Behind a cut for emotional abuse, misogyny, and discussion of these things as specifically related to recent gun violence and the possibility thereof, which is not what the Letter Writer asked, but definitely something I saw in the question.
I did a giant dump of cat photos for patrons if you need to click on over that way. ❤
I’m a woman in my 30s (she/her/herself) and am very close family. We had always been pretty tight-knit, but when my mom passed away a few years ago after a long illness, we made an effort to be there for each other even more. Although we all live separately, my brother, sister, and I made an effort to always visit our dad weekly, usually on the weekend due to our work schedules.
I love my dad and want to continue to be able to visit him regularly, especially since that seems to have been a great comfort to him after dealing with mom’s long illness. The problem is that, since we are all usually visiting on the same days, this often puts me in direct interaction with my younger brother.
My brother very clearly does not like me and wants to bring me down and make me out to be “lesser” in as many ways as possible. Every time I meet his friends, he will find a way to introduce me by saying “LW is the creative one, but I’m the smart one.” (He is not.) He will openly imply that I cannot do simple things in a way that seems like he’s helping (i.e. “Do you need me to park the car for you?” as I pull next to the curb of an empty street) or straight-up tell me I am doing very simple things wrong (i.e. walking across a parking lot). He makes lots of jokes-that-are-not-jokes about how terrible I am (i.e. I don’t have my dad’s birthday gift two weeks in advance? “Well, I guess you must not love Dad that much, ha ha ha.”) Whenever he can, he makes a point to describe how wonderful he is (he’s SO smart! Has so much money! Dad loves him BEST!) and he seems to be dismayed whenever I get praised for anything.
And this is how he is when he’s in a GOOD mood. He tends to cycle between normal-if-obnoxious to outright hostile on a regular basis. For a few months, things will be okay, and then he will be incredibly angry and nasty. A lot of the time, I have no idea what triggered the change, though when I can tell what it is, the trigger is usually ridiculously minor (i.e. I almost beat him at a board game). Whenever this happens, he will begin outright cruel insults, especially if he’s able to be in a situation alone with me, like a car. This has, on occasion, resulted in him berating me until I cry, which sometimes makes him ease off (though he will never sincerely apologize). Some of this can lean into outright dangerous (such as berating me until I cried while I was driving us through a major storm).
I know where some of this behavior comes from. My now-deceased mother modeled a lot of similar behaviors while she was alive, and we all just sort of learned to live with it. But at least she loved and raised us, and had the excuse of being a stressed-out mother of three who spent many years being very, very ill — my brother is none of that. But because we learned to live with it with mom, my family turns a blind eye to his behavior, especially since it is mainly directed at me alone. My sister actively defends him (she likes me fine, but she ADORES him), and Dad just sort of lets it all slide, since the nastiest behavior never happens while he’s around. My family will often refer to me as “The Nice One” of the siblings, which I feel like has come back around as a way to dismiss anything that happens — I’m the Nice One, so I’ll let it go, and if I don’t, then the problem is that I’m not being nice enough.
The other influence is that my brother seems to have gotten more interested in Red Pill, anti-feminist influences in the past few years. He has made comments defending Red Pill forums before, and always seems to know about an inordinate amount of videos of female celebrities getting put in their place. Recently, he’s been involved in a very male-centric side hustle that I think is influencing him, and he’s made a lot more veiled-misogynistic things since it started. I’d hoped that he might ease off of those ideas when he recently got a girlfriend, but instead he just uses her as an ally to his other behaviors (such as bragging about how he tells her all sorts of awful things about me).
He reminds me a lot of LW #1141’s husband in terms of behavior, but the trouble is, I can’t “break up” with him or divorce him like I would an SO. I can’t avoid him without losing my relationship with my dad, and if I cause a rift with him, my family will probably side with him because “that’s just how he is”. After losing my mom, I don’t want to lose any closeness with my dad or my sister, but I hate that that involves being around someone who enjoys hurting me.
Outside of this, my life is pretty great, so part of me feels petty for even focusing on this so much. I find myself thinking “I hate my brother” often, but that feels so disproportionate to what’s actually happening. But I also hate that one day of every week is spent being insulted or on edge, waiting for some new piece of nastiness, especially when I will inevitably spend days afterwards seething from whatever new insult is thrown my way. Any advice on how to handle this?
Hello, I’m so sorry about your mom, and I’m so sorry you’re being subjected to this.
