Ahoy, Team Awkward,
I have found myself in a weird Darth Vader situation, and I’m not sure how to handle it while still maintaining my own principles and values. I’m fully prepared for, “Just stay out of it,” but in the hopes that there’s different or more comprehensive advice, I figured I’d ask.
My partner and I are in our late twenties, and are excited about moving in together soon. He is very close with his family, both immediate (parents and two brothers) and extended, and he spends a lot of time with them, at least compared to what I consider normal. It doesn’t bother me, and I’ve really enjoyed spending lots of time with his family, getting to know them. We’re crazy about each other, and see this as the forever-relationship, and so becoming part of each other’s families is important to us.
One of his brothers, however, is engaged to Darth Vader.
Her Dark Side of the Force behaviors that are most obvious are that she is very controlling, she isolates him from his family, and she verbally berates him–even in public. To elaborate:
- She often speaks for him when people talk to him, and will even “correct” him (e.g. “No, he won’t have any dessert,” even if he originally said he wanted it)
- She likes doing everything together, but doesn’t like spending as much time with his family (understandable, since they don’t like her), and so he won’t come to family gatherings very often
- She has put him down in front of friends and family for very unimportant things, such as his driving abilities. Sometimes, she yells at him–again, in front of people. It’s not affectionate or joke-y in any way
The family has disliked her for a long time, and I think they were hoping that the brother would end the relationship before it got to this point. I know that the brother has some idea of the dislike; he does not confide in his brothers or parents about his relationship. The family is already too afraid of losing him to voice any of their concerns.
While I do think that much of the family’s dislike of her isn’t entirely fair, some of her behavior is really obvious and unacceptable to me (like when she berates him in front of people). As their wedding approaches, her criticisms and yelling have increased dramatically.
The entire family is about to take a very long vacation together, right before the wedding. They make this trip every year, but this is my first year, as well as Vader’s. Everyone is very concerned that her behavior is going to be even worse on the trip, since she already dislikes spending so much time with the family, and because the wedding will be right around the corner.
I’ve spent a lot of time working in sexual violence prevention/education, and have supported a lot of friends during and after abusive relationships. While I’m not ready to label the whole relationship capital-A Abusive, the behaviors above are huge abuse red flags to me, and at the very least, the berating is verbal abuse. It is very difficult for me to watch someone be yelled at by someone who is supposed to care about them, and I am very concerned that 1) I will witness verbal abuse on this family trip, and that 2) I will shit-stir by stepping in.
My partner has warned me that I shouldn’t step in if this does happen because it’s not my place. However, I’m pretty sure that no one else will step in. I think it’s important, in the event that verbal abuse occurs in front of me, to show both my hopefully-future brother-in-law and his fiancee from the Dark Side that this behavior isn’t okay.
Should I bite my tongue? Is there a way that I could address the verbal abuse without being too much of a shit-stirrer who should mind her own beeswax?
- Nosy Newcomer
PS: I’m not entirely happy with how his family treats Darth Vader. They don’t like her, and they haven’t hidden that fact from me, although in the beginning, I think they did try to hide how much they disliked her. I still don’t think that explains or excuses all of her behavior, but I do think that if they were kinder to her, it might relieve some of the stress of the brother, who probably feels like he constantly has to choose between his family and his fiance.
Thanks for so neatly encapsulating the way that abuse ripples out and poisons everything around the abusive situation, and the way it puts bystanders in a double-bind. If you don’t say something, are you enabling this stuff? If you do say something, are you potentially making it worse or giving the abuser more of a reason to isolate the victim? And it doesn’t have to be hitting to hurt – watching someone get constantly berated and belittled makes a little piece of your soul break off and die just the same.
There’s no way this is easy, and there’s no one script that applies to everything, but I think the commenters are very smart about this stuff and that maybe together we can find a structure that will help you navigate some of this for yourself. Here are some possible guiding principles.
1. Not everyone wants to spend all their free time with their family.
That may be because of Darth, or that may be the brother’s preference that gets blamed on Darth. There’s no way you can know, you admitted that this family spends a great deal of time together and has a culture of “we do everything together,” and the brother might be trying to separate from that. I suggest that you treat that as a total non-issue. It’s awesome that you love them and love hanging out with them, but there may be a point down the road where you also feel the pressure to spend time with his family that you’d rather spend alone or with friends (or alone with your partner) so tread very carefully here. Answer family comments about this topic with a very neutral “Huh” or “wow” or “you don’t say” and don’t get involved, and resist the urge to preen and act like the “good” partner.
2. Your actions and words can’t “make” abusers do anything they weren’t going to get around to anyway.
If you say something about what’s going on, and Darth takes that as an excuse to further isolate the brother (or the brother takes it upon himself to separate himself further), they didn’t do it because of you. They’re playing out a very old story and would have gotten to this stage anyway. If not you, then someone else, something else. An abusive person will take any excuse to storm out in a huff and feel aggrieved. It’s very convenient for the abuser if you take on this guilt for what might happen if you speak up…because you might not speak up.
3. Speaking up might not do anything to help the brother, but it will almost definitely help you.
“Don’t get involved” is a fallacy. You’re already involved, because you’re a witness. If you all make a silent agreement to not get involved, you’re helping the family build this house from Cliff Pervocracy’s awesome comment the other day:
Have you ever been in a house that had a glaring flaw, something that was massively against code and unsafe and inconvenient, but everyone in the house was used to working around it?
