I have only one sibling, an older brother. He is in his late thirties and still lives with my parents. He’s never lived on his own, whereas I moved out as soon as I could at 18. He has a BA in Accounting, he works full time, he pays rent to my parents and handles his own laundry, etc, but he still has never wanted to move out. My parents have threatened to make him leave in the past, but they’ve never followed through.
He’s always been socially awkward and a loner, and most of our family suspects he has some variety of mental illness/personality disorder/is somewhere on the autistic spectrum/etc, but after one failed try at family therapy when he was four, my parents have never gotten him professional help. My dad has his head in the sand about it, and mom doesn’t know what to do at this late point in Brother’s life. Brother is in complete denial that he could benefit from therapy or medication or even a diagnosis.
Within the past few years, he’s gotten fixated on politics and turned into a walking uber-conservative caricature. Worse than that, he’s become paranoid, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic … the list goes on. He’s not quiet about his beliefs, and he is constantly turning every conversation about the most innocuous subjects into a political rant. He spouts hate and vitriol against liberals and everyone who isn’t like him. He doesn’t listen to dissenting opinions, he talks over everyone all the time, and he gets very upset and ragey very quickly. I am a liberal, and I consider myself a feminist and fairly well-read about social justice issues. I am also bisexual, but not out to my family, and have lots of friends in the LGBT+ community. A lot of what he says is extremely hurtful to me, and it’s very difficult for me to listen to without responding. He often gets angry at me for arguing and then turns things personal and belittles my intelligence and life choices. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for five years, and being called stupid is one of my buttons. Brother knows this.
Whenever I’m around him, I try very hard not to engage, to just ignore his ranting and remind myself that he has serious mental/emotional issues. But I have trouble even talking about neutral subjects, because he seems hellbent on twisting everything into a politically charged fight. He’ll even interrupt the conversations of others. I have walked away many times. I’ve (mostly) accepted that he doesn’t care about me or my feelings (or is incapable of doing so). He ignores conversational boundaries I’ve tried to set. He never asks about me and my life, nor did he show any concern when I was being abused, even though I tried to reach out to him. I’ve never felt like I had a real brother, just some mean asshole who lives with my parents. This makes me incredibly sad, and I feel guilty whenever I snap and say something back to him.
Do you have any advice on how to handle things better? I want to be a good sister, but I honestly don’t know where to start to help him at this point, especially since he has no respect for me. I would just like to be able to be at their house without feeling so constantly insulted and harassed.
Dear Stressed Sister:
If you like, you can do what you are already doing (changing the subject, trying to respectfully disagree, disengaging from conversations with your brother), but you can try it a little more strategically and make it more clear exactly what you are doing and why. I try to use a strategy of “two attempts at redirecting the thing, then OUT” to preserve my own sanity and conserve my energy and to turn a boundary from something I express into something I enforce.
The first time he says something awful, you can say “That’s racist/sexist/homophobic/repulsive, and I disagree. You and I should not talk politics with each other, ever, so let’s change the subject please.” The second time, “When I asked to change the subject, that means I don’t actually want to hear any more about _____. I don’t want to argue, I just want you to stop talking at me. Let’s talk about something else, like (neutral topic!).”
The third time, “I’ve asked you twice now to change the subject. I’m through discussing this with you.” Then leave the room. If he follows you, insults you, talks over you, or won’t stop engaging with you, leave the building. You do not have to debate him or win the debate on the facts or convince him. You get to decide, unilaterally, to be done with these conversations.
You can also try using “When you _____, I feel ______” language. This works better if you focus on behaviors rather than his views, for example:
- “Brother, when you talk over me, it makes me feel hurt and angry. Please stop.”
- “Brother, when you interrupt me, it makes me feel ignored and frustrated. Please stop.”
- “Brother, when you call me stupid or insult my life choices, it makes me feel hurt and angry. Please stop doing that.”
- “Brother, I asked you twice to stop talking about x. I’m not interested in an argument. When you ignore my wishes like that it makes me feel frustrated. Please stop.”
- “Brother, when you call me stupid it makes me feel small and powerless. You know some of my history with that word, so, why would you do that?”
You can try talking to him, but the important thing is that you give yourself permission to leave when he won’t respect the boundary you’ve set. Leave in the middle of dinner. Leave even if it makes it awkward for others. Leave even if it means “embarrassing the family” or “making a scene” in front of Jesus, The Buddha, Prince, the ghost of Maya Angelou, Rogelio de la Vega, Captain America, and your city’s mayor.