First, some reminders:
You didn’t cause this and you’re not “petty” or overreacting. And let’s very real and very specific for a second: I got your letter before the rash of this week’s mass shootings in the United States, where we talk about our mass shootings in terms of “this week’s” version. I am answering it after the shootings, in the context of those shootings, where the Dayton shooter was known for a history of misogynist threats and murdered his sibling. If your brother is Gun People, and you see that he is escalating and becoming more of a Gun Person, this is a Code Red. At very least, talk to a counselor about your fears and make a safety plan.
If I’m being hysterical, let me be hysterical, I’m feeling a little hysterical at the moment, I admit that! I want to be wrong, I want so much to be wrong, maybe your brother will never pick up a gun, maybe he’ll “just” verbally abuse you forever and try to drive a wedge between you and the rest of your family. But reading about the way your brother treated you during the storm chilled me to the fucking bone. He was willing to risk the safety both of you in order to be cruel to you. That is unacceptable and terrifying, and you feeling “I hate my brother” isn’t disproportionate or petty. At all.
People have choices about how they treat each other. Family dynamics aren’t fossils or unchangeable tablets of stone. They are a series of choices. Bad ones can be discontinued. Harm can be stopped. Injustice can be rectified. But people have to choose.
You can’t fix your family. You definitely can’t do it by yourself. If you try and fail, if you speak up and fail, if you do your best and this thing goes bad, it wasn’t because you said it wrong, there was a better script, you should have been more patient, you chose the wrong time, it’s too close to your mom’s death, you should have just let it go, you got ‘too angry,’ or ‘not angry enough,’ etc. You’re not the one causing problems here. You don’t have to keep showing up and silently enduring horrible behavior in order to deserve your fucking family. Hold onto that, please.
I can’t offer guarantees that any of this will get better any time soon but I can offer strategies to try out to see if it lessens the impact of the worst of it on you.
There is one part of this that you can control without needing the permission or support of anyone else in your family: You can limit the time you spend with and overlap with your brother.
Absolutely no more alone time with your brother. No car rides where he can verbally abuse you. No car rides at all. He’ll have to find another way to get places, crying-while-he-insults-you time is done now. He can obviously control his behavior when he’s around your dad and your sister, he’s deliberately waiting until he won’t be observed to attack you, which means he is attacking specifically you on purpose in a way designed to get your family to deny and keep enabling it. He can’t be trusted right now. It’s okay to set “I’m not driving you anywhere after the crap you pulled, rides are for nice people, ask me again when you’ve gone a year without saying anything mean” as a boundary.
I also suggest that you find another time during the week to hang out with your dad and avoid the weekend whole-family togetherness for now. It doesn’t have to be forever, I realize it messes with the picture of all of you as a close family banding together in a crisis, but your brother’s behavior is also messing with that picture. Control what you can control by taking yourself out of range of his behavior, at least for a few months. It’s okay to make up reason for the change if that makes it easier for now. “Oh, I started [activity] on Sundays, so Tuesday nights just work better now.” Break up the routine where these charming little “incidents” accumulate, and give yourself the gift of time with your Dad without this asshole around.
Activate your own support system. This is a good problem to take to counseling. Bring friends along with you as a buffer if your family has a “we behave ourselves for outsiders” dynamic. Make sure to be around people who like you, who see you, who back you up, who can be trusted. When you do go to an all-hands on deck event, have your own transport to and from, don’t give anyone a ride, pick a shorter window to stay, leave early if things get ugly. Bring a friend will stand up and say “Nice seeing everybody but we really need to get on the road!” if shit starts escalating, giving you necessary cover and an ally and a ride.
When you have to interact with your brother’s girlfriend, keep it to hello, goodbye, passing the salt, and the weather. She’s probably taking the brunt of whatever this is behind closed doors or will be soon (which you can’t fix) and is glad to see someone else take the bullying for a change (which you can’t fix). You can’t help her. You can’t save her. If he says gross things about women in front of her, call him out on it, don’t expect her to thank you. Women are quite capable of upholding patriarchy and trying to play the “I’m not like other girls” card. You can’t stop her, you can’t fix it, she’s not your job. Take care of you. Be as pleasant as you can to her when you have to interact with her and steer clear as much as possible.
When your brother is mean to you or says generally terrible things in front of other people, it’s okay stop being The Nice One.Speak up! “Dude, why would you say that?” “Dude, misogyny much?” “Gross.” “Yikes.” “Ouch!” “Hey! Not cool!” You can’t “ruin” a party where someone took a giant word-dump in the potato salad already. Your family will try to spin it that way, they like having you as the Nice One, but it’s okay to push back. Disrupt the pattern where he does this and everyone just lets him.
Start pushing back on the “That’s just how he is” stuff as you can with your dad and your sister if they try to intervene by convincing you to keep putting up with it = “Then how he is is AWFUL right now, specifically to me, and I need it to stop when we hang out together. I’ve had no luck, can it be your turn to deal with it?”
