I'd like to help my distant brother.
April 30, 2010 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Family Drama Filter: How do I connect with my disconnected brother?

I'm going to have to keep the details of this a little thin, but:

1) My family is my brother (early 40s), me (mid 30s), my mother and father (mid 60s). My brother married a woman who has been, at times, really terrible to my family, particularly my mother. Take my word for it. My mom can be kind of eccentric and the whole thing took a huge toll on her. The relationship between my SIL and my family has improved tremendously in the intervening 10 years but is still sort of tenuous and my parents generally walk around on eggshells around her. My brother and SIL have one daughter, who my parents see once a month or so. My mom loves the girl a ton.

2) My brother is really different from me and my dad in that he never talks about his feelings, asks for advice, or tells anyone of his plans. He just does stuff and you find out about it at the moment, or often times, long after the fact. He's been fairly successful in his (well-paying) line of work, but doesn't find any satisfaction there and has been dealing with depression off and on for a long time. Currently he's on a leave-of-absence for this depression. He's done this once before and had a really good result, but it's sort of frightening for us because he's supporting a lot of people (no details but not just his wife and daughter, nothing too weird but just that there are a lot of people depending on him).

3) It scares me that my brother is totally incapable of leaning on anyone or ever talking about his feelings. I know that people have different ways of dealing with stress, but I feel scared about the way my brother holds stuff in. He won't tell my parents anything about what's going on, which causes my father, in particular, tremendous worry. My father is a very kind man, and would like nothing more than to be supportive of my brother, but my brother doesn't seem to want any support.

4) Personally, I would like a closer relationship with my brother. But it's very frustrating for me to talk to him, because he never shares anything that's significant. If things are going well, he'll talk about that, but he'll never confide in me anything, and if you ask him how he's doing, he'll just say "fine" or "a little stressed". But then I know that he's dealing with fairly severe depression (at his low points, he'll admit that), so it's obvious everything isn't fine. We don't have much of a relationship, partially due to his wife making me generally feel unwelcome or just weird when visiting, and partially due to some physical distance between where we live (but not really enough). I see him once a year or so and talk on the phone maybe 2x a year. Which seems bizarre. I don't hate him at all, but I'm just perplexed by him because none of this seems like a big deal to him.

5) My father has encouraged me to not get particularly involved because my brother is "proud". And I sort of agree with that advice, because it's true. I just worry that my brother will spiral downwards (there are some small signs that things are not going that well at home) and I won't have even made an effort to engage with him. That said, he makes it pretty impossible to engage with him, and acts like he really doesn't want any engagement. I do love him though, and really would like our relationship to be better. But I don't know how to make someone want support or connection.

6) It sort of comes down to me wanting to write my brother an email saying something like "brother x, I know you are having a hard time right now, and I just wanted to offer that if you wanted to talk about anything, I'm always around". But the thing is, I'm not supposed to know that anything is wrong due to all kinds of weird dysfunctional communications via my SIL, various members of my family who are not me, conveyed to me by my parents. So it's like, if I engage with my brother about knowing about this stuff, then my brother knows that my parents are telling me what's going on, which pisses him off further. This is not over-reaction, that's a fairly possible consequence.

If you have any questions I'll try to pass them through the mods.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, I would like a closer relationship with my brother.

Just because you want to be closer to him doesn't mean he wants to be closer to you. You should respect that.

Alternatively, you could write him a lot of emails talking about yourself and asking for his advice, and not pressuring him to disclose stuff to you. It sounds like he doesn't trust you, but maybe that's because he doesn't know who you are and you have to show him.
posted by anniecat at 9:07 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, a lot of people aren't really helped by talking. I get the sense that you have needs that you would like for him to meet, and you're blaming his wife and even him for not meeting needs you have and masking them in a "I want to help him" kind of way. Maybe that's too much of a demand on him and he senses your neediness. I think you really have to frame it from a honest point of view: You wish you had the kind of relationship with your brother where you're close to him. But you also need to accept the reality: If he wanted to be close or had the time and energy, he would. Otherwise, there's really nothing you can do other than upset him more.