To be honest, I don’t think a functional relationship with your brother is salvageable, certainly not in the near future, so my advice about dealing with him is all about protecting yourself. Yes, he most likely has some problems that aren’t his fault, yes, he should have been treated long ago, but “mental illness” and most certainly “possibly being on the autism spectrum” do not a raging asshole make. When someone says hateful things and actively trolls you with insults that he knows will hurt the most, WTF are you supposed to do? You can’t Bigger Person him into not verbally attacking you. Forgive yourself for the times you snapped back at him for calling you stupid and belittling your life choices. Forgive yourself for the times you actively dislike him. If you weren’t blood relations, would you hang out with him, ever?
Forgive yourself, and remind yourself that he has choices about his views and how he chooses to express them. He has choices about the kind of relationship he wants with you. Does he act this way at work? Did he act this way at school? Does he treat his boss and all his coworkers the way he treats you? Or does he just choose to antagonize you, his little sister, specifically, at home, where he can get away with it?
You have a brother problem, but that’s not the only problem. Your brother is the one who makes obvious, undeniable trouble, and who all your life was the one who was “different” or “troubled” or “disordered.” But as a child, he wasn’t the one who had control over whether he got the help he needed. And now, when he mistreats you, he’s doing it in your parents’ house, presumably in front of your parents. So how do they react to him, in the moment? When he says something racist or homophobic, do they speak up or do they just let it sit there? And how do they react when and if you speak up? Out of curiosity, how many times in your life have you been told to be patient with him, shushed if you yelled or fought back when he mistreated you, and groomed to tolerate how he acts by your parents? How many times have you heard variations of “He can’t help it, but you can!” or “Just ignore him!” or “You are lucky you don’t have his problems to deal with, so we expect more from you!” Girls whose brothers don’t have diagnosable things going on grow up hearing those messages, too, under the general umbrella of Boys Will Be Boys and Girls Will Behave Extra Hard To Set A Good Example. BTW, these messages all translate as “We’ve given up on trying to influence him to behave himself, so we’re going to go with influencing you so at least there will be less conflict overall.”
I suspect that if you followed the strategy above, to the point of actually leaving, your parents and your other family members might react with some dismay. “Where are you going? Why are you leaving? Brother is just being brother, you know that, please don’t go.” You’ll be treated as if you are the one making the scene, not the adult man who is following you around the room saying terrible things to you. Reminder: You are not ruining (holiday) by leaving a place where asshole family members are assholes to you. (Holiday) is already pre-ruined for you by having to deal with assholes, and leaving (or skipping the gathering entirely) is the way you have a fighting chance at un-ruining things for yourself.
My other suggestion is that when these things get heated to the point of you walking away, be very explicit about what you are doing and why when you talk to your parents. “I’ve told myself, I’ve told him, and now I’m telling you: If he verbally harasses me at these gatherings, I’m going to have to leave.” “Guess I reached my Brother limits early today, see you next time.” “I asked him politely several times to stop what he was doing, and he chose not to. I guess we’ll try again another time.””I can’t ‘just ignore him’ when he’s looming over me calling me stupid. Couldn’t do it when I was 8, can’t do it now. See you all next time.””I’m not psyched about missing dinner either, but I didn’t bring earplugs, so, gotta go!” They may not get the message, but you should still send the message: Asshole Brother goes unchecked in their presence? They will see less of you.
There are also “When you _____, I feel _____” statements you can tailor for them.
- “When Brother says terrible things to me, and you ignore him or tell me to ignore him, it makes me feel hurt and frustrated.”
- “When Brother deliberately antagonizes me, and I ask him to stop, and you stand by, watching, it makes me feel incredibly angry.”
- “When Brother is rude and disgusting to me, and I try to stop it, and you treat me like I’m the one being rude, it makes me feel invisible, like my feelings don’t matter to you.”
- “When I come here, I get constantly insulted and harassed by Brother. That makes me feel unwelcome.”
- “Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but when Brother says homophobic, racist, and sexist things to me, and I disagree with him, I sometimes wonder if you tacitly approve of all his views. That makes me feel scared, that you might also agree that women are (terrible thing), gay people are (terrible thing).”
