#272: When you see Darth Vader coming, do you speak up?

OMG it's Darth Vader + a wedding dress.
This perfect image is from a book by a man who decided to repurpose his ex-wife’s wedding dress in 101 ways. Click the photo to learn more about anger + recycling.

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.

Dear Newcomer,

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?

Brother: “Yes,”

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.

31 thoughts on “#272: When you see Darth Vader coming, do you speak up?

  1. This is excellent advice. I’d also urge the LW and her partner to stay in touch with his brother, no matter how distant he seems and no matter how shitty his Vader acts–that way, he’ll know he has people he can turn to when he needs them.

  2. I’m reading a certain amount of fear in you descriptions of your partner and his family, particularly fear of what Darth might do next. In my experience, people will often tip-toe around a Darth because Darth is doing things right now that are barely tolerable, but the things they imagine Darth doing in the future are much, much worse. In that kind of situation, I’ve seen it be powerful and healing for a put-upon person to go ahead and let their actions make Darth do what they fear.*

    1) Because as bad as Darth is, they are a real-life person and you can respond to their attacks, even just by getting away from them, whereas the Darth you imagine will follow you around terrifying you everywhere, and

    2) because Darth’s behavior is like that idea you had for a paper at 2 AM: it sounds water-tight in your head, but once you try to string it out as a logical argument, in writing or in Darth’s case by shouting at everyone, it becomes clear that it makes no fucking sense. Not letting your brother have desert? That is undoubtedly humiliating and painful. But it is also just petty and stupid. Everyone can see that she is petty and stupid and you know you could give him desert if you want to, you’re just not sure if you should.

    My own Darth-in-law is treated by most of the family like Cliff’s squeaky board. But recently the fiance and I made some choices about our own lives that upset her to the point where she threatened to disinherit him (i.e. us once we’re married). It actually made her a lot easier to deal with – the question of “what are we willing to do for what amount of money, and how many times does she have to make this threat before we cut our losses on trying to get the money” is a lot easier question to answer than, “But how will we explain this to Darth?!” (benefit #1) Also, we think other family members actually recognized her behavior as crazy, and didn’t support her on it, because she will often have them call us to badger us for her after a day or two, but this time she claimed she hadn’t meant it and has left the issue alone. (benefit #2) So weirdly, being threatened like that has brought one of the best periods of peace from her.

    I know this is really hard and I’m bad at doing it myself. Darth is scary. But I like to think of it as making Darth step out from behind the curtain, a la Wizard of Oz.

    *I have no training on domestic violence issues and want to say that any concerns for his safety completely override this comment. You are clearly a better judge of that than I am. Other commenters, please correct me if you feel like this advice could be dangerous.

    1. because Darth’s behavior is like that idea you had for a paper at 2 AM: it sounds water-tight in your head, but once you try to string it out as a logical argument, in writing or in Darth’s case by shouting at everyone, it becomes clear that it makes no fucking sense.

      I just wanted to say that this analogy is so perfect it made my day.

  3. Wow, that is such great advice. I also got a lot of “It’s nice that they like you because you go along with what they want, but what if….?” from the original letter. (I’m the one in my husband’s family who doesn’t want to do as much with family as other members would like, so I’m sensitive.)

    Anyway, it’s good to take a look at this and consider how the letter writer would deal if things change. And, your advice to speak up is right on.

  4. “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”

    Holeeeee moly, I am super bad about this, which is why I try to regularly declare lashon hora (don’t gossip), even though I am not Jewish.

    I used to be married to Count Rugen, and my brother is currently married to Lady Vader, and I think this is all excellent advice.

    My experience has taught me that all anyone can do is say their piece in a respectful manner and then get out of the way. When I was in my bad spot, a dear friend tried to talk to me when I wasn’t ready to hear it, and I was very cruel to her. I feel lucky that she later forgave me.

    When I talked to my brother with my concerns about Lady Vader, he basically said, “shut up, I’m happy.” Who am I to second-guess him? If he says he’s happy, I have to take him at his word, no matter what it looks like from the outside. I’m not in it.