Maybe you could try to engage his wife somehow? Just kill her with kindness even if she's mean. Just pretend she's not and maybe she'll help restore or rebuild your relationship with your brother.
posted by anniecat at 9:13 AM on April 30, 2010

This sounds a lot like my family. I would just make a point of trying to check in with him more often. Be benignly chatty, say you want to build the relationship or are concerned about parents. If he wants to talk more, he will. If not, he will know you care.
posted by eleanna at 9:21 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

My sister is like that-she lives 20 hours away from myself and my parents and we're not close. She's very private and we never hear about anything going on until after it's all over. (She was being physically abused and left her husband and was divorced before anyone else even knew she was unhappy). It's just not her personality to turn to her family when she needs support. She would rather have her privacy. It took me a very long time to understand that, because I always wanted the movie type sister relationship where we shared everything and were best friends but that's not what she wants and I had to learn to respect that. It doesn't mean she doesn't care about me or my life, she just is more reserved and has a different idea of what kind of relationship she wants with her family.

As far as the SIL thing, take that out of the equation. Your brother married her, he's choosing to stay married to her and you have to respect that. The hostility between his wife and his family won't help you get any closer-trust me on that.
posted by hollygoheavy at 9:30 AM on April 30, 2010

It's possible that he seeks out support where and when he needs it, whether it's from a therapist or from his wife or someone else. It sounds like he's keeping a handle on stuff right now. But if he does start spiraling down, I hope you're aware that it won't be your fault. You sound like you're feeling pre-emptively guilty for something that may not happen and something you can't prevent. I think just keeping in touch is the best thing you can do for him.

Also, are you guys on facebook or twitter or something like that? Sometimes sharing the little daily incidentals that don't come up in conversation can help people feel closer.
posted by amethysts at 9:31 AM on April 30, 2010

How often do you send conversational, non-worried emails to him? Send him a link that you found and that made you think of him, or send him a quick note talking about something minor going on in your life that might interest him. If there is anything you two have in common that you talk about without awkwardness, talk about that. That kind of conversation establishes friendship and trust and here-for-you-ness a lot better than the direct "I'm worried and I'm here if you need me" messages.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:35 AM on April 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

So when my family was busy imploding, we all hopped on a conference call with a therapist and she laid it out for us something like this:

Knock it off. All of you, knock it off. You have made triangular communication and art form. (A talks to B about C, but then B isn't allowed to talk to C and C isn't allowed to know what A knows... or some other similar horrible permutation.) You need to start directly addressing each other and if someone indirectly addresses you about someone else you need to tell them to knock it off.

For the most part, we did. But it was really difficult because we were so used to it. And sometimes it led to really awkward and angry conversations. (Like when I told my dad that he needed to stop complaining about my mother and her family to me because I have an independent relationship with all of them - and that if he had a problem with them, he needed to take it up with them, and if unwilling to do that he needed to quit his bitching. Or when I told my sister that I thought the man she was going to marry was a potential abuser and that it scared the shit out of me.)

It sounds like your family has a lot of this type of communication going on - you talk to your parents about your brother rather than to your brother directly; SIL informs your family of what is going on, but then finishes it off with a gag order; family talks about SIL but doesn't directly address things and instead walks on eggshells. You didn't provide a ton of info, so that's all just conjecture. But your hesitation to actually just call your brother up seems indicative of this kind of communication (at least from my own experience with it).

I would suggest picking up the phone and calling your brother. Don't include any messages of support. Don't include any overly sensitive concern. Just pick up the phone and chat with him. And then do it again. And then do it again. Do it until your brother no longer raises one eyebrow when you call, thinking "I wonder what she wants this time..." or "That's weird, she never calls." Do it until you and your brother start talking about more important stuff than the weather. Do it until your brother realizes that you are his friend and family member, and someone he doesn't have to be proud around. And then, once you've done that, he MAY let his defenses down and let you in and allow you to be supportive to him. And if he does, it sounds like you're already ready and willing to take on that role.

