It's time for Baby Buster to leave the nest.
May 3, 2011 10:28 AM   Subscribe

What can I do to help my family break out of a negative relationship cycle?

Sigh. My brother is over 30 and still lives with our mother. He lives the life of an 18-year-old. He contributes nothing to the house unless it's food he wants to eat. He barely scraped through an AA degree, works an undemanding job that pays enough to keep him in a new car, computers and music gear. My mom wants him to pay rent and help with the utilities, but doesn't really demand it. He was always the baby and I believe that they (he and my mother) have developed a codependent relationship. She has a high-paying professional job, yet she still does his laundry and makes dinner for him. The house they live in is way nicer than anything he'd be able to afford on his own. Every two months or so they get into a big argument in which he says lots of childish crap like threatening to leave and never talk to my mom again, while she yells at him for dropping out of school or other past actions. Then they both come to me complaining. A week or two later, all is apparently forgotten.

My brother had to attend some court-ordered therapy after a booze-fueled act of drama (he broke his girlfriend's window because she dumped him), but he stopped going as soon as his required hours were up. My mom is a psychologist, so, of course, she doesn't need therapy. I suspect my brother may be a bit borderline because of how alternately clingy and aggressive he is. Oddly, he shares a lot of personality traits with my mom, with whom I haven't historically had the greatest relationship.

The latest drama is that his most recent girlfriend dumped him because he refused to do anything to improve his life. He got drunk and got into a fight with my mom. Now she wants me to tell her what to do about him. I told her to change the locks while he's at work. She says she just wants me to "talk to him." I am convinced that there's been enough talking and nothing short of extreme action will make a difference. Also, he's been ignoring my calls, texts & Facebook messages for three weeks.

My brother's been to jail, to therapy, been through a number of poor girlfriends who've done everything they can to "help" him. He's been on all kinds of anti-anxiety drugs. He's done suicide stunts (I say stunts here because he did it while on the phone with another girl who was trying to dump him, so, obviously just trying to manipulate her.)

He is a smart guy, but emotionally stunted. He has plenty of wit and talent, but very little empathy. My mom has spend many years making excuses for him. She is almost to retirement age and does not want to spend her final years doing his laundry.

I want to help them both, but I think what needs to be done will be shatteringly painful to both of them.

TL;DR: How do I convince my codependent mother and brother to separate?
posted by Kitty Stardust to Human Relations (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's none of your business.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:33 AM on May 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

Walk away, this is somebody else's drama. Life is too short, it's not your business.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:35 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is she interested in moving? She could move out of the big house into a smaller place that just has room for her. She could do it now or when she retires. I saw someone in a similar situation do this and it worked out pretty well.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:35 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't think you can do anything, but just as a note, this is not a given:
My mom is a psychologist, so, of course, she doesn't need therapy.
posted by Glinn at 10:37 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

"My mom is a psychologist, so, of course, she doesn't need therapy."

Ah, where's my sarcasm button? This is what she's told me when I suggested it to her.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:39 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ok, I did wonder. Sorry!
A sarcasm button would be very helpful in many cases.
posted by Glinn at 10:42 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

entrenching yourself in their drama just includes you in their cycle. refuse to take part. your mom might find the strength she needs if she stops getting the release by commiserating with you.
posted by nadawi at 10:50 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

yeah, primarily I also think you need to disengage a bit from it.

As an aside, have you asked your mom how she would handle a client who came to her with the exact same problem?
posted by edgeways at 10:52 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think that her only choice is to move into a one-bedroom apartment. Set him up in his own apartment across town, paying security deposit and first month's rent. Then let him start paying his own way.

But, this will only work if it's what she really wants. I don't think it's what she wants.

You need to tell them both that you won't listen to them talk about each other any more. It doesn't help matters but may prolong the issue because they feel better once they've vented to you. But you just feel worse.

Either way, it's not up to you to help them. They are grown-ups, even if they aren't acting like it, and really do know what to do. They just don't want to do it.
posted by dawkins_7 at 10:52 AM on May 3, 2011

Your mom and your brother are both getting more from this situation than they feel they would get if they ended it. Your brother gets a free place to live and no responsibilities; your mom gets whatever emotional needs filled by having your brother live there and getting to complain to you about it.