“Oh yeah, there’s a step missing there on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”
Some people are like that missing step. Everyone around them gets used to working around their, er, special requirements, and because these absurd half-solutions do work, everyone feels like the problem is solved. But it’s obvious to an outside observer that people are massively inconveniencing themselves just so Mr. or Ms. Missing Step won’t have to behave like a reasonable adult.
Abusive people (and predators) operate in environments where they feel comfortable that they won’t get called out on what they are doing (or that if they do, they’ll use it to tell everyone to “lighten up” or stage a massive “I’m the real victim here” moment and storm out). If you all keep silent and let the person get away with verbally abusing someone, you’re helping create that environment. It just gets more and more awkward and everyone stops making eye contact and hopes that it will magically get better.
I don’t think you should go sit the brother down and have a big talk with him about his choices, but in the moment, you can change the scripts a bit.
You: “Do you want dessert?”
Darth: “No, he doesn’t.”
You: A) Totally ignore her, hand him some dessert. B) Calmly say “I definitely heard the man say he wants dessert. Howabout you, do you want dessert?”
In other words, don’t let the whole thing where she speaks for him stand. You may see him jump in to mollify her – “No, I don’t want it after all!” Then you can say “Sure, okay, but I have to say the whole thing where you answer for each other creeps me out. You guys know that whole ‘two hearts becoming one’ thing is a metaphor, right?”
If she puts him down in front of you, say “Wow” as meanly as you can manage. Treat it like she took a giant shit on the dinner table and you’re embarrassed for her.
In a yelling/berating moment, work up your courage, and say: “Jeez, whatever happened, it’s really uncomfortable to listen to you yelling at him like that. Can’t you guys talk about it later?”
I don’t know that it will work to say something like that. It has the advantage of being totally true and calling out the behavior in the moment and making it about your discomfort rather the truth of whatever his supposed transgression was. Darth may decide to turn the yelling on you, which may not feel like a win, but it is one. “(Brother) may like it when you yell at him, but I definitely do not.” Get up, walk away. What she does after that (to brother or anyone else) is not your fault. It also neatly side-steps your partner’s admonition to “not get involved.” You’re not trying to break them up, you’re not leading an intervention on behalf of the family, but you are enforcing your own boundaries about how people get to treat you and behave around you.
People who don’t fight fair and who know they are somewhat in the wrong will take any criticism of their behavior as a referendum on their entire personality, so “It’s your turn to do the dishes” becomes “YOU’VE NEVER LIKED ME, HAVE YOU?” pretty quick. There’s no good way to win at that point – if you admit you don’t like them, they get to feel aggrieved, if you comfort them and reassure them that you like them just fine, they get the attention jolt they wanted (and you’ll probably end up doing the dishes, or waiting a long time to pick a fight about it again). Fights with this kind of person end with you apologizing to them for getting mad at them about their shitty behavior. So watch out for this in your dynamic with her. Do not admit you don’t like her or make it about that, just keep focusing on the behavior. “It’s not about that, it’s just so uncomfortable when you talk to people that way.”
4. Take the long view.
You definitely don’t have to become friends with this woman (and definitely don’t trust her with any confidences), but as a newcomer/outsider to the family the two of you have some stuff in common. Right now you’re playing the role of “good partner” and she’s “bad, mean partner” but you say the family didn’t like her from the start and some of her behavior might be a reaction to that. Take note of that — What would happen if you stepped out of line (didn’t want to come on a family vacation, had another commitment somewhere else that meant your partner had to stay away, too)? Is the rest of the family using her example to police you into being what they think a good partner is (always around)? If so, it’s probably unintentional, but it’s worth thinking about – by excluding her and talking about it in front of you they are getting you involved and then telling you not to get involved. Does that make you feel weird? Do you really want to be a party to the conversations about her and how she sucks and how you’re all dreading this upcoming vacation?
For example, my mom still sometimes brings up her disappointment that my brother didn’t get married in a Catholic ceremony and opted instead for his wife’s (Baptist? Some kind of Protestant-but-still-Christian?) church. The dude is very happily married, they LOVE his wife and she loves them, it was more than five years ago, there was plenty of Jesus in it, who cares? She doesn’t bring it up with him, but she does bring it up with me. Message, possibly unintentional, but clear nonetheless: Don’t be like your brother, get married in a Catholic church. Private answer: When the hell I don’t believe in freezes over. Out loud answer: “Well, it was a beautiful wedding and they seem so happy. I love her, don’t you?” + Change of subject. Message: Received and studiously ignored.
Anyway, you don’t have to make this lady your sworn enemy, and you don’t have to be the savior in this situation. She’s probably going to be around for a long while and you don’t have to fight every battle even if you do start taking on the behaviors like yelling at the brother & answering for him. You don’t have the same stake as the rest of the family in the “What if we drive brother away forever?” question, so if she tries to be nice and makes an effort? Reward her with positive attention and make an effort to be nice back. If she does something uncool in front of you? Say “Whoa, that’s uncool” and then move on. Treat each time you see her like a blank slate, stay focused on specific behaviors, and disengage as much as possible from family bitch sessions about her.
When we don’t like someone we can start to see all of their behaviors through the lens of how much we don’t like them, and complaining about them just feeds itself, especially if we haven’t yet summoned up the courage to say something directly to them. That can be a really sucky dynamic to be a part of, so I suggest that if the family talks negatively about Darth in front of you, just say “Yes, I agree, I don’t like it when she does (x behavior), so why not just ask her to stop it? That’s what I did last time and it went ok” and then find a way to leave the conversation as quickly and gracefully as possible. That upcoming trip doesn’t have to be all about her.