What do you do when reason fails?
March 7, 2014 6:17 AM   Subscribe

(Or, How I Learned Not to Meddle With the Affairs of Others) Someone is incredibly angry with another party, and you are caught in the middle. You may not know the entire picture, but you've seen enough to conclude that the Angry Person is letting his emotions get the best of him, even if he occasionally raises some good points. You have tried reasoning with Angry Person but he just dishes out comeback after comeback. You are exhausted with the drama and it seems like Angry Person has just begun gaining momentum. What do you do when reason fails? Snowflakes inside.

My SO's sibling has been having issues with his parents and, more recently, my SO himself (though SO seems oblivious, for the most part). One day I stupidly allowed myself to be swept away from the sidelines as a casual observer when the sibling sent me a text message because he "wanted to know my thoughts" on a specific issue. Without thinking, I enthusiastically said yes because I thought, "Hey, this guy looks like he needs someone to talk to. I've been in this situation before, and I would have loved someone to hear me out and give me advice as well."

Oh, boy. Big mistake.

1. Sibling seems to be caught in an episode of belated teenage angst (he is in his early 20s) provoked by a recent issue but fortified by years of unaired grievances. From what I've seen, a lot of his anger stems from his having a girlfriend whom the family does not entirely accept even though they've been together for (I think) three years. He also finds the parents to be controlling, manipulative, and close-minded (yeah, yeah, bet you haven't seen that before). Honestly, I don't think I've interacted with the family, especially the parents, enough yet to know how much weight I should give his claims. His emotions are genuine, but they also cloud his judgment. This past day he has been sending rant after rant, and frankly, they are getting pettier and pettier. I am finding it increasingly difficult to sympathize with him, and my responses are becoming more and more curt.

I am afraid to simply tell him to cut it because I don't want to alienate him. What if he really needs someone to talk to? I don't want to be the one who pushes him away. At the same time I want him to peel back the veil of emotion and confront reality, but so far it seems like my words are too "soft"; he's either not getting it or just willingly ignoring what I have to say. Which brings me to the question: Is there any point in continuing to talk to him and reason with him anyway?

2. I am also finding it increasingly difficult to defend my SO's parents since we've had limited interaction — I can't really say, "Oh, no. They're good parents because X, Y, and Z," because I'd have to see for myself first. At the same time I know that the sibling's anecdotes and complaints cannot be 100% accurate because he is nothing if not biased at the moment. I am losing my mind trying to think of how to not take sides, or to take sides (depending on who I think is right for the particular instance) without getting caught in the middle, since what I say has a good chance of eventually reaching the parents' ears. So, how do I stay on the safe side in such delicate situations? Is it okay if I just say what I truly believe is right, regardless of whose side it is, or will I have to tone down what I say sometimes, especially knowing that the parents are indeed the opinionated, imposing type?

3. Because the sibling is airing out the family's dirty laundry, I am finding that I am becoming more and more acquainted with their ugly side much faster than I am comfortable with. I don't expect them to be saints, but the sibling's diatribes have painted a very nasty picture of the family — so much so that I am beginning to rethink whether it is a family I would really want to enter into. Seriously, this guy has thrown me for a loop. Here I thought that talking to him might help resolve his issues, but now he is creating new ones for me!

And it's not just the issue of SO's parents. By association, the sibling feels a lot of resentment towards SO too, which he has been airing out to me. He seems to have lost respect for his older brother (my SO) as well. At first I could still tolerate his personal attacks against SO because these were traits that I myself have observed in the past. But today he said something that deeply concerns me — supposedly SO has told his family that I am amenable to X arrangement in the future when, in past conversations, I've only went so far as to say I am okay with Y. (X takes Y a step further/demands more on my part but is not entirely contradictory, so I could see how it is possible that SO said Y but the sibling understood X. But at the back of my mind, I'm also entertaining the idea that maybe SO really said X after all when all we had agreed on was Y.) I have been resisting the temptation to confront SO about this all day because a) his sibling isn't a reliable, objective voice at the moment, and b) somehow it feels like a breach of trust to his sibling if I go around telling my SO every little thing that he supposedly tells me in confidence.

How bad is it to spill the beans on SO's sibling? So far I haven't yet, but refraining from it is becoming increasingly challenging, as I feel the need to discuss some of these issues with SO, especially the ones that concern him. I did tell the sibling that he can talk to me as a friend/older sister and not as his brother's girlfriend, but if I had to choose between the two, should I pledge loyalty to SO or his brother?

TLDR, please read above questions in bold. Looking forward to reading some of the hive mind's wisdom!
posted by bigasthesky to Human Relations (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How bad is it to spill the beans on SO's sibling?

I'm having some difficulty with this because it seems so simple.