- Additional Scripts:
- “Are you okay with ‘how he is’? Maybe you wouldn’t be if he directed it at you the way he directs it at me.”
- “I know he’s grieving, we all are, but I’m not being mean to him, I’m just trying to keep my distance so he won’t be mean to me. I’m grieving too, and he doesn’t get to treat me this way.”
- “It wasn’t okay when Mom talked like that, either, but I can forgive it because she’s gone and I know she loved me. I’m not signing up for 50 more years of it from Brother, though!”
- “Are you really telling me I have to let him talk to me like that forever, and I never get to say anything back or take steps to protect myself from it, and you’re okay with that? And you’re trying to tell me I’m the problem? And that’s ‘easier’ or ‘better’ somehow than saying, ‘Hey, Dude, knock it off’ when he’s clearly out of line?”
- “I love [brother] but I don’t like him very much right now, and he’s not behaving like somebody who loves me. I hope it can be different someday, but I’m not the one making it like this, so if you want something to change, maybe talk to him.”
- “Come on, it’s not a mystery why I would want to be around less. [Brother] is taking out his personal bullshit on me, and I want him to be okay, but that doesn’t mean I have to sit still and just take it. If you want to see ‘the whole family’ all together, make it a space where everybody has to be kind. I can’t do it by myself, he doesn’t listen to me. But he cares what you think.”
- “You don’t have to fix our relationship, you just have to be honest about what it is like, and not pressure me when I want to hang out without him, or automatically take his side when he’s clearly acting out.”
- NAME THE BEHAVIORS. “That’s just how he is.” = “Okay, so ‘how he is’ is a person who will berate and insult me while I’m driving on a dangerous road in a storm until I cry, because he’d rather run us off the road than be nice or even be quiet for an hour. That’s not minor, that’s abusive, and scary, and it’s all directed at me. I’m not okay with it. Why are you okay with it?”
Start with actions. Be around less, or differently, change up the routines that are allowing this behavior to fester. Push back on individual incidents and see how far you get. I think you need to give yourself a break for now. Blog motto for 2019: Do less work (to “fix” relationships with people who make you feel awful.) Take breaks. Be nice to yourself.
Then, listen, this is the hard part. I think there is probably room for one heartfelt face-to-face talk with your dad where you tell him what you told us. Where you ask him if he’s noticed what you experience. Where you ask him how he feels about what he’s noticed. Where you tell your dad that you are afraid of losing your brother to gross ideologies, that you hate the way he treats you, how it hurts your feelings, and how it extra hurts your feelings when nobody sticks up for you and everybody seems to expect you to just take it. How you like being “The Nice One” but it doesn’t mean being The Doormat One. How even though you want more than anything to be close to your family, your brother’s behavior is filling you with dread. How he abuses you when he thinks nobody else can see, how he counts on you never telling anybody, but you’re done hiding what happened. Where you tell your Dad that you’re afraid that if you stand up for yourself that the family will side with your brother, and you’ll lose everyone the way you lost your Mom. Where you ask your Dad to talk to your brother, and to have your back if he’s mean to you at family gatherings, and where you ask him to stop excusing and ignoring what’s happening, because you love him and you want to see your family but you’re not okay with being constantly attacked by someone who is supposed to love you and then having everybody else who loves you tell you that you’re overreacting and that this is the price for having a family.
I want your dad to ace this, to show you that he can be the dad you need right now, to understand how hard you are trying, what you are enduring, so that you can spend time with him and try to preserve the closeness of your family. I want it so badly for you. But it may not happen, so if it doesn’t, if your dad lets you down, always remember, your dad has choices.
Your dad has choices. He can say, “I’ve seen how your brother treats you and I’m sorry I haven’t stepped in, I was hoping it would clear up over time, that he’d outgrow it, and I didn’t know what I could say, but you’re right, it’s not okay. I’m going to talk to him, and you’ve got my support – if you need a break from hanging out all together, I’ll understand, if you need to step out when he gets over the top, I’ll understand, and if you need to set him straight, I’ll understand – I know it’s not you causing trouble. I love you, we’ll get through this.”