If they raise the “It’s not his fault/he can’t help it/he probably has (diagnosis)” defense, you can say “I agree, he probably does have something diagnosable going on, something that would probably improve if he actually got diagnosed and treated for it. I hope that he will take those steps with all my heart. I’m not his psychiatrist, though, I’m his sister. I don’t have to get to the bottom of his psyche to ask him to treat me more gently.” Whatever he has going on inside, he needs to stop standing on your foot.
Be prepared for a lot of friction if you start pushing back on your brother’s behavior in a direct, explicit way and absenting yourself when he crosses the line. Changes to the status quo of how you all work might feel odd and even threatening to both your mom and your dad without them necessarily even understanding why. Their fucked-up dynamic of daily life with your brother and the way he treats you only works if you all tacitly agree that it’s normal. If you stop agreeing that it’s okay and normal, then they might have to face some accountability for the way things have happened, or contemplate changing things in the future, and suddenly you might become the problem. In families where there is an identifiable “black sheep” and an identifiable “good kid,” you’d be surprised at how quickly those roles can flip around when a parent’s sense of control is threatened.
1) If you have access to counseling, take advantage of it. You could use a safe sounding board about the issues in your family that isn’t your family. Your family roles have all calcified in some recognizable patterns of dysfunctional families – troubled “scapegoat” son, dutiful daughter, the identified patient – and I think a pro could help you process a lot of things about how you grew up and how your adult relationship with this family works and does not work for you.
2) Make a conscious effort, perhaps a year-long project, to see your parents as much as possible outside of their home and outside of situations where your brother will also be. If you live far away, that might mean inviting one or both of them to come visit you for a bit sans frère. If you live close that might mean friend-dating your parents. You could them to do things singly – get season tickets to a concert series or theater season and make one of them your date, institute Monthly Mom Brunch/Breakfast With Dad – and together, like inviting them to come over to your house periodically for dinner. Sometimes have it be just you and your folks, sometimes, if you’re comfortable (or really uncomfortable and need a buffer) invite a few of your friends to be around, too. If you can, find a shared hobby or favorite TV show and make a point of watching it together. It may be weird, especially in the beginning. You may have to make it awkwardly clear that your brother is not invited. You may have to focus more on your mom and call it something like ‘GIRLS’S DAY, FOR LADYPERSONS OF A WOMANLY PERSUASION ONLY,’ because for some reason people are more accepting of single-gender exclusion. If they resist, insist that brother has to be invited, call you selfish for not wanting to be around him, are never available for plans, etc., remind yourself that they are making a choice. If they want to live in the fantasy that their children get along and are close to each other more than they want to have an authentic relationship with you, their actual child, that’s a hurtful, sad choice, but it is a choice.
Oh, also, think of aunts/uncles/cousins, etc. who you like and who are generally allies to you. Write to them, call them sometimes, and invite them to do stuff with you, too, when you can. Try to cultivate one-on-one adult relationships with them that aren’t mediated through your parents or just at big family events. You deserve to have your family in your life and to not have every interaction with them shadowed by your brother. This way if you skip some of the big family gatherings, you’re not missing out on having a connection with your family.
Speaking of which, 3) Make a “family events with brother” budget that’s maximally respectful of your time and your energy levels. When you go, put on your best “don’t start none, won’t be none” attitude, do your best to get along, and when it gets to be too much, leave. When you can’t face going, don’t go. If you always smooth everything over at your own expense, the pattern will never change. He will be awful to you. They will all enable it. You will snap sometimes, because, who wouldn’t? They will make you feel guilty for saying what they all think and entreat you to smooth it over.
If you disengage, and engage only on your own terms, the pattern might not change. It won’t necessarily heal your family or “help” your brother, and it won’t make everything whole again. At best it will give you some breathing room. You don’t deserve to be verbally attacked by someone with the passive participation and consent of your other family members. You don’t have to be the sacrificial lamb who makes them all feel benevolent and okay about themselves. If you put a little distance in your sibling relationship in order to take care of yourself and to build a more pleasurable and supportive family structure for yourself, it is not a failure of your empathy.
It’s a bit late this year, but for the next week it’s one of the semi-annual awkward times where I awkwardly shake the tip jar and ask readers with the means and inclination to throw a dollar my way if you can. Maintaining the site is a labor of love, but it is actual labor, and reader contributions make a real difference to my quality of life and ability to keep content free for everyone. Many thanks for your support, and for reading and leaving great comments.
P.S. The Onion is on it: Once-Loyal Enabler Betrays Man By Suggesting Therapy