Once an asshole…?
June 6, 2013 9:00 PM   Subscribe

My brother was abusive to me when I was a kid. Now we are middle-aged adults, some of the behaviour has returned. How do I deal with it when I have to spend time with him?

My brother was an asshole to me when we were kids. I am female and he is four years older. He would verbally and physically abuse me (including punching my breasts with his fists) and once, when I was 15, he left me at his much older friends' house (2 men in their late 20s, early 30s) for a couple of nights until my mother made him get me back home. He has done a few incredibly weird things as an adult too, including recently making up a story about how my husband made his money that besides being totally untrue, puts my husband in a bad light.

Years have gone by and I thought I'd forgotten if not forgiven him all that crap. He lives in another country, has made a lot of money legitimately, has a family, volunteers on non-profit boards for child welfare and the environment, runs ethics committees, is running for public office, and helps my elderly mother with some extras in life. He thinks he's a really top guy according to the self-promotional material I read about him on his website and hear from my mother. I don't see him much and can go for a year when we only talk on our birthdays.

So earlier this year I rang my brother to wish him a happy 52nd birthday. We chatted for a bit then I asked him what he was up to. Playing with his new birthday gadget, he said. In return I said I was sitting on the back step watching some birds in the birdbath. Out of the blue, in a really mean tone of voice he said: "well you should get off your fat ass and do something!"

His uncalled for attack threw me. I mumbled something about the birds and ended the conversation saying something like "life isn't all about work".

Since then, many of the awful things he has said and done to me over the years have been bubbling to the surface of my consciousness, things I thought I'd got over. Normally I'd just write about it and let the anger wear itself out but I don't have time. I have to spend two days with him at a family gathering in three weeks.

Part of me (the hurt and frustrated part) wants to 'have it out' with him about his attitude. Another part of me wants to ignore him outright, just ignore him as though he is not there. This could be possible but I don't know if the difficulty level outweighs the benefit. Another part of me wants to take him aside and say: 'dude, not cool to talk to me like that'. But he probably doesn't even remember he said it. Or would deny it 'as a joke'. He is much bigger than me and has a patriarchal attitude, stare and tone of voice.

Oh wise ones of metafilter: how should I handle being around my arrogant asshole of a brother for two days? Added difficulty, I want to hang out with his 16yr old daughter but I don't want to let slip to her that her dad behaves very badly towards me sometimes.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's always OK to give yourself permission to step back from your family.

Someone can be A Good Person, socially, but also an asshole.

Someone can be a part of your family, but also an asshole.

You can even love someone (in a family sort of way), and they are also an asshole.

My preferred way of dealing with this cognitive dissonance is to give myself permission to establish boundaries and distance. If I don't want to talk to them, I don't have to. If I don't want to continue having a discussion, I give myself permission to do whatever it takes to get out of it. If I don't want to engage, I don't beat myself up about that.

I am the queen of, "I don't want to talk about this anymore, so I'm going to change the subject now." And then change the subject.

That said, if you want to have it out with him, you also have my permission to do that.
posted by Sara C. at 9:06 PM on June 6, 2013 [10 favorites]

I wouldn't say anything to his daughter, but I'd think this is worth trying to bring up to him, at least once. The potential benefit (i.e., him understanding and acknowledging) might be worth the potential setback (him deflecting or "not remembering"). If it doesn't go well, would you be any worse off than you are right now? It might be that you fear the potential pain in that interaction (which is legitimate), but perhaps it would go well. My sister and I were able to reconcile some things in our childhood later in life, but the most painful part was simply bringing it up again, after many years of silence.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:07 PM on June 6, 2013

"We're adults now. You don't get to talk to me that way anymore." Then walk away. If there is no apology forthcoming, avoid him for the rest of the visit. You've asserted yourself without injecting any drama. You can feel good about that no matter how he responds.
posted by desjardins at 9:16 PM on June 6, 2013 [50 favorites]

I want to hang out with his 16yr old daughter but I don't want to let slip to her that her dad behaves very badly towards me sometimes.

Kids are perceptive. It's possible (probable?) that if he has behaved like this toward you, he has behaved in similar ways toward her. But even if not, presuming that she has spent sixteen years living with him and observing him...there has to be at least a halfway decent chance, if not an outright likelihood, that she already knows this side of her dad's behavior.

I say this because sometimes when a fact is mutually understood, it's easier to let it go unspoken. Maybe if you think about the possibilities that your niece already knows what you may "let slip," you will find yourself less likely to slip.
posted by cribcage at 9:16 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Tell him he's being a dick and tell him to call you back when he's not dickish anymore. Tell him you're willing to wait the few years it might take.

Or ask him how his wife and kids can stand being around a dick like him.
posted by discopolo at 9:20 PM on June 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

Added difficulty, I want to hang out with his 16yr old daughter but I don't want to let slip to her that her dad behaves very badly towards me sometimes.