Your dad has choices. He can say “that’s just how he is” or “boys will be boys” or “he’ll grow out of it” or “you can’t expect him to behave” or “can’t you try harder to get along with him” and otherwise ENABLE it, or he can stand up and say, “Hey, son, these things that are coming out of your mouth, they are ugly and not like you and I know you know better than this, so knock it off! You have to be kind to your sister when we spend time together! It’s not okay to hate women! What is this woman-hating bullshit you’re reading, it’s poison, you gotta stop it, do you want to end up like all those losers on the news someday? Because lately you sound just like ’em! Oh, ‘your friends’ talk like that, too? Then you need better friends, buddy. Oh, it was ‘just a joke’? But jokes are funny, what you said was just mean. I love you a lot, son, I know this isn’t the best you can do. Come on, show me that you can treat your sisters and everybody with kindness and respect. We all love you, we know you’re better than this right now, come sit down and stop spouting that crap, let’s talk like human beings who love each other, we’re all we’ve got.”
I realize I’m ignoring your sister in this answer, since she’s not the main nexus of the conflict, but let’s talk about her. You know she loves to take your brother’s side, she’s not really safe for you to confide in, you might get mileage out of having an occasional Sister Breakfast! to catch up and talk about light topics, and maybe she gets her own heartfelt talk, like, “It’s okay if you love [Brother] best, I still love you and we’ve got our whole lives to be sisters, but come on, you cannot keep enabling his sexist bullshit or pretend you don’t see how he treats me differently from how he treats you. I’m not the one messing this up for our family and I need you to be on my side about this one thing: He’s not allowed to be mean to me when we all hang out, and when he says something awful, I need you to not defend him or pretend that I’m the one in the wrong!”
From there, your sister has choices. She and your dad have choices. About what they’ll let go. About what they’ll ignore. About what they’ll enable. Abusers are their own fault, but at a certain point, when you know someone is abusive, and you keep inviting them to every last thing and insisting their target can only see you at places their bully will be, too, and you keep letting them heap insults on their target without checking any of it, or you keep pretending not to see it, or you keep making excuses for it, and then you tell the target to shut up and make peace and convince yourself it’s their fault for not being Nice Enough, and act like the target is the problem if they want to hang out in abuse-free environments once in a while, congratulations, you’re complicit! “He’s always nice to me“ doesn’t mean shit, “He never acts like that when I’m around“ doesn’t mean shit, your sister and your dad can both love your brother and not try to gaslight you about what he’s really like or pretend he treats you both the same way. “I love you, but you’re acting like an asshole, knock it off!” are words your sister and your dad can choose to say to their beloved bro/son once in a while. You’re not the weird one for expecting basic courtesy and respect.
Contingency Plan: Everyone’s so afraid of your brother’s anger, they think if they ignore it it will go away or it won’t get that bad, or they’re afraid of having it explode and target them, or they think you can handle him on your own. You’re afraid of it never stopping and of everyone else taking his side. But why isn’t anybody afraid of your anger? What happens if, the next time your brother says something awful at a family gathering, you stood up to your full height, used your loudest voice, and said, “DUDE, NOT OKAY. Why are you acting like this? Why are you saying these things? I love you, brother, but I need you to be so much better than this. STOP treating me like crap. STOP spewing hatred about women. If you can’t say anything nice, then shut the fuck up, it’s free!”
I’m not finished. What if you turned to your dad and your sister and also in your loudest voice said, “Hey, thanks to both of you by the way for being no help at all. You really think it’s okay for him to talk to me like this? You think it’s okay for him to talk like one of those loser manifestos? How many of these ‘jokes’ are you gonna pretend you didn’t hear? We need some NEW RULES for family get-togethers, and the first rule is, BE KIND OR SHUT UP.”
If you do this, leave right afterward. Let them hang out together in shocked silence or let them vent about how “crazy” and “irrational” you are. Let them enjoy the company of the asshole without The Nice One to mediate and take the brunt of whatever your brother dishes out. Let them stew in the choice they are making. Your sister and your dad will initially try to get you to apologize and blame you and try to get you to stay or come back and smooth it over, they’ll try really hard, but I think theyWILL still sit up and take notice if the person who usually does not yell finally snaps and says some true things.
Yelling is NOT my go-to mode, I don’t like losing my temper, I don’t like starting here, I get very upset when I’m pushed to this extreme, I will go decades and miles out of my way to avoid it, and you’re the best judge of whether it’s even safe for you to do this given how hostile your brother is toward you, but I’m not going to lie: The times people in my family were being assholes to me and I finally stopped trying to Gently Persuade them or Just Quietly Take It and stood up and YELLED BACK and WALKED OUT and HUNG UP, because YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK TO ME THIS WAY, it completely changed our dynamic. And it changed the bystander dynamic, too, when I was like, “I know you are not the instigator of this, but when you sit there quietly with your mouth open in the breeze when I get screamed at, it makes me feel like you agree with what’s happening, that you’re okay with it as long as it’s not directed at you. But I always stick up for you, so, are we gonna stick together or not?”
