for your siblings to share their grievances with you as well. Tip #4: The only person whose behavior you can control is your own: set a good example by owning your mistakes and avoiding defensiveness.
And if you have any trouble with these tips, consider family therapy as adults: it is never too late to heal and improve sibling relationships.
Even the Bluths are not completely beyond help.
Janine Joly-DeMars, MS, LGMFT provides family, couple, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Janine.