My little brother is in an abusive relationship. What do I do?
November 19, 2008 9:12 PM   Subscribe

My little brother is in an abusive relationship. What do I do?

My brother (in his early 20s) has spent the past year in a relationship with an incredibly manipulative and controlling girl. He's young and so I always assumed it would pass. Then, my mother started to lose her ability to keep it together over this. Then, my brother and his girlfriend started talking marriage. I've tried confronting my brother, I've tried confronting his girlfriend, I've tried talking civilly to his girlfriend, I've tried having a heart to heart with him. I've tried having a male relative close to his age talking to him about it. I've gently suggested he talk to someone.

My questions are: what should I do for my brother? On a daily basis, I don't know whether to shake him and scream in his face or threaten him or call him up and cry (okay, probably all bad ideas). I essentially want to kill the girl who is treating this way, but I cant, so how do I deal with the fact that she's not going anywhere anytime soon? And, what do I do for my mom? It's upsetting enough to feel like I've lost my brother/best friend, but it's pretty bad, too, having an inconsolable mother call daily. How, finally, do I reconcile it in my head, or, at the very least, not feel cripplingly depressed about it all?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You aren't being very specific about the abuse. If she is just manipulative and controlling, it's unfortunate that he is in that situation, but while young, he is an adult and will have to make his own decision to get out of the relationship.
posted by fructose at 9:21 PM on November 19, 2008

You either do nothing and hope he sees the light or you confront him. Hobson's choice, huh?

The truth is that you really cannot do anything. An ex of mine went through the same thing, which ended up with her brother marrying said horrid girl. She thought it had to do with the lack of a father figure at home and his desire to start a family in order to be a father. OP, is that a situation in your home?
posted by parmanparman at 9:23 PM on November 19, 2008

The only thing you can do is make sure your brother understands that you will always be there for him and that he can always reach out to you. I understand your desire to protect him but he needs to make mistakes, feel pain and sadness, and learn from it.
posted by spec80 at 9:26 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Strongly suggest a prenup? "Just in case?"
posted by rokusan at 9:52 PM on November 19, 2008

You'll probably need to develop a bit more patience than it sounds like you have. He has to come to the conclusion that he wants to leave, and that can be a long process. The question is not "how can I get him to see the light?" but "how can I remain in a strong relationship with him while he is choosing to do this?" and "how can I support him as much as possible?" and maybe "how can I respectfully discuss with him what's going on and engage in an ongoing dialogue that might lead him to approach relationships differently over the long run?" I wrote more about this here.

It's tough to feel like you're losing your siblings (even somewhat) to their significant others, and it's really tough to watch people you love be in relationships that are bad for them. (I have a little brother, too.) Good luck.
posted by salvia at 10:57 PM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

What spec80 said.

Tell him to always be sure he's taking care of himself, let him know family is there for him no matter what happens and won't judge him whatever the outcome, and be supportive of the healthy aspects of the relationship. That's really all you can do.

I've got particularly bitter experience in this, having tried to do otherwise with my own sibling. Now I'm left with some singed bridges and a much harder time bringing the whole family together. It seemed right at the time, but time has proven I should have just made nice and simply encouraged them to be good to each other.
posted by batmonkey at 10:59 PM on November 19, 2008

Be supported as much as you can when he needs you to show that you're truly his best friend. When someone in an abusive relationship, he or she doesn't know it until something is horrible happened. That is when they start to realize the ugly truth-unfortunately-love is blind. I was in the same abusing-controlling relationship and was very unhappy but didn't know how to get out until my ex dumped me for a girl that 1/2 of his age (I'm now only in my 30s). Now I see it so clearly that was a terrible abusive relationship but didn't know it back then. Good luck to your brother and don't let his relationship ruin your life and happiness
posted by Sitakaras at 11:11 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, little brothers can be idiots, especially at that age. I had an EXTREME sense of deja vu reading parts of your description, though in my case it wasn't my brother, but rather my brother-in-law. Similar case, here he was early 20s, in a full-on 10 alarm train wreck in progress of a relationship with this girl who was nothing but trouble and destroying his life for all to see. And there he sat in my car talking about marrying her. With the attitude of "if it (marriage) works out, it works out. If not, oh well". Feeling absolutely invulnerable, in the moment and unaware of the magnitude or long-term fallout of such action.