In the short term, I got called hysterical and irrational and was blamed for being unreasonable, but it had gone on so long that I was finally like, yep, cool, I’M “HYSTERICAL” AND VERY SCARY, WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, LOOK AT MY YELLING AND MY BIG WAVY ARMS AND CRYING AND PROFANITY AND WALKING OUT OF PLACES, I AM SO UNREASONABLE AND OVERLY EMOTIONAL, THINK WHAT YOU LIKE ABOUT WHAT I AM, BUT ALSO, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK TO ME THIS WAY, EVER AGAIN.
In the short term, they grumbled and tried to use old strategies to reel me back in.
In the long term, they wanted to still have a family, so they started being nicer to me, and whenever they tested the boundary and tried to revert to the old order, they learned that I don’t show up places to be abused. Luckily, time did its work, when we did see each other we made new, nicer memories together, and it did get better, as those memories crowded out the old ones and became the basis for something new.
It was risky and lonely and really hard for a very long time (that’s why it’s the contingency plan, not Plan A) because I had to do it without knowing if it would ever get fixed, but I learned that some people will utterly refuse to hear you or understand what you are risking to be in their lives until you profoundly change the balance of power. “Forever is a long time, Sally,” I know you’re very afraid of estrangement, but estrangement is already in process if you’re getting picked on every time y’all hang out. Your dad doesn’t want to lose his family. Your sister doesn’t want to lose her family. My guess is that they don’t know how to fix what’s happening and they’re counting on you to lay yourself down in the gaps a little while longer in the hopes it will blow over. It won’t blow over, sadly, but I think you have a place and a say here, and more power than you guess.
In the end, you can’t fix your brother or your family, and I know that you know that I know that it’s not just your family. The world is full of entitled, hateful young men who desperately need someone to set them straight, just, I don’t think the primary targets of their abuse are the ones who have to do that work, they aren’t the best placed to do that work, nor is it on them to do that work. It’s on the people in their lives who can still reach them, the ones they might still listen to, the ones whose good opinion they might still care about, the ones who like and love them and who aren’t being targeted by them who can still safely say, look, put that gross shit down and come back to us, you’re always welcome here, but your hate can’t come along.
For that to really happen, the bystanders in our families have to be willing to be honest about who is causing the problems, to stop blaming victims, to stop ignoring cruel bullying behavior and hateful “jokes,” to stop kidding themselves that it will stop on its own, to stop pretending that hate is a phase that people “grow out of,” to stop pressuring everybody to be more okay with their Large Adult Sons who constantly spew cruelty and be honest with themselves about whose turn it is to step up and speak up and make it fucking stop already. I think a lot of conversations like this need to happen, right now, and I think it’s men who need to take the lead in addressing misogyny (they don’t listen to us, we tried), so if you’re reading this and you have a friend or a nephew or a son or a cousin or a teammate who makes you wonder, “Am I gonna hear about you on the news someday, buddy?” and you are not the target of their bad behavior and terrible beliefs, it’s time for a check in: “When you say stuff like that, I don’t know what to say. I’ve been quiet because it’s really awkward to talk about this, you’re obviously your own person, I’ve wanted us to be people who could agree to disagree, I assumed it was all a joke or a passing thing and it wasn’t my place, but now I have to ask: Do you honestly believe that? Where did you learn that? What makes you say that? Do you really think that’s okay? Did you think I thought that way, too? ‘Cause I don’t. Do I need to worry about you? Can I convince you to stop hanging out on those sites and making jokes like that? Can you please be kind to everyone in our family/class/team/school/improv troupe?”
Will it fix the problem or address the “root causes”? I don’t know! But “shocked” silence sure as fuck isn’t working, nor are “thoughts and prayers,” nor is waiting for a dysfunctional and fascist government to figure it out, so, let’s try something new and see where we get. We can’t control what people will think and feel, or what they’ll say and do, but we can stop enabling it in our spaces, we can stop expecting the victims to magically accommodate it all away so that we don’t have to ever do something about it. We can at least say, “I noticed what you said and I’m not okay with it” and remove the sea of plausible deniability they use to test the waters and then escalate and escalate and escalate and pretend that everybody secretly agrees with what they are doing, we can stop pretending all this “just comes out of nowhere.” We know where it comes from. It starts with words.
Letter Writer, maybe your brother isn’t persuadable right now, okay, then your family has choices. One choice is: “Abusive behavior is not allowed, spouting misogyny is not allowed, either be nice to your sister and stop saying sexist crap, or go home.” I hope your family gets it right.
Note: The LW updated me that fortunately her brother is not Gun People, so, I am breathing a tiny bit easier. The rest of the advice stands. Check on your people.