I hope he doesn't treat her the way he treated you. It certainly sounds like he hasn't fundamentally changed. By all means spend time with the kid. It can't be easy having a father like that.

If he speaks inappropriately to you, tell him to stop it.
posted by BibiRose at 9:23 PM on June 6, 2013 [8 favorites]

Ignore. I don't think there is anything to be done here.

16 is not yet an adult, your niece is a minor under your brother's care. Stay AWAY from her. Sure, do the family thing, but no alone time. No private conversations, be friendly but not emotionally intimate or familiar.

If you don't wish anymore tawdry gossip, or worse, then leave your niece be until she's older.

Normally I don't suggest backing down, but I do strongly support putting your attention where it matters. Your brother is CRAZY. Don't wave a stick at crazy, don't poke him, just let him be.

Next year, don't call your brother on his birthday.
posted by jbenben at 10:06 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Out of the blue, in a really mean tone of voice he said: "well you should get off your fat ass and do something!"

"And you should go fuck yourself"

"Don't speak to me like that"

"And you should know better than to tell me what to do"

Your brother is a bully. If he does that to you in front of, say, his daughter or any other family, simply say "Don't speak to me like that".

If you're on your own, feel free to tell him to fuck off.

Address it when it happens. Some people require constant parenting - at least you don't have to have much to do with him now.
posted by heyjude at 1:04 AM on June 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

I am coming from the experience of having a bullying older brother, who I have nothing to do with as an adult. I am luckier than you, in that the entire family has cut him out of our lives. I believe he is a sociopath.

For the upcoming visit, my advice is to try to detach and observe your brother. As much as you can, don't engage when he tries to get a rise out of you. Watch the way he interacts with other people. What can you learn about him that will help you make sense of those painful memories that the birthday call brought up? Will your husband be there? Enlist him as your research partner.

The little power surge from saying something manipulative or nasty and watching the effect is like sugar to a bully. Although your brother is able to put on a front, or form relationships with other people on more respectful grounds, interacting with his "little sister" will probably always be like waving a bag of candy in his face. Irresistable. Instant gratification.
Your pain is his candy, and that is a pattern that was formed for him many years ago, no amount of talking to him will change that.
Just be assured that it isn't about you, or your personal worth, or your likeability. And I wanted to say, it isn't easy to deal with, and it is hard to explain to people who haven't grown up with a bullying family member ("why don't you just tell him to fuck off?"), but there are people out there who understand, and you have my sympathy.

Don't fully engage in ANY conversation with him face to face. Use the blank stare and non-committal response right from the start. Even during the stage when the conversation feels 'reasonable' - like the birdbath conversation, it will always be leading up to the 'sting'. It is too late to do your ignoring after the knife goes in.

And take comfort that you don't have to see him often. Don't try to get involved in his daughter's life. Screw his 'patriarchal looks and tone' - you are an adult now, and the only person who has any traditional right to get patriarchal at you (if you dig that kind of thing) now is your husband.
posted by Catch at 1:23 AM on June 7, 2013 [11 favorites]

People often struggle to work out how to relate to one another when they were formerly close, and/or where there was formerly a particular power dynamic in the relationship. It is a challenge, it makes people nervous and we have little information to go on when before we determine if your memories or prejudices are correct.

Often, it is easier, even in benign situations, for people to be very shy, be very overfamiliar, to badly judge tone or humour, to regress to old roles. This is one reason why people have very different feelings for and reactions to school reunions.

This does not excuse your brother's "fat ass" comments. But it might explain, for example, how he has badly judged something brothers and sisters might say to one another as something appropriate for estranged adults. Or he may be an asshole who goes through life putting people down. You will be a better judge of this than us but we can't determine if he is simply an asshole.

I don't think you can definitively judge who he is by the actions of a 19 year old him. Especially not by his promotional material. Nor necessarily by what his - your - mother says if she loves him unconditionally and wants to sell his good side to you because she wants family unity. You certainly can read something into his comments about your husband. He may just be an asshole. Or, more charitably, he may be trying to provoke a reaction so you can talk. It still makes his behaviour assholish, but we all know people who have issues and do odd and counterproductive things.

Indulging in cod psychology for a moment - your profile of your brother screams insecurity. Your security and contentedness is a challenge because it threatens his self image of the older, more successful brother, and it revives memories of the unpleasant anad immature teenager he once was.

