What 'The Kardashians' gets right about sister fights, according to psychologists

Not long after their explosive and confrontational phone call, Kim and Kourtney Kardashian made up. Psychologists aren't surprised — here's why.

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Kim Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian Barker started fighting on Season Three of "The Kardahians," and haven't stopped.

The trouble began when Kim decided to work with Dolce & Gabbana on a '90s-inspired collection just months after Kourtney worked with the brand on her wedding to Travis Barker.

After the two temporarily resolved their conflict, it erupted again in the lead-up to Season Four, when each heard what the other had said to the cameras. The Season Four premiere began with an explosive phone call in which each expressed their grievances with the other.

Kourtney felt Kim capitalized off her wedding's aesthetic for her gain, and that Kim wasn't "happy for her" on the wedding day itself. Kim said Kourtney had changed into a “different person." It ended with Kourtney calling Kim a "witch" and a "narcissist."

Kim Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian Barker on Season Four of "The Kardashians."Hulu

Psychologists Avigail Lev, Aura de los Santos and Jameca Woody Cooper say the Kardashians' fight illustrates some truths about sisterly bonds, as Kourtney suggested on the show.

Why are fights among sisters so intense?

Lev and Cooper say siblings fights can be much more "intense" than a disagreement you might have with a friend. Why? It comes down to shared history.

“Feuds between sisters are different from those in a friendship and are much more intense,” Lev says, because they touch on "deeper wounds" found in childhood.

Fights between siblings tend to hurt more, too, because they "incorporate larger themes and patterns within the family," Lev says.

"They address broader issues and patterns around scapegoating, the golden child, fairness, and cooperation," she continues.

Kourtney addressed underlying dynamics in the phone call that started Season Four of "The Kardashians," when she leveled with Kim and said, "It's not about the clothes." Rather, she was upset about unresolved issues surrounding her wedding and who gets to be the "center of attention," and when.

Kim Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian in 2019.Stefanie Keenan / Getty Images

"You cannot stand someone else being the center of attention," Kourtney said. "You came to my wedding. You couldn't be happy. You complained from the second you got there from the second you left. That's what it's about. Forget that you couldn't be happy. You couldn't be happy for me. You couldn't be happy that I was the center of attention and you weren't."

Lev says Kourtney's feelings may stem from her younger sister being more prominently in the spotlight.

"This is a common experience that Kourtney has with Kim, where she feels her resources are taken away by Kim," Lev says.

"This is related to deep early child wounds because Kourtney is the older sister and when younger siblings are born, older siblings feel that they lose love and resources that were only theirs from their parents," she continues.

Why do sisters fight?

Sisters fight for a few reasons, de los Santos says. Common reasons include:

  • Attention and being "recognized as the best."
  • Envy, or when "one is jealous of the other's success." This can emerge when one sister goes through rites of passage like marriages, children and career achievements. "If you have not achieved some of these things, it can creates jealousy and strife," she says.
  • Insecurity and the need for validation
  • Feeling as if one sister is "meeting family standards" and the other is not.

De Los Santos also mentions the quest for "individuality," which is relevant in this case.

"Sibling fights also arise when one sister feels that the other is copying her. During the process of growing up it is normal to seek individuality, to be different and to stand out, and when one sister feels that the other is copying her and that she is taken for granted on top of this, conflicts begin to form," she says.

Sister fights don't just impact sisters

Kim and Kourtney are the main players in their feud — but not the only players. Their other sisters weigh in on camera and behind-the-scenes, too: Kim told Kourtney she and other friends and family members have a group chat dedicated to discussing her.

Lev says fights between siblings take place within the theater of a family unit, which means other people are often pulled into the drama — just like with the Kardashians.

“When we have a feud with one family member, it impacts the entire family dynamic, and other people in the family are not only affected but are also drawn into the feud and play a role in the dynamic,” Lev says. “It impacts the entire family system and may not even be solely about the two people in the actual feud.”

Sibling fights can reshape how a person relates to his or her family entirely.

“Socially the role of the family is to protect, to care, to be that safe space and that support network that is needed to survive. When someone (like a sister) feels that her family does not support her, betrays her and does anything bad to her, she feels bad. Conflicts between sisters hurt because they are close relatives who once had a good relationship and now these fights have changed," De Los Santos says.

That was reflected with the Kardashians, when Kourtney told Kim she feels happiest when she’s away from her family — the people who are talking about her.

“The happiness comes when I get the f--- away from you guys. Specifically you,” said during her conversation.

Why can sisters make up so quickly?

By Episode Three of Season Four of "The Kardashians," the sisters seemed to be on warmer terms. Kourtney wasn’t going to Milan to support Kim’s collection, but she did send Kim a picture of their late father while he was in college.

“It’s a step in the right direction of moving past all the drama,” Kim remarked.

“We both said things we weren’t proud of. Anyone who has sisters of siblings knows the dynamic. You could get into a crazy fight then send each other a funny text and everything’s all good,” Kourtney said in her own interview.

"I feel relieved She's my sister. Come on. We're not fighting like that forever," she said later.

Lev says she's not surprised by the fast turnaround. While sister fights are more intense than ones between friends because they take place in the family uint, they can also be more easily dissipated for the very same reason.

"Family and sibling relationships tolerate much more conflict or disturbance because they are more dependent on each other than friendships are. This means there’s more interdependence in families. Even when we’re enraged with a family member and don’t want to speak to them, we still wish for them to be safe, healthy, and OK. If they were in the hospital or harmed, we would go out of our way to protect them, even if we need to guard ourselves from them and maintain distance or limited contact," Lev says.

In short, families "rely on each other," leading to "more forgiveness and flexibility in family and sibling relationships than in friendships."