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Reader question #114: How do I reconnect with my estranged brother and help him form a relationship with his niece?

Dear Captain Awkward – 

I write for a reality check from you and your wise readers regarding the plan I have devised going forward with my brother. The backstory: my brother’s wife has chronic health problems, and some mental health issues as well (who wouldn’t?). She is totally isolated from her family, and basically only has my brother to care for her. They are very unreliable about family get togethers, so our interactions are infrequent. The typical situation is that we will make plans to get together and they will cancel at the very last second. They try to say “just make your own plans, and we’ll join you if we can”, which sort-of sounds reasonsble, but never really works in practice. No matter what you do you end up waiting around for them, when they rarely show, or by the time he gets to dinner/the park/etc. everyone is ready to leave. 

I know that (1) her health issues are serious (2) even though I know this and try to have some appreciation for how difficult it is to live with chronic conditions, I am not as sympathetic and supportive as I could be, and (3) she (and he) uses her health issues as an excuse, and she in particular appears to want (even if it is subconsicous) to keep my brother isolated from his family.

I have also had issues with how my brother treats our parents, but I have realized that is not my business. My concern is our relationship. I have a two year old and I would like her and my brother to spend time together, which they don’t. She doesn’t even really know who he is right now.  

The current situation: this summer things blew up when my parents organized a family week at the beach (on their dime). I live 1 mile from my parents, but we all drove 4 hours to the beach where it would be convienent for my brother and his wife to join us. They bailed and he and I ended up trading angry voice messages where we told each other to fuck off.  Since then we haven’t talked at all. 

I am not okay with how he behaved, but I want to move on. I want to move forward and let my brother know that (1) I don’t want him to feel like I am keeping him from my daughter; I want him to be able to see her as much as he can (2) All of the work with arranging that will have to be on him. 

So my question is: what is the right approach moving forward? My plan was to send him an email saying the above, and then saying “please call me so we can talk about this.” Am I kidding myself about moving on from the summer fiasco by just sort-of saying “agree to disagree”? Is my plan reasonable? My husband thinks I should just say point #1 and that #2 is too provocative. But I want things to be different than the past, where it all rested on us organizing and then they constantly bailed. I don’t want to be a doormat but I don’t want to never see him either. Maybe I am not even sure what my question is.

Thanks for any thoughts you have.

- Estranged Sister

I’m very sorry for what I’m about to say.

Your brother doesn’t want to spend time with you or your daughter (or your parents) right now.

You’re not going to get a close relationship.  You’re not going to get him to start suddenly being reliable and showing up when he says he will. You’re not going to get him to take an interest where he hasn’t.  He’s told you pretty much straight out:  “Go ahead without us.”  Take him at his word.

I know that sounds really harsh.  I’m sure he means to be there.  I’m sure he tries to be there.  I’m sure he knows that he’s fucking it up.  I’m sure he’s embarrassed/exhausted by always having to cancel or always showing up late — when we let someone down, we feel guilty and ashamed, and when we feel guilty and ashamed we avoid the source of our guilt and shame even more.  The more you guys invite him to stuff and accomodate him for stuff, the more chances you give him to let you down and the more it might feel like pressure.  The boundaries about whether and when he shows up are all messy, and it’s a hard cycle to break out of.

So what you can do right now is a) make a decision that you don’t need anything or depend on him for anything b) find a way to prop the door open so that if anything changes he can walk back through it.

Let’s start with b):  I would reach out to your brother in a very small and neutral way right now.  Send him the latest photos of your daughter in a card and write a short message.  “Dear Brother, I really hate how we left things the last time we spoke.  I love you very much and I hope you are well.  Here are some pictures of your niece.”  Blab about her life for a bit, then sign off.

No invitation.  No pressure.  No expectation.  Don’t ask for a thing, not even a reply.

Send another note every now and again.  Again, don’t ask for anything.  Just send photos and updates and let him know that you love him.  Maybe eventually you can escalate to Skype sessions with you and your daughter, but hold off for now.

Now, let’s return to a).

Stop inviting them to stuff for a while.  Maybe give it a year.  Just don’t invite them to anything.  Go to dinner with your parents.   Go on vacation. Have holidays.  Don’t factor them into your plans at all.

If your parents want to invite them, fine.  When it’s time to eat, eat, whether they show up or not. When it’s time to leave, leave. When it’s time to open presents, open presents.  Don’t text them to find out how close they are. Don’t text them to ask if you can save them some pie.  If they do make it, give them hugs and act like nothing is wrong. Treat them as if they are doing the best they can. But especially given that you have a toddler, don’t be afraid to make the eating and leaving times work for you and your family.   “Sorry we can’t stay, lovely to see you.”  “Sorry we missed you.”  Some of your anger and frustration is coming from an inability to set boundaries with your brother and his wife, so start setting some.  You’re not hanging out starving waiting for them to maybe show up ever again.  It will feel uncomfortable at first, but if you can ride it out it will get so much better to just know what your line is and then stick to it.