In that case, the relationship resolved itself before marriage could occur. Maybe you could persuade your sibling to at least have a lengthy engagement period in which the wheels might come flying off everything? Outright opposition to the relationship will simply drive him further into her arms, so stating your case in a brutally honest manner will only be counterproductive.
posted by barc0001 at 12:49 AM on November 20, 2008

I would look at it from this point of view: If he wasn't happy in this relationship he wouldn't be in it. So what's the problem? I mean, if he thinks he's happy, doesn't that mean he is happy? How does it help things to rhetorically convince him he is in fact unhappy?

Now, it may happen that some time in the future he will decide he is not happy in this relationship and want to get out of it. My suggestion is: Wait around until that happens and be ready to support him.
posted by Mike1024 at 2:46 AM on November 20, 2008

Let it go. You've tried various things, it didn't work, now let it go.

Live your life well, have healthy relationships and be there if he needs you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:34 AM on November 20, 2008

I would look at it from this point of view: If he wasn't happy in this relationship he wouldn't be in it.

And in my opinion, you would be wrong. Lots of people stay in unhappy relationships for myriad reasons. For all we know, this woman could be manipulating anon's brother into staying with her. I saw a guy that threatened to kill himself if I broke up with him, and I stayed with him for a year longer than I wanted to.

Anon, you can't really do much, and you certainly won't get anywhere if you just tell him to GTFO. It will be hard. Suggest pre-marital counseling, if they're seriously thinking about marriage. Hopefully he'll see that he can't make this work and reconsider. All you can really do in the meantime is be supportive without being judgmental.

If you really think this is crossing the line, someone at the National Domestic Abuse Hotline might be able to 1) give you some advice to help your brother, and 2) point you and your mother in the direction of a counselor or local support group. Their number is (800) 799-SAFE. Domestic abuse isn't just a dude beating his wife.

Good luck, Anon. My sister is finally divorcing the manipulative, slimy guy she married. She's really happy now. Remember, the human spirit is incredibly resilient.
posted by giraffe at 3:59 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have a similar situation in my family and what works for me was to tell my mother to stop calling me with all the drama. Yes, I know things are bad for my sibling, and I know my mother is stressed because she has involved herself, but if I am not hearing every little update I can at least focus on my own life rather than feeling helpless in the face of other people's lives and enabling behaviour. Back away and devote your energy to yourself, otherwise they will drag you down as well. Sorry.
posted by saucysault at 4:01 AM on November 20, 2008

You cannot make people do what you want them to do. You've said your piece, and unless he has some sort of memory disorder you don't need to say it again. And I'm pretty sure that trying to control him is exactly the wrong way to get him away from his controlling girlfriend.

Take a good hard look at your mother. She's "started to lose her ability to keep it together over this," you say, and you call her "inconsolable." You might suggest that she get some help for herself, and help her do that if she wants your help, and then get on with helping yourself. You can't make her or your brother better, your brother can't make her or you or the girlfriend better, and since you were vague about the nature of the abuse aside from the girlfriend being controlling and manipulative, it sounds like there is a chain of control here - first mother, then girlfriend. Your mother may believe that falling apart will guilt or sway or influence your brother to end the relationship; unfortunately that kind of manipulation doesn't work, and it sounds like it's well on the way to wrecking her life.

The most positive thing the two of you can do is be supportive, be people he can turn to when the time comes to ask for help. Model for him the behavior of strong but boundary-respecting family. This may not save him, or prevent him from doing the things you fear he will do, but I don't think it could do anything but help you.

