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.