YOU HAVE ONLY ONE LOYALTY HERE - to your SO. Talk to him about his brother. Be on his side. Let the brother sort his own shit out.
posted by three blind mice at 6:25 AM on March 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Tell him this isn't your business, and please do not try to drag you into it --- then walk away from it. No more discussion about it, no explanations; if he writes about it don't reply, if he starts in in it on the phone tell him you don't want to hear it and hang up, if he says something in a face-to-face conversation break it off and literally walk away.
posted by easily confused at 6:26 AM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I don't like seeing people I'm close to upset at each other, but I don't think my getting involved is going to help this situation."
posted by alphanerd at 6:28 AM on March 7, 2014 [9 favorites]

"I don't want to alienate him. What if he really needs someone to talk to?"

Don't play the social worker. These are not your problems. This guy has already taken up more than his share of room in your psyche. Walk away.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:28 AM on March 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: As you suspected, there seem to be a number of things going on here. Most troubling is SO's sibling's efforts to play "Let's you and him fight". That is, sibling is trying to stir up difficulties between you and your SO as well as between you and SO's family. If you play along, and confront your SO or become distrustful of the family, sibling gets to feel fully justified in his anger because, "look, bigasthesky is mad too!" That helps no one, with the possible exception of helping sibling feel less isolated. Ick, don't go there.

Your SO clearly has more experience dealing with sibling than you do, so perhaps you could ask him what strategies he uses with sibling. Beyond that, I often find it helpful in dealing with relatives' rants about family members to ask whether they want to "just ventilate" or whether they actually want some help and advice.
posted by DrGail at 6:29 AM on March 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Apologise to sibling that you mis-read the situation. You can't get in the middle of issues he's having with his family, and especially not your SO. Stop responding, and tell SO the outline of what happened and the two of you can decide if you need to talk about the specifics of what he said.
posted by crocomancer at 6:31 AM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is above your pay grade. I think you should do a few things:
1. Tell your SO what's going on. Don't tell him details about what his brother said. Just say, hey, Joe has been going through something tough and I offered to talk to help him out and now I feel over my head.

2. Fade away from the sibling. Don't reply right away to his rants. Wait a day or two. You could also say to him something like "Hey, I just got slammed with a big project at work/family emergency of my own/wedding to help my friend plan/another thing that takes a lot of time. If he calls, don't answer. Don't reply to texts. Just fade out. He will find someone else to rant at.

3. Try to frame what he has told you as the rantings of someone who sounds likely to be a bit unstable - he clearly has boundary issues and problem-solving problems, and he sounds a bit goofy to me. Just disengage, try to forget what he told you (because it is likely coming from a warped perspective) and move forward. If the X, Y thing is still bugging you in a few weeks, ask your SO about it (without bringing up his brother), but I'd be inclined to just write it off.

Sorry. The best thing to do is to disengage as much as possible. It's tough because he is your partner's sibling but it's doable.
posted by sockermom at 6:32 AM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, disengage sibling. When sibling tries to engage you don't try to reason with them or engage in the topic in any way. Take your time responding. And when you do respond don't give them much of any kind of response beyond 'i can see you're really angry/upset/whatever'. You're not nasty, you're not ignoring them, you're not taking sides. But if they want to argue they can't argue with you. If they want to argue they'll soon turn to somebody else who'll engage with the argument.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:48 AM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to suggest that you've just gotten a blessing.

While the the younger brother is cray cray - that did not germinate in a vacuum.

I'm going to suggest that your SO DID make his parents promises on your behalf that are against what you've previously agreed to because such would be ENTIRELY within the realm of behavior indicative of what's going on right now.

You need distance from ill' bro. Alphanerd gave a nice script. Repeat as necessary.

Your only loyalty here is to yourself.

Distance yourself from the brother, but it is possible your SO has betrayed you and is well too much under the thumb of his parents.

After this drama dies down, decide if this is really a family you want to join based on how independent your SO is from his parents' influence.

I mostly divorced my first husband over his mom's overbearing influence. Life is too short for you to play second fiddle in the hierarchy of a committed partner's heart and loyalties - fuck that noise. Don't live like that!

I have no idea about your current relationship with SO (married? engaged? living together?) I'm just telling you that long term, dealing with overbearing manipulative assholes for inlaws sucks, and if your SO is the type to let their drama steer your life together, AND ESPECIALLY IF HE LIES TO YOU ABOUT IT, then this person is not on your team.

You deserve someone on your team.
posted by jbenben at 6:48 AM on March 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

1) Talk to your significant other, both about the discrepancy in what you have agreed to and what has been said, and about his brother, emphasizing the next point:

2) "I'm sorry, but this is really between you and your parents and it is not my place to get involved. I hope you guys can work it out." You need to say this to the sibling as well.