Step one: stop talking shit about your brother and his girlfriend. Don't magnify the drama, stop reinforcing your mother's perseveration on it. Don't participate in this behavior that is obviously unhealthy for you. Step two is getting some help.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:39 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Having been the victim of abuse, everyone here is right: nothing you can say will make him leave this chick. There are some things you can do to help him though. Here are some things my family did, and some things I wish they'd done:

1. Abusers try to isolate their victims from people who love them and make them feel good - don't let her! Call, e-mail, text, visit. Let your brother know that you love him and aren't going anywhere.
2. If your brother is suffering from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem (which may be why he got into this relationship in the first place) try to help him seek therapy or other help for it. When he feels good about himself, he'll feel ready to move on.
3. If you're spending time with GF and brother, try to do it on your turf or neutral ground. Help your brother spend as much time as possible in positive environments that make him feel good and empowered.

You can't imagine how shitty you have to feel about yourself to let someone treat you that way, so just make sure your brother knows that he is worth something and you love him (which obviously you do).

You can't "make" them break up, and be ready for the very real possibility that he will marry this girl. But, someday something will happen and he'll wake up. And you'll be there for him.
posted by katybird at 6:39 AM on November 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

I've been in a couple of not-so-great relationships, and with one of them, my parents actually told me that they were kind of "meh" about one of them. However, rather than getting me to see sense, they just made me all the more stubborn about trying to make it work, because -- I didn't want to be proven wrong.

Unfortunately, this isn't uncommon -- telling someone that you've noticed that you think they're unhappy in a relationship could make them all the more determined to cling onto it and fix it because they may not be ready to admit they've chosen wrong, and they may end up staying longer than they would have if you'd just left them alone.

Conversely, there was a time when someone DID handle this kind of thing properly -- he simply listened, and then pointed out some things he'd heard me say. I was visiting a friend, and was in the middle of a rant about my then-boyfriend, and at some point I paused and he simply said, "I noticed that this whole time, you haven't been asking 'do I leave him or not,' you're saying that you don't know how to leave him. It sounds to me like you've already chosen to leave him, though." When he pointed that out, I realized that, "....Oh. Oh, hey, yeah," and called things off with the boyfriend the next day.

The moral is: don't try to lead him to that decision, because that could backfire. But do listen, and if it sounds like he's made that decision on his own, point that out and support him in it. Or, if he comes to another decision, support him in that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:44 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Since we don't know a lot about the specifics of this relationship, there are a few things I'd like to touch on here.

First of all, let me say there is nothing more you can do to get your brother to dump this woman and now you just have to work on making peace with the situation and on maintaining decent relationships within your family.

I had a female friend who was very controlling and borderline abusive. She was always very controlling of her boyfriends, and the relationship that "succeeded" was with a guy who had a probably below average IQ and was so gentle and mild he would just do whatever she told him. They're married now, have been for years. They seem happy enough together (I don't see her often at all, because of her behaviour towards me). I do know of a few marriages that have this dynamic — the woman controls everything and the guy just knuckles under for the sake of peace. I don't think it all healthy but it does seem to work in a way. You don't mention anything about how your brother feels or acts about all this. I know it's hard to watch this sort of thing, but you may just have to accept it and make the best of it. People have to run their own lives.

I do find it interesting that you and your mother are all over this to the point where your mother is distraught and you are actively intervening. Maybe the women are in charge in your family too (in a more benign, less extreme way) and this is what your brother is used to. Maybe you and your mother need to work on your relationship with your brother and make it healthier and less interfering.

I had another close female friend in a shitty relationship with an abusive guy years ago. We're not in contact anymore. If I had that particular issue to live through again, what I would do is do lots of reading and research about abuse issues and how best to talk to people who are in them. So I recommend that. You and mother need some good, professional advice on how to get some perspective on this. Go to counselling if you think it will help.