There's nothing you can do about it. They have to be the ones to change it, and they won't do that if they're still getting something out of it, and that outweighs (in their perception) what they'd lose. It's not logical or rational, and you can't reason them out of it.

The best thing, as others have said, is to stay as far out of it as possible.
posted by rtha at 10:59 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

So the pattern is: Buster and your mom live together as if Buster is still in his teens, they have a big fight, your mom asks you for advice, then she ignores your advice. Right?

I'd say something like, "Mom, you've asked for my advice many times, and I've given it, and then you reject or ignore my suggestions and things between you and Buster go back to the way they've always been. I'm not willing to remain a part of this pattern. You can keep living with Buster just the way things are, you can insist he pay rent or kick him out, you can do whatever you want, but I'm not going to be involved anymore. I love you, and I love him, and I want to be part of both of your lives, but I just can't stay in this cycle where you two fight, ask me for advice, ignore my advice, and go back to the way things were until the next big fight. Please leave me out of it."

Because you can't fix this. And, moreover, the part where she asks for your advice is step three of the dysfunctional cycle. Refuse to be part of it.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:01 AM on May 3, 2011 [13 favorites]

Welcome to the Karpman Drama Triangle. You are playing all three roles. Now ask yourself why.
posted by saucysault at 11:03 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

This may sound harsh and I don't mean it to be, but what makes you think you could possibly do anything to improve their situation, when your mother -- a trained psychologist -- is voluntarily engaging in it?

That your mother would ask you to intervene is a huge red flag. Surely she's aware of resources that could help her (not just therapy, but Al-anon and other support groups, co-dependency self-help books, etc.). The fact that 1. she won't consider therapy for herself and 2. she would attempt to involve you is really unhealthy.

I know from my own family how painful it is to watch situations like this. The best thing you can do is detach from their drama. The sad truth is there's nothing you can do about it.
posted by Majorita at 11:04 AM on May 3, 2011

Stay out of it and furthermore, tell your mother to stop complaining to you (in a nicer way).

You have nothing to gain by getting in the middle of this situation. You do not need to talk to him. You are not the only grownup here, you do not need to supervise.

That said, wow, how frustrating. Sorry they're being this way.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:35 PM on May 3, 2011

Yeah, this whole think reeks of "stay out of it." You're playing man in the middle for no particular reason. This is a whole lot of drama which you've managed to already extricate yourself from physically - you just need to do it emotionally.

You've provided a set of answers - they weren't liked. You're not required to provide a second set.
posted by SNWidget at 2:41 PM on May 3, 2011

OP, if you're still reading: I've been thinking about your question, and I've been thinking about some family situations I've observed or been a part of. You say that your mom rejects therapy because she doesn't feel she needs it. I'd like to suggest that she's using you as a stand-in for a therapist, someone who will listen and offer support and advice, but someone whose guidance she can comfortably reject.

There's often a comfortable, satisfying part of therapy: being heard. It's having someone listen to you and nod and say, "Tell me more about that. Tell me more about your feelings. Tell me about what matters to you in this situation." The less fun part is when the therapist switches from having you share your story into, "I'm going to challenge XYZ assumptions you're making," or "What would happen if you decided to do XYZ difficult thing in this situation?" or even, "You need to stop doing XYZ." When your mom comes to you, she starts with the story of what happened, and you listen. At the end, she asks for advice, but based on her behavior, she's not actually interested in following it.

So, that's just to emphasize again that your mother is trying to coerce you into playing a role that allows her to relive this pattern as long as she wants, with some of the comforting benefits of talk therapy but none of the hard work or actual progress.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:40 AM on May 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

On reflection, the way I asked about this makes me look incredibly naive. I know that I'm just adding to the dramz by getting involved at all. They involve me ostensibly because I'm the "sensible" one, but really I think it's because it isn't as satisfying for them without an audience/jury. I did talk to my brother today. I told him that I would not be able to be involved in the fights between him & my mom anymore. His responses varied from telling me he didn't care about anything since obviously his feelings don't matter to attacking me for "thinking I'm so smart", blaming my mom for "not letting him" move out, denying there was any problem at all and telling me it didn't matter if I thought he was "mentally defective" since his friends like him. Exhausting is not the word for these types of conversations, which is why I try to avoid them as much as possible.

The harder path will be talking to my mother, who is like a Jedi of denial.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:47 PM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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