    And if he is happy, then great. I don’t have to like Lady Vader, because I’m not married to her. My tactic on that front has been to just be myself and hang with my family. That appears to drive her bonkers, but again – if she’s not going to use her words and chooses just to glare daggers at me, that’s her business and not mine. As long as I don’t feel as if I’m walking on eggshells, *shrug*.

    Declaring No Gossip helps with the shrugging and moving on, which god knows is no easy feat.

    Short version: I suggest the path running smack in the middle between the greatest kindness and staying true to yourself. Good luck, LW! It’s an unfun predicament, for sure, but I hope the vacation is a good time anyway.

    1. I didn’t know there was a term for this, but I had to do it with a co-worker of mine who drives me NUTS. When I can treat each interaction with her as separate from the others, *I* am less crazed, so it benefits me. I can also calmly speak out about behaviors happening Right Now that are not acceptable.

      The ideas of clean slate and addressing behavior and not the underlying issues are so excellent for dealing with those difficult people we aren’t intimately close to.

    2. I’m a little torn about this because abuse can so easily hide in “I don’t know what their home life is like, I don’t know what the putative victim feels, I only know what I can see” — but it’s also literally true, and in many cases it’s not hiding abuse, just a relationship that doesn’t fit the observer’s unconscious but precise schema. And I don’t know what the ratio is, there.

  5. Vaguely related personal anecdote!: I had a similar situation, where a good friend fell in love with another good friend, but that other friend, was Darth. It was horrible, kind of like watching a slowed-down video of two trains colliding, and being unable to do anything to stop it. So I agonised for a while and finally I took her aside told her I was concerned about her, and I told her about all his bad behaviours in his past relationships, and she told me not to worry because her relationship with him was different from all those other relationships. Time passed and he treated her badly and messed with her head like I knew he would, and after months of pain and drama they broke up. But after the dust settled she told me it meant a lot to her that I had had that little talk with her. So it did some good even if it seemed useless at the time.

    1. My friends didn’t warn me when I started getting interested in Darth. After I realized the walls were closing in and decided to get out of the trash compactor, my roommate told me she was good friends with his ex. He had pulled a lot of shit, including manipulation via threats of suicide. My roommate was waiting to warn me about this until AFTER we were officially in a relationship. AAACK!

      Please, for the love of Obi-Wan Kenobi, speak up early! Your friend may not listen to you anyway, but they’ve at least got better odds of hearing you if it comes earlier rather than later.

  6. Having been married to Darth, I’d not recommend talking to the brother; given that he loves his family and loves her, his loyalties are already going to be pretty chopped up between the two, and any private word with him is only going to make his situation more painful, and potentially nudge him to her defense, and thus further under her power. My Darth complained that my family disliked him, but he also did his best to make me feel that they didn’t much like or respect me either. When they criticised him, however legitimately, it felt like disrespect.

    The things that made a big difference to me:

    1). Gentle intervention, as the captain describes with the dessert scenario. Also deflection when he’s being berated. “Come on, he can’t be that bad a driver. Have you seen that Absolutely Worst Driver in the Whole World Ever show? There was this guy who drove twenty miles in reverse, in the dark with no lights on and a live goat on the passenger’s seat… ”

    2). Darths often criticise us on behalf of other people, even if those other people are hostile to Darth, e.g. “Sit down and stop making your mother’s house look untidy” or “Hurry up – or you’ll make everyone late.” My own Darth’s particular favourite was the impracticality of my wheelchair (and by extension myself). I’m very grateful for those folks who said, “No really, it’s no trouble and her presence is more than worth it.”

    3). Giving your chap’s brother as much love and support as possible. Honestly, more than anything else, what did for my marriage was other people treating me a hundred times better than the person I was married to. Stay interested in the guy, ask him how he’s doing at work or with any passions he has (which if she is a capital A abuser, she will be undermining or interfering with). Celebrate his triumphs – discuss his past triumphs in his presence. Even show an interest in any elements of the wedding planning that he is invested in.