Your options are:

- simply avoid him. Get on with your life, recognise that he isn't part of your life, isn't needed or wanted in your life and be happy without him. You sacrifice the closure that he might have turned out ok, that he might apologise. But you don't invite the risk or the drama in.
- meet with him. Have a plan. Have your husband's support. Be measured. Prepare for damping down emotional barbs or triggers. Have an exit strategy for when you've had enough.
- write to him and explain your feelings. Lay down conditions for you both meeting up. Set the tone of the meeting so you don't have to go from 0 to 10 on the emotional scale in a high pressure, one off meeting. If he still wants to meet after that then you've got a platform from which you can build your adult relationship with you. If it falls to pieces at the correspondence stage, with the benefits of distance and privacy, then a face to face meeting is likely to have been a disaster.

But don't expect to have it out with him face to face with little or no communication over the years. Escalating historical issues in this way won't bring you closure. You'll be too emotional to say what you want how you want. He'll be too threatened to back down and admit his issues, and to proud to do so in front of his family.

Be clear on why you want to meet up and what you want from it. Work out how to get there. Assess if the risks and the effort outweigh the benefits to you.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:09 AM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

You might want to check with Child Protective Services. I was told by my psychiatrist that she/I have an obligation to report past abuse by my brothers if they currently have contact with children.

Also, agree with the above: Try "I am an adult now. You are not allowed to speak to me that way." If that doesn't work. cut him out of your life. To me, it doesn't matter what his intention was ("I was joking!"), to me it matters how it made/makes me feel.
posted by auntie maim at 4:56 AM on June 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Once an asshole, always an asshole, huh?"
"Good to know that emotionally, you're still 17."

Throw it back in his face. He's still a bully, and the best way to deal with bullies of this sort is still to throw it back at them.
posted by notsnot at 5:33 AM on June 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'd call him out on it, in the moment. Feel free to do that.

Him: Mean, hurtful, spiteful thing.

You: You know, it was shitty when you said that stuff to me when we were kids and it's doubly shitty now.

Then hang up or walk away.

I think a lot of the GRRRRR we feel when stuff like this happens is our body saying "stand up for yourself!" Now, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be civil. You don't lash out in violence, and you don't need to salt the earth. Acknowledge that whatever the action, that it's not okay. Then absent yourself.

For the weekend, plan on avoiding him as much as possible, you're not spoiling for a fight. But if he says something, say something back.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:44 AM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Ignore and avoid as much as possible.

He sounds like the nastiest sort of prick. If you try to "have it out with him", or clear the air, or settle up, I think you'll regret it. He'll leave you feeling worse than when you started. That's his idea of fun, and he's had 40 years of practice at it.

I suspect he'll be pretty civil to you as long as you're in front of other people. Yeah, have a plan if he does try a dig at you in front of others, something dismissive to say, but I suspect he'll try to get you alone to be really shitty, he has his "top guy" image to maintain.

Don't let him get you alone and enjoy the rest of the gathering.
posted by mattu at 5:59 AM on June 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Ugh, how awful.

I actually feel terrible for his kids, how is he treating them? It might be great for you to develop a relationship with the daughter, she may need a trusted adult to confide in if this awful guy is her dad.
posted by radioamy at 7:44 AM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would do as desjardins suggests:

"We're adults now. You don't get to talk to me that way anymore."

Except I would add: "I will not talk to you again until you apologize."

Then walk away.

The idea is you want to explicitly convey the misdemeanour and the remedy.
posted by Dragonness at 8:33 AM on June 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

1. I am so sorry you have to experience this.

2. It's nearly certain that he is this way to at least some other people. But, they may not be your relatives (his employees, perhaps), or, if he is this way to other relatives, they might be too afraid to speak up. Or in denial.

3. Have you talked to anyone about dealing with this abuse, or read any books on the subject? Not thinking about it only works if you never see him again or talk to him. If you are going to go to this event or interact with him in future, you are going to need to deal with the fallout of his abuse in some way, in order to protect yourself and be able to confront or dismiss him. Another commenter mentioned being cool and deadpan, but I know that for me, this is something that doesn't come easy. Not because I'm weak, but because someone who has treated me badly knows how to hit me where it hurts. That's not easy to heal quickly. If you haven't allowed yourself to work through these feelings, you may not be ready for that.

4. You don't owe your family, or especially him, anything whatsoever that puts you in emotional distress or physical danger. If you don't feel ready for a confrontation with him, don't go. Send your regrets. Lie and say you are sick, if you have to.

5. If you feel you must confront him, prepare. Rehearse what you want to say. Anticipate that he will, in fact, lash out at you...that's his pattern. Have a plan of action and a plan of retreat. Have your husband prepared to back you up, up to the point where you call the cops if threatens you physicially. None of that may happen, but you need to be prepared if it does.