The other thing I wish I had done different is take less from the female friend. Again, you haven't said anything about how your brother feels and behaves so I don't know if this is relevant to your situation, but my friend used her problems as an excuse to act quite badly. She complained non-stop about the guy for three years straight until all her friends were sick of listening to her. Meanwhile she never listened to anyone else talk about anything that was going on with them - she'd even complain about how other people were full of themselves. She'd be up to half an hour late meeting me, and not even apologize, and then expect me to listen to her rant about how inconsiderate people were for not being on time for her. I helped her move the dirtbag out of her apartment twice. She never helped me move any of the three times I moved while I knew her. I didn't care, I had lots of help from other people, but it did make me really angry when she'd go on about "how much she did for everyone and how she got nothing back". I could go on and give more examples, but she basically just got intensely selfish and consumed by her bad relationship. She had unreasonable expectations of others and did nothing but make excuses about her own bad behaviour and poor decisions. Mind you, she was somewhat like this before, but this bad relationship exacerbated her bad character tendencies a great deal.

If your brother is doing something similar, don't put up with it and excuse it and think to yourself, "Oh, poor bro, he's just having such a hard time," and get secretly angrier and angrier with him. Call him on it, and set limits on what you will do for him and what you will take from him. He needs to see his situation and his own character for what it is and this is no time to baby him or be a doormat. Say you will help him move out (if he lives with her), find him contact information for a counsellor, be ready to do anything practical and constructive that you can, but if he's, say, complaining on and on for hours and nothing ever comes of it, tell him you can no longer listen to that because he needs to take it to a counsellor.

He may marry this girl. It's his decision. You have no say in that. What you do have a say in is whether you can maintain your own peace of mind, whether you allow your own relationship with him to be destroyed, and whether your family stays together and can go on enjoying Christmas dinners together with or without this girl. So work on those things.
posted by orange swan at 8:24 AM on November 20, 2008

Key is to stay close and let him know you are there for him. Manipulative partners often try to isolate their partner. If you can, don't let this happen. Although I understand it is hard to sit by and watch your loved one be treated badly.
posted by Gor-ella at 8:34 AM on November 20, 2008

Key is to stay close and let him know you are there for him. Manipulative partners often try to isolate their partner.

So, so true. The really canny abusers will do their best to craftily engineer situations which lead to estrangement before you even realize what's happening. So be alert and pay attention to subtle attempts along these lines, and definitely continue to let him know you are there for him.
posted by Aquaman at 9:38 AM on November 20, 2008

My future bro-in-law was in a similar relationship for most of the past year and a half. While I never saw concrete signs of abuse per se, his girlfriend was generally manipulative and controlling and was, in many was, mentally unwell to boot. FBIL became a hermit, mostly because of her asocialness; she essentially moved in and freaked out any time he "left her alone," but wouldn't go out, either. I had once been close with him, but our relationship all but disappeared. Of course, I was upset by this.

In fact, most of his family was. Particularly his mother, who despised this girl and had no problem with expressing that to anyone who would listen, including FBIL. I firmly believe that this (largely justified) vitriol did more to cement their unhealthy relationship than anything else. It banded them together, made FBIL feel like he had to protect his GF. He also didn't want his mother to feel like she "won" if he broke up with her. So he stayed in the relationship for a long time. Toward the end, he started to hear via his mom how many people didn't like this girl, myself included. He asked me about it. Answering this question entailed walking a thin line. I didn't want to alienate myself further from him, isolating him more within the relationship, but I also wanted to make it clear to him that I cared about him and that I was concerned. I wrote him a letter, which I think fairly communicated that I would support him no matter what, and that I would respect his decisions, even if I didn't agree with them. The letter was, more or less, as follows:
Dear future bro.:

I'm writing because we're family now (if we weren't already) and because I care deeply about Truth, particularly about honesty, particularly about dealing honestly with those I care about. I'm worried that the issues that your mother must have brought up to you will come up again, and it would be dishonest of me to let you believe that this was entirely evil schemes on her part, because it's not as if I haven't expressed reservations or concerns about your GF to her.