Good luck.
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:36 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

My brother is really different from me and my dad in that he never talks about his feelings, asks for advice, or tells anyone of his plans. He just does stuff and you find out about it at the moment, or often times, long after the fact.

This part, at least, could be me. I rarely if ever ask my parents or siblings for advice. I may or may not tell them when I'm travelling, depending on my whim at the time. I'll likely tell them about a major life change only after it's pretty much a done deal.

That's just who I am. I like to think of myself as strongly independent. Even when I've needed my parents' help as an adult (e.g., broke my leg, requiring surgery, and was home-bound for two weeks) it makes me vaguely uncomfortable to have to accept it.

But that doesn't mean I love them or value them any less. It means a great deal to me that I know I could ask them for advice, even if I very rarely do. When we talk on the phone, I'm content to mostly listen and hear about their lives, being much less interested in talking about mine.

I see him once a year or so and talk on the phone maybe 2x a year.

Twice a year seems pretty infrequent, even to me. Maybe you could call him more often, but content yourself with telling him about your life and not expecting much in the way of hearing about his. Know that, if he's anything like me, he'll appreciate the contact even if he's not good at expressing that appreciation.

I'm also reminded of a quote from A River Runs Through It: "Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them—we can love completely without complete understanding."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:51 AM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you need to respect who your brother is. He's unlikely to change--it sounds like he doesn't want to. Now, it's wonderful that you have a close, open, and emotional relationship with your parents. But it sounds like you and your brother could at least share non-emotional pleasantries and stories of your daily lives. What's wrong with that? That's still a friendship, and I'm sure will be a comfort to him.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:20 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I want to remind you that you do not have a lock on the truth here, and encourage you to consider going easier on your sister-in-law. What I've seen often in married couples is that one partner will make overt the more covert feelings of the other, particularly feelings about family. If your SIL is acting in a way that makes you feel unwelcome, and even if she's picking fights, it may be because her instinct is to protect your brother from his family of origin.

The mother that you interpret as "eccentric" and perhaps a bit fragile may be a woman that he quietly interprets as manipulative, histrionic, or frighteningly irrational. What you feel as a desire for connection, he may interpret as your being domineering, needy, or patronizing. (And he'd have a point -- if you talk to him twice a year, you are in no position to know what he is "totally incapable" of.) Whatever he may feel about your family, it's probably not exactly what you feel, and there are valid viewpoints on your family dynamic that aren't your own.

My advice to you echoes other peoples': back way, way off. Develop some finesse and humility. It sounds to me almost as if you are hoping to crack him open and extract some kind of cathartic admission of his depression. But you don't actually have a right to his innermost feelings. If you want to be his friend, you have to do the ordinary work of establishing a friendship with him. Chat. Enjoy his sense of humor. Be trustworthy. Demand nothing. Let go of your frustration and your feeling that things should be some other way. Have patience.
posted by sculpin at 10:20 AM on April 30, 2010 [14 favorites]

Personally, I would like a closer relationship with my brother.

Personally I would like a closer relationship with Penelope Cruz but I am pretty sure she'd call the cops and I'd be arrested for stalking her if I ever attempted to act on it.

He by his actions would NOT like a closer relationship with you. Sorry if that is harsh, but it is reality. That is the way it is.

While families are an important unit and it is great if siblings can relate as adults warts and all, however siblinghood is an accident of genetics. The accident of genetics doesn't mean that siblings have to be close or friendly the rest of their lives.

He is a private person and may have good reasons for being so. Your eccentric mother might have been very different to a son (birth orde rand sex means that two siblings have essentially two separate sets of parents) such that he needed to break away for his sanity. The more you want to be closer the more you will push him away.