6. You need to also be prepared for family members to see you as the bad guy for refusing to keep the peace, and for your brother to try to turn them against you, because these are classic abuse patterns. Which is why you may really need to talk to someone about all of this if you haven't. There's a lot more to it than "My brother is a an asshole." Your brother is an asshole, but your parents didn't stop or punish him. Your brother is an asshole that your family still accepts. This is a problem.
posted by emjaybee at 9:24 AM on June 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Dear Prudence had something to say on a similar topic recently.
posted by radioamy at 9:48 AM on June 7, 2013

is running for public office,

I would try to get a video or audio recording of him being abusive and take it to the press. Because fuck abusive assholes who want even more power through elected office. I'm not sure this would be a great way to heal from childhood abuse, though.

Second, I would try to find out if he's abusing his daughter. If so, she needs help.
posted by medusa at 11:17 AM on June 7, 2013

nthing throw it back in his face with a "well fuuuuck you!"

And if that is hard and scary to do, just remember that he does not dictate the reality of who you are. You didn't do anything wrong. You didn't deserve to be the brunt of his shit. We fumble with bullies because the low self-esteem part of us believes they're right. So when he starts up, just imagine him saying something stupidly childish like "well you're so ugly and smell like poo!" You'd laugh at him for being an idiot who can't even generate a good insult. Keep that attitude when he starts in on you. He's shadow boxing with himself is all.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:01 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would try to get a video or audio recording of him being abusive and take it to the press. Because fuck abusive assholes who want even more power through elected office. I'm not sure this would be a great way to heal from childhood abuse, though.

Second, I would try to find out if he's abusing his daughter. If so, she needs help.

I think that this is a bit of an overreaction based on the information provided by the OP.

My advice: When it happens and no one else is around, take him down hard and uncompromisingly: "Stop it. You're being an asshole. If it keep it up, I'm leaving/hanging up." When it happens in the presence of other people, ignore it until you get the opportunity to talk to him alone.
posted by DWRoelands at 12:05 PM on June 7, 2013

in a really mean tone of voice he said: "well you should get off your fat ass and do something!"
What a mean thing to say. 'Bye. (hangs up phone)
in a really mean tone of voice he said: "well you should get off your fat ass and do something!"
What a mean thing to say. (walks away)
He has done a few incredibly weird things as an adult too, including recently making up a story about how my husband made his money that besides being totally untrue, puts my husband in a bad light.
By the way, why did you say xxxxx about my husband? It's so weird that you'd make that up that I didn't understand it.

You deserve to be treated with respect. If you are treated with disrespect, call out the issue, That's mean/ rude/ untrue/ unkind and walk away. Or call him out and say Cut It Out.

I figure there's a statute of limitations on stuff from my childhood, even though a lot of that stuff affects who and how I am. But I recently had an issue with my sisters when I felt that my wishes had been ignored in a particular situation and it felt like I was being treated like the little sister who doesn't have to be listened to. Not happy that I lost my temper, but happy I stood up for myself, and took the opportunity to talk it out with my sisters who love me, but sometimes lapse into old habits.
posted by theora55 at 3:16 PM on June 7, 2013

The really telling part isn't the "fat ass" comment -- it's the manipulation he attempted to perform when talking about you (your husband). Major warning signs. I cut people like this out of my life, no comment, no explanation, on the spot. There are too many other sane people in the world to deal with that. The no comment part is because attempting to get in an exchange with someone like that is not going to work unless you are experienced at it, and they know this.

He is effectively a stranger, and now an adult, release yourself from obligations towards him. Do whatever the fuck you want. You are under no obligation to make him a better human being. Defend yourself and correct the facts with others as needed.

That said, people like him are tough, especially if they are good politicians -- but there isn't a better way towards sanity and calm than realizing that you deserve to exist and be respected, and giving everyone, including yourself, him and his daughter their own agency.
posted by smidgen at 7:23 PM on June 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

First of all, I think you actually handled his snide comment over the phone quite well. It sounds like you disagreed with him and then ended the conversation without dignifying his comment in any way. If he is anything like my brother, he was probably hoping for a fight, and you deprived him of the satisfaction of unloading his bile onto you. There's no point getting into a farting contest with a skunk: the skunk will always produce a bigger, nastier stink because he has equipment that you simply do not have. He is smart enough to make the connection between his words and the end of the call, even if he will never admit it or apologize.

Re the family reunion, I would simply avoid interacting with him while remaining cooly polite when necessary. Just stay on the other side of the room, avoid sitting beside or across from him at the table, and don't engage in any unnecessary conversation. (That will also avoid giving him information to use for rumour-mongering purposes.) If you want to hang out with your niece, suggest some girly activities that will not interest him. And do not give him the satisfaction of talking about him, since that will give him an excuse to do the same about you. If anyone comments on your coolness, just say something along the lines of "oh no, of course there is no problem, but it is weird how little we have in common these days. We just don't have much to talk about." And then change the subject.
posted by rpfields at 5:00 AM on June 8, 2013

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