I want you to know that my concern for you is in no way "siding with" your mother; that's not my intent. I don't speak for anyone--not her, not my SO--but myself. And even if I agree with the content of some of the thing's she's said, I don't agree with the way she's expressed them; ultimately, you and your choices should be treated respectfully, just like I hope you would treat her (and me, and whoever) respectfully in turn. What I'm trying to say is that my worrying about you and your GF doesn't mean that I'm not on your side, because I am.

And, as your future sister, I AM worried about you and your GF. Firstly and primarily because a lot of things about her--sleeping odd hours, not eating, flunking out of graduate school, not working--are pretty big indicators of depression. I'm the last person to suggest that depressed people are somehow bad; many of the people I love best have been through spats of depression, sometimes lifelong spats of depression. But, speaking from a life of dealing with depression (in myself and those around me), I know how sinister and draining it can be--not just for her, but for you, as someone who will be taking care of and caring for her, in every sense. It's incredibly, incredibly hard.

Otherwise, apart from this, I haven't gotten a chance to know her really, but I don't think it's particularly from a lack of desire on my part. I'd like to be friends with her, to think the four of us (as the next generation of this family!) could all get along happily together and do things and have adventures. But there is a degree of social awkwardness there. I understand to an extent--I'm shy myself. But when she does stuff like whisper to you when I'm in the room, it makes me uncomfortable. I don't think she does this to be off-putting or rude, but this sort of thing makes me feel uncomfortable enough that bridging the gap, making the extra effort to be friendly, becomes really difficult. And usually this isn't something that's difficult for me at all!

But all of that is mostly irrelevant compared to the real question: are you happy with her? I've heard about your fights, heard from both your mother and brother that you've talked about breaking up with her. I wonder if you're worried that, if you broke up with her, your mother would win the war between the two of you over this. But the thing is, if you're NOT happy, and you stay with her, your mother might not win--but you wouldn't win, either. No one would. You deserve to be with someone who makes you happy, who makes the same sacrifices for you that you make for her, whose love and support reciprocates the love and support you give her.

I'll admit, again, that I don't know her well, that I don't know your relationship well. Who could, besides the two of you? And I've been in her position before, been seen as "the crazy girlfriend." I know how hard it is, how the reality could be different from what it seems to an outsider. I'm no one to quibble with your choice if she makes you feel loved and supported, appreciated. The best relationships make us endeavor to be better, to ourselves and to the people with love, to build something greater together than we would alone. If your GF makes you feel like that, then of course I'll support you. Because deep down, all of us--your whole family, even your mother (YES, even your mother!)--just really want you to be happy. Because you only get one chance, and everything else is poppycock.

Earnestly yours, your future sister, Pho
Around the same time, others--his father, my SO--started to express similar sentiments: that they cared about him and were concerned but that they would support him no matter what. And three weeks later he broke up with her.

I think it's really, really important to emphasize to your brother that you care about him and will never abandon him--that it's not a matter, say, of taking sides, but that you really want him to be happy. But, really, be there for him, no matter what he chooses. If the relationship is really abusive, as you say, she's likely going to do everything she can to isolate him from his family and former friends. Don't let that happen. Be there for him, to be his support system, if nothing else.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:37 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I will second the "you can't do anything to make them leave" bit that katybird said.

I also want to caution you to NOT SAY ANYTHING BAD ABOUT THE PARTNER TO YOUR BROTHER'S FACE until he has left her. Period. Do not do it. Odds are it will get back to her that you don't like her, and then you will be THE ENEMY! and next thing you know, your brother won't be "allowed" to talk to you any more. Make nice, or say nothing, but don't come openly out against them. It won't make things better and could just make them worse if you do that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:09 PM on November 20, 2008

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