If you’re the one making the plans, don’t invite them. Explain to your parents – “I love them so much, and of course I want to see them, but it hurts my feelings and makes me so angry when they don’t follow through, so I’m taking a break from worrying about it for a while.”  Tell them that you need a holiday or a dinner where you aren’t all on edge waiting for them to come. Don’t worry about being the Good Daughter who can give your parents the gift of Family Harmony and Togetherness – you can’t give them that.  Don’t announce to him that you’re not inviting him, or make a thing about it, or issue an ultimatum.  He’s not DIS-invited or UN-invited.  If he showed up he’d be welcome.  But you’re not going to plan on him being there or ask him to be there.

Keep sending periodic short, friendly notes.  If they invite you somewhere, go and enjoy yourself.  If they raise the issue with you – “Why don’t you invite us to things anymore?”  tell them “It got to be too hard waiting and wondering if you were going to show up and feeling like we were pressuring you and fighting all the time.  We would LOVE to see you.  But there is no pressure – you tell us when and how you want to get together, and what you need from us, and we’ll make it happen.”  Then let them make the plans. Your plans can’t be ruined if you don’t make any.

You have to train yourself to stop seeing your brother as someone who will show up in your life.  You have to let go of the idea of your family as one where everyone spends time together in a certain way.  You have to stop setting yourself up to be disappointed.  Your parents may not make that leap with you, but you have to shelter yourself from this anger.  I know you’re worried about your daughter having a relationship with her uncle, but at 2, she doesn’t know the difference and she won’t miss him.  Later she may figure out she has an uncle who is around sometimes and isn’t around sometimes, and she’ll form her own opinions about that.  They may form some kind of bond in time, that will probably look nothing like you expect and hope it will.

I’m sorry, I wish I had a better way.  He doesn’t show up because he can’t or doesn’t want to show up.  Only he can decide to show up.  You have to stop waiting for him to come, but you can let it be a pleasant surprise when he does seek you out.

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9 comments
  1. dharawal said:

    That is the sort of advice I needed when I was trying to pursue a relationship with my father, he kept on flaking out all the time and I just upped my efforts. In the end I realised it wasn’t going to work and arrived at the same conclusion.

    If he wanted to see me, see his grandkids then he knew where we lived and the effort was up to him. It took him a while, but we finally got to a place that is good for both of us.

  2. NessieMonster said:

    Eeep, great advice once again Captain even if it is so very difficult to hear. It applies to a situation of my own right now. *Must. not. text. X* :(

    LW, you have my sympathies. Good luck with the pleasantries of note writing and with the boundary setting. Backing off is so hard to do.

  3. If Estranged Sister has one two-year-old, chances are that Brother is still in his twenties…and the typical guy that age has little interest in hanging with a two-year-old. When my niece first called me “Unca M0″ my heart kind of melted, but I was not expecting that.

    ES thinks SIL might be trying to isolate Brother; if so, there is nothing ES can do aside from (as the good Cap’n says) keeping the lines of communication open. Good luck.

  4. Sheelzebub said:

    LW, I have friends like that–I invite them over for dinner, and either they can’t let me know one way or the other until the very last minute, they flake out, or they say, “oh, I’ll get there when I get there.” If it’s a or c, I just tell them, “Well, it sounds like this isn’t a convenient time, some other time, maybe” and if it’s b (more than say, two times), I stop issuing invitations. In fact, I just stopped inviting these folks over because it’s a pain to plan when you’re not sure who will be able to come and who will be there, etc. I’d rather be with more considerate people.

    Your brother’s a little different–he is your brother–so I get you wanting to bend over backwards for him. But I say this from hard and painful experience–back off. Follow the good Captain’s advice! Making plans with them keeps everyone on tenterhooks waiting for them–and whether or not they are this way because of his wife’s health issues or because they’re being rude, it doesn’t matter. You deserve better, but you’ll be getting exactly what you’ve gotten from your brother and his wife. And while it’s laudable that you want your daughter to have a relationship with your brother, it may not be practical at this time. Either he can’t because of his wife’s issues, or he won’t because he doesn’t want to. It doesn’t actually matter why–the reality is that it probably won’t happen. So save yourself the headache.

    Focus on your daughter, your husband, and your parents. Stop making plans with your brother–don’t even mention any plans you make with your parents. It’s nice to drop him notes, etc., but don’t expend any more energy than that on him. If he wants to see you, he’ll contact you to make plans. Leave the ball in his court.

  5. Blythe said:

    The Captain’s approach seems really helpful and sound. Estranged Sister can’t force a relationship between her brother and daughter. What I like about the Captain’s response is that the attitude is pulling back while remaining open, instead of pulling back while being resentful and annoyed. There could be many unknowns in the brother’s court playing a role (e.g., a struggle with infertility due to health issues; the wife’s perception of how she’s seen by his family). I’m just making these up, but do consider the unknowns he may not want to discuss. At least Sister and Parents can spend quality time. Uncle-niece relationships can happen just fine when kids are older so there is still hope for that one. But Brother will have to show more intiative. Good luck, and I wish that Brother and his wife get healthier and more open in the future.

  6. seenonflickr said:

    Really excellent response!

  7. Half-moon said:

    Good advice, helpful not only to LW, but to her brother and his wife. Chronic illnesses are unpredictable. Solid plans becomes impossible because, despite your best intentions, symptoms can flare up five minutes before you’re about to leave. There’s nothing anybody can do about it. And it becomes exhausting for the caregiver to explain and apologize over and over again.

    Maybe there are other dynamics going on here, but even if everything else is fine, the only constant will be flakiness.

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