The only thing you can do is be there if *he* makes the effort to get closer. The problem is now you have the habit of chatting on the phone only twice/year. All of a sudden calling him up much more often - even if just chatting will seem weird to him. And the advice of letting him know you are there for him might sound patronizing. I know this because I could be the "other brother" in my family and I am telling you how I would react.
posted by xetere at 12:30 PM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I started to pour out my life story in response to yours--then I realized that that would do precious little to help. I am an older brother who chooses not to have anything to do with younger brother. He could change that by opening the communication between us--my last with him encouraged that, three years ago. Barring a change on his part, I can go another twenty--saddened, perhaps, but few regrets, if any. So, I guess my counsel would be to just float it out there that you're thinking about him and that you would like it if you two could talk, even if it's just by phone, letter, or email.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:34 PM on April 30, 2010

When the problems are really part of a family dynamic, I tend to think that the best approach is to remove the plank from your own eye. I'm not sure you have a plank or not, but doing your own work is often the most you can do. The ability to be in the family situation without reinforcing the original patterns is hard-earned.
posted by salvia at 12:56 PM on April 30, 2010

Two other quick things I thought of. I'm not sure it will help, but Harriet Lerner has a few books I've liked on family dynamics, particularly the Dance of Intimacy (also The Dance of Communication).

It kinda makes sense to me that if him taking some time to deal with depression scares you, because so many people are relying on him, he's bearing a really heavy weight. It might be most helpful if the weight could be removed from him, not that you can do it yourself, but maybe you could avoid reinforcing it with your worry.
posted by salvia at 12:57 PM on April 30, 2010

I kind of relate to your brother, but I'm single, female, and don't have a history of depression or mental illness. I have an older sister and me, my parents and my sister's family (husband and 2-yr old) all live within close proximity.

First, I really like greekphilosophy's comment about the triangular communication, because that happens in my family too. The indirect, talking-around-each-other type of communication drives me NUTS because I'm a fairly direct person, but breaking these communication patterns is really too much to ask without some type of serious intervention (e.g. therapy). Those patterns are too ingrained.

It's great that your dad wants to be supportive, and that you want a closer relationship to your brother. At the same time, me being like your brother, I can tell you these things are annoying. I'm really sorry about that. It's annoying because you're asking for him to do things that he may not want to do. You're asking him to make YOU happy, to fulfil YOUR needs, to make your dad feel supportive and to make you feel happy that you have a great relationship. Stop figuring out WHY your brother is like this (as I'm sure you're doing) and let him be. That's the best thing that you can do for him; it's what he wants - but I know it's not what you want. For whatever reason, you may never know what he thinks about the family and even if you did, he may fear that "you just wouldn't understand." You and your dad are really only thinking about what you guys want, and what you see to be the truth, but no one has really stopped to ask, what does brother x want? This is what bugs me about my family too, and it becomes very overbearing and overwhelming. I don't feel that I can have a good relationship with my sister for many reasons (partly because of her, but - and this is key - mostly because of me, which she can't do anything about), and I don't feel that I can ask for certain kinds of support from my parents for many reasons. You guys have formed a vision of who your brother is in your head, and he may feel resentful of that, and feel like that's who he has to be, in order to communicate with you. In short, he may feel like he has all these expectations of him that he has to live up to in order to talk to you.

But I don't know how to make someone want support or connection.
And that's just it. You can't. You can't make anyone do anything. You have to let all YOUR wants go, for your own sanity, more than anything.

if I engage with my brother about knowing about this stuff, then my brother knows that my parents are telling me what's going on, which pisses him off further.
Yup, I've been in a similar position. It really, really sucks to feel like you're being talked about behind your back. It doesn't matter if it's "because we care!" it's still talking behind your back. Which is happening to your brother. And you guys probably do this because you feel you can't talk to him directly. Really, there is no clear solution to this. Lots of ingrained family dynamics here. It's really up to him. He has to want support and connection, and a kind of relationship defined on his terms, based on who he is, not who you are, or who you think he is and what his problems are. Otherwise, there really is nothing you can do, other than let all of this go. It doesn't mean stop loving him or abandoning him, but let go of this desire to want this relationship so hard, etc. I really like the quote from a River Runs Through It above.