    I would sit through family gatherings dreading an argument, attempting to intervene or referee whenever I thought my ex was about to be provoked. The last thing I wanted was a row – my ex was violent and I was terrified that one day he’d attack someone other than me. However, afterwards, when I was getting over all I had been through, it really really stung to remember times when other people didn’t speak up when they could have, ever so gently, just to show that he wasn’t speaking for everyone present. At the time, I just assumed I was that person that Darth was ranting about, because (often) nobody said otherwise. I do understand why, but still.

    1. Oh Goldfish. That sounds absolutely awful and I’m so glad you’re not there anymore. Hug.

    2. I would second being as loving and supportive of the brother as you are able. Having been in a relationship with a Vader myself, and recently helped a friend who was dating one, it makes such a difference to have people who you feel comfortable talking to who can gently help you to see that parts of Vader’s behaviour really are unreasonable.
      If you become isolated in a relationship with a Vader then you start to lose all sense of perspective and get drawn into a dark side view of the world and all the people in it. That is not a good place to be, and it makes it much harder to get out.

    3. Thanks for this perspective, and like everyone, I am so glad you are OUT of there.

  7. This letter gave me chills, not so much about Darth, but about the family. I’m not condoning Darth’s behaviour, but in the LW’s shoes, I would want to take a careful look at the family dynamics as a whole, as mentioned in #4. This may be my filter talking,since I almost married into a family like this. On the surface, they were a squeaky-clean sunshine family that was all about togetherness, and for the first few years it was kind of comfy to be enveloped in it. But after a while, spending every vacation together (and even having the family fly out to join a vacation elsewhere) started wearing a little thin. Eventually, I started to notice that I had absolutely no say on any of the “family decisions”, and the decisions that should have been mine and my partner’s to make were somehow also turned into “family decisions”. Even decisions that were mine and mine alone, like my career choice, also became “family decisions”. I was completely cut out of the process of buying our car, our house, and planning our wedding. I went to therapy hoping to learn to be more assertive, and an astute therapist opened my eyes to how completely dysfunctional the family was, and that nothing I could do would change the situation.

    LW, is everything hunky-dory as long as you go along with whatever the family wants? What happens when you disagree with them, or don’t do what they want? Do they respect it, or are there huffs and puffs, or subtle pressure to conform? I’ll warn you, it can escalate gradually, and it is scary, scary, scary to wake up one day realizing you’ve slowly given away all your power.

    Also, it’s not that surprising to me that the brother would choose a controlling and abusive partner if he grew up in that kind of family. He may be used to being controlled.

    I hope that’s not too much armchair psychology. This set off a lot of alarms for me, so I really wanted to post.

    1. I’ve seen those families, and my own has that ‘togetherness’ philosophy down pretty well. Families that value a lot of family time want people who fit their group dynamic. This doesn’t excuse Darth’s behavior, but LW needs to look into that family dynamic and not enable The Family’s behavior when Darth is brought up. A constant whine fest about someone is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can’t like someone or tolerate them if you’re thinking how bad they are all the time. Brains don’t work that way.

    2. Great comment — I really agree with you. The family sounds like it could be suffocating for some, especially those who don’t conform to their expectations. Nothing excuses snapping at your partner, of course — she still sounds like bad news. But it sounds like the family is part of the problem, and family time likely brings out the worst in her. She probably hates spending time with the whole extended family and resents the amount of time she does spend with them. Maybe she feels controlled by the brother and his family when she’s there — she doesn’t want to be there, and he has guilted her into it, and so she’s acting out.

      None of this changes my endorsement of the Captain’s advice — but I think in addition to that, staying vigilant about the family dynamic is a good idea for the LW. So far she has been okay with their expectations of her, but those expectations still sound somewhat extreme and potentially controlling.

    3. Yeah, I am from a really close family. But. Part of the closeness is that we (and particularly my parents, really) make it clear they are in support of us children making decisions for ourselves. It’s okay for Christmas Eve Dinner With Everyone to go by the wayside when there are lots of families with little kids to manage at a hectic time. It’s okay for the newlyweds to decide x-thing, of course, because they are a newly formed family and that is what newly formed families do. It’s okay for my parents to have Thanksgiving with the extendeds and the kids to have Thanksgiving with each other and our guests, because we don’t see each other, just us, very often.

      The tradition supports the family, not the other way around. The family group is supportive so we can all be successful individuals.

      We get annoyed and disagree, but respecting the autonomy of other members of the group is a foundation value, so things tend to work out.

      If that’s not part of the dynamic in a family I join in the future, then I would be cautious about re-enforcing or participating in those unhealthy habits.

      And yeah. If you grow up with a particular kind of normal, it makes a lot of sense you might pursue that kind of normal in your adult relationships.

    4. Can I just say, good on you for going for help with assertiveness. This was recommended to me by a very wise counselor once, when a difficult friend was trying me in knots. I came to realize that my way of reacting was making the situation worse, and that I didn’t have to feel so powerless. Very eye-opening.

      It’s an issue I still struggle with at times, but the work I did then continues to be enormously helpful when dealing with difficult situations and people.

      One of my favorite cartoons is a single panel showing the door for an Assertiveness Training organization. A sign is tacked on saying “Out to lunch, back when we’re damned good and ready” [This is not of course the real point of assertiveness, but still I grin every time]

    5. Yes, this. Experienced it with a friend-group, not a family. Being around people who are controlling and hate your guts and talk about you behind your back sets every interaction up for a fall. If people have a preset narrative that you are a Vader for their own weird reasons, just about anything can be read that way (Christ, my husband and I went outside to get some fresh air at a wedding and it was reported that I was being snooty and keeping husband from his friends). I suspect I am a mean only Lady Vader who stole my husband away from his friends five years ago, in their eyes. When we started dating he complained that nobody had been inviting him to their parties, which I found to be true for the duration of our courtship. He took a demanding new job and we were homebodies together. I’m a shy, socially anxious person and when I finally did get invited to some events I found his friends oddly icy and hostile toward me. I chalked that up to my anxious brain misreading perfectly nice people until we announced our engagement.

      Suddenly people whose names and faces I couldn’t match “wanted to kidnap [him] and put [him] on the next train away from [me].” I had made us leave one of those parties where no one would talk to me after a couple hours when I had a headache! I had called him at band practice to change what kind of sandwich I wanted him to pick up on the way home three times! Once he had to cancel a show because I was very sick! I was trying to destroy The Band! Couldn’t he see my obvious malice? (The Band had a very contentious breakup after replacing my husband several times — imagine!)

      Thing was, no malice had existed? I had never met these people, because they’d been sort of avoiding me? And I definitely honest to god didn’t care about The Band. Both of us were just stressed out by my suddenly out of control chronic illness and his suddenly intensive professional responsibilities. But when you’re telling yourself a narrative about a person, you can read it into everything innocuous she does: asking to leave a party (controlling! he’s never around and she keeps him on such a leash!), calling to change a sandwich (why does she keep CALLING?), needing him to cancel the show when I had a serious adverse medication reaction (she’s undermining The Band, now! this is all on purpose!).

      The only place they could have rightly seen Vader was the mirror, trying to control their friend who’d found love, had a partner in very fragile health and was enjoying some stressy career success. He sure could have used their support at that time, and it hurt him like hell that they were dickfaces instead. It hurt that people who knew better didn’t break rank and never said anything about it. Don’t be like them — I agree with other commenters that it might be wise to spend some time together outside the family dynamic to judge whether this really is a Lady Vader. Being under the scrutiny of people who read malice into your intimate interactions and hold grudges against you for it is seriously emotionally exhausting shit. I *don’t* think it excuses outright abuse at all — but I do think some change of venue might re-frame the long view and shake up the over-arching narrative you’re telling yourself about your brother-in-law’s wife.

  8. 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.

    This is awesomely true, and I am so glad that you advised the LW to maintain her integrity by stating her honest perceptions of the Vader’s Vaderish actions.