What about your mom? I think it's interesting that there's nothing about what your mom wants (unlike you and your dad); I don't think that was a mistake and you left it out; it signals instead to me that she actually doesn't want anything in particular?

So, I hope I've given you some perspective on what your brother might be thinking/feeling... and you've given me perspective on what my sister might be thinking/feeling, so thanks for that. If you want to chat further I'm at foxjacket AT yahoo DOT ca.
posted by foxjacket at 3:08 PM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I identify a lot with your brother in this story. My story may not be anything like his, but I'll share just to offer another data point.

I'm in my mid-30s and have one sister, two years younger than me. We are not close, although I know she wishes we were. She lives in Texas with her husband, and they just had their first child. My parents are in Texas as well. I've lived in Massachusetts for 15 years, ever since coming here for college. I travel home to see my family about once a year, and might talk to my sister on the phone twice a year, if that.

I have always been a shy, sensitive and anxious person. While I don't have anyone depending on me for support, I do frequently feel depressed, and I have always struggled in my career. I haven't had many close relationships in my life. The thought of sharing any of this with my sister deeply embarrasses me. I saw myself as the bigger, stronger, smarter big brother growing up, and now I feel she's surpassed me. When we do speak, I'm sometimes reduced almost to monosyllables, because I don't want to encourage an actual conversation that would let her see how I really feel about myself.

I'm not much closer with my parents. They say they care and want to help me. And believe me, I very much want someone I can turn to and lean on for support. I just don't feel comfortable going to my family for that. I don't trust them to understand, believe, or accept what I have to say about my feelings. Like your brother, if asked how I'm doing, I'll often just say "fine," when I really mean that I'm not fine, but I don't feel comfortable saying more. I believe my parents sense that I don't trust them, but saying they care and are available for me is not enough to gain my trust.

When I shared my fears with them growing up, I remember their reactions as being either cheerfully dismissive ("You're afraid? Don't be!") or minimizing ("Everybody feels that way!") or punitive ("I don't want to hear any more about what you can't do! I want to hear about what you can do!"). I feel like they prematurely cut me off without really taking the time to explore those painful feelings with me. And their advice to me often felt like superficial platitudes, not really tailored to my perspective, because, again, they hadn't really taken the time to understand. When platitudes didn't satisfy me, my mother often seemed confused about how else to help. And one of my dad's favorite things to tell me was, "One, don't sweat the small stuff. And two, it's all small stuff." Which had the effect of ensuring I never mentioned that particular concern to him again. I'm sure he meant it as a comforting message ("life's problems are manageable"), but it's no substitute for concrete guidance about HOW to manage! My takeaway from this is that turning to my parents for help is likely to be a frustrating and alienating experience. Which is largely how I feel today.

Anyway, my experience may have no relation to your brother's, but sculpin's advice is very well said. The ability to trust my own family is something that would have to be built over time.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 3:56 PM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

People have different styles of communication. You sound like me in that you sound like you thrive on intimacies, shared private moments. But maybe he thrives on shared work or regular inconsequential chats. Do you want to help him, regardless of whether you two will ever be intimate? Then pick up his style of communicating and get a feel for what it feels like to be him. Learn to keep a conversation going with him. Do this often. Show him that you ask nothing of him but are often there. And often means way more often than now.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:12 PM on May 1, 2010

Oh, and disengage from your parents in this matter. Make this a private project, something between you and him that your parents' feelings don't factor into. Otherwise it will always be three of you vs. him.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:14 PM on May 1, 2010

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