  9. 1) I suspect some of her behavior (in particular when you see her snapping with him around The Family) is due to that. I’ve seen that happen in my own family. The trick was getting cousin/wife away from The Family, and wife opened up more. She wasn’t really a surly person, just reacting to a hostile environment. The solution is to hang out with her one-on-one, invite her out with non-family friends, or do a couple’s date with the two brothers/partners. Which ever works.

    2) Don’t let her verbal abuse stand, even if her bad behavior is her lashing out at The Family.

  10. 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.

    I second the ever-loving out of this. Worst case scenario, she freaks out all “what the fuck is YOUR problem?!” and looks like an even more raving maniac. Best case scenario, she reflects on the fact that, “hey, there are other people here too, and I sound like a RAVING MANIAC!”

  11. Everyone else has given really good advice, but I’ll just add in: LW, don’t bet your emotional farm on this. It’s good to support the brother, but don’t make it Your Job to save him. Because this could end badly–the abuse could end up getting worse or the brother could end up isolated from the family–and it won’t be your fault. There’s a lot about this situation that’s simply out of your control.

    I totally agree with the suggestions above about how to support the brother and deal with the family, but I also read a lot of “it’s all up to me, I have to be the hero here” in the letter, and I worry LW’s going to blame herself for doing the wrong thing if the fiance explodes or the brother detaches.

    That’s not a reason not to help, but… it is a reason to keep in mind that “help” is all you can do. “Fix” just isn’t possible, and that’s not your fault.

  12. I agree with the Captain’s information, and I especially stress her suggestion of teaching by example. People in those kind of relationships often get so wrapped up (read: manipulated) in the isolated reality of them that they can’t see the abuse objectively. However small your intervention may be, simply by showing that alternatives exist can make a big impact in the long run. Personal example: Between the ages of 17-20, my mother was in a relationship with a man who beat the shit out of her regularly. Having grown up witnessing the same between her mother and father, it didn’t occur to her that this was unacceptable – until she went to college. Once she started attending classes and was introduced to men who actually treated her with respect, she came to realize that the behavior of her abuser was a deviation from and not the norm of social behavior. And then she finally left him.

    So while sitting down with the brother may not be an option, standing up for him in those seemingly small and inconsequential moments may be the key to reminding him that he’s a worthwhile human being deserving of respect.

  13. Do you mean, what do you do if you’re watching your brother be abusive to someone? Yeah, speak the hell up. Intervene gently on behalf of the person he’s berating. Make it embarrassing for him to do it in front of people. Absolve yourself of guilt for what are his choices and his actions. You probably won’t get the two of them to break up, so focus on the day-to-day.

  14. On the Captain’s point 1: I noticed, as have H.D. Lynn and others, that the LW said the BF and his brothers spend more time with their family of origin than even zie considers normal. Vader may indeed be trying to isolate Brother from his family, but if said family is on the right tail of the closeness bell curve it may be more confusion than something more sinister. If Vader is trying to get Brother to have a more typical relationship with Family, it’s, well, typical, but typical might look like avoidance compared to what they’re normally like; indeed, even if she is trying to drag him to the left tail, it may be partly overcorrection.

    I always wonder, when I read about abusive relationships (and I’m not saying there’s necessarily abuse happening here), what the abusers think they’re doing.

  15. Might be a duplicate, one got eaten/moderated:

    On the Captain’s point 1: Like H.D. Lynn and others, I notice the LW said the BF and his brothers spend more time with their family of origin than even zie considers normal. Vader may be trying to isolate Brother from his family, but if Family is on the right tail of the closeness bell curve it may be more out of confusion than something more sinister. If Vader is trying to get Brother to have a more typical relationship with Family, it’s, well, typical, but typical might look like avoidance compared to what they’re normally like; even if she is trying to drag him to the left tail, it may be partly overcorrection.

    I always wonder, when I read about abusive relationships (and I’m not saying there’s necessarily abuse happening here), what the abusers think they’re doing.

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