When in doubt, fall back on Ms Post: "I'm sorry, that just won't be possible."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:53 AM on March 7, 2014

Best answer: This is a complicated situation you find yourself in. My opinion:

1. Absolutely disengage from sibling. Like others say, this is way too much for anyone who is not a professional, never mind for the girlfriend-of-brother, who doesn’t know the family well enough to weigh sibling's complaints on their merit, rather than by the impression made by the complainant (over-emotional).

2. Do it kindly and compassionately. From your description it sounds like sibling is going through a really tough time, and I think being abrupt might add to what looks like a lot of misery and agitation. Also, I am not sure you would be able to do a “slow fade” painlessly. I’d just tell him that you care for him and that you’d love the 2 (or 3) of you to do stuff together or whatever other support-type things you can do for him, but that you feel a bit helpless and out of your depth, what with him complaining about your boyfriend and you feeling like you either have to take sides or let him down etc. Also, do this face to face, and be sure to make it about you being in too deep, rather than him being wrong and weirdo or such.

Specifically with regard to your questions:

Is there any point in continuing to talk to him and reason with him anyway?

No – you have no understanding of the situation, you don’t know what is going on and how it all ties in with family history, potential family dysfunction etc. This kind of situation needs a professional whose job is not to “reason”, but to ultimately restore some semblance of harmonious functionality, self-esteem, self-confidence & reduce anger, despair, self-doubt etc, all by one way or the other providing understanding and a framework within which the person can do their work of healing. Reason, especially of the kind: 'who exactly is right in this particular scenario'/ 'what are the facts of the situation and how should they be evaluated', hardly comes into it, or tends to be coincidental.

So, how do I stay on the safe side in such delicate situations? Is it okay if I just say what I truly believe is right, regardless of whose side it is, or will I have to tone down what I say sometimes, especially knowing that the parents are indeed the opinionated, imposing type?

As per the above, refuse the adviser/ rescuer role, except in very limited circumstances, and not before you have communicated in other ways that you DO care about him. When someone is in the throes of so much agitation it is easy to get into the mindset of “if you are not with me, you are against me”. You need to build trust before you can say your piece without ruffling feathers (too much). He is very upset, so ruffling his feathers might have unwanted effects (in his case, possibly make him even more angry, desperate, lonely, self-doubting, defiant). Each time he tries to co-opt you as an ally for his anger, deflect (“Yes, when something like this happens, it can be very upsetting, I remember this time when bla, bla happened and it really got to me” etc), or remind him that you are out of your depth etc.

How bad is it to spill the beans on SO's sibling?

This is not spilling the beans – this is actually a conversation you need to have with your SO! Like “Hey, so I could see that sibling was upset about x,y,z, offered to be a shoulder to cry on for him, and now it has all become too much. I don’t know what to do about it – don’t want to hurt him, but also don’t want to be disloyal etc., and decided that I need to disengage slightly. What do you think about all this?” Plus, also “All the revelations from you brother make me slightly anxious about the whole situation. Specifically, a, b, c has me worried”. And take it from there.

It’s not OK that your boyfriend is in the dark about this strange dynamic going on behind his back, and you really need to talk to him about how you are beginning to see HIM in a new light given the revelations about the family.

Also – I don’t get how come you hardly know the family (and seemingly haven’t had the occasion to discuss the parents with the boyfriend yet), but you are on these really rather intimate terms with sibling.

Good luck, this one is a bit of a head-scratcher.
posted by miorita at 7:07 AM on March 7, 2014

You mentioned txt so I would caution you that anything you write will most likely be shown to the subject of your so moments so write accordingly (if you don't want it splashed on the front page of the newspaper then don't write it).
posted by saucysault at 7:18 AM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Interesting that SO's sibling reached out to you, don't you think?

Plenty of good advice here about being honest with your SO and extracting your self from situation with the endless texts.

The only reasons I can think of for sibling to unload on you are 1) just nuts/no filter/out of control and 2) deliberate manipulation. And those are could be blended into a toxic cocktail.

You seem inclined to want to believe at least part of the bad news from sibling. Maybe sit yourself down and use some reason on yourself to see how well or badly sibling data fits with what you already know.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:33 AM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

In reading this, I'm mostly concerned with the discrepancy between X and Y. I think you could, to some extent, allow Sibling to vent and pay little more than cursory attention to the CONTENT, as he may simply need to process with someone. If that's the case, he'll get to resolution on his own and all the mess that comes out along the way is just noise. It's not your responsibility to be his counselor, though, so you could simply say, "Maybe you should talk to a professional about this. It sounds like you've got a lot to process."

Back to X and Y. You have simply GOT to bring it up with SO. You need to know if he hears you and respects your stance and your boundaries, or if he hears what he wants to hear and expects that he can influence you to move your boundaries over time. There is a BIG difference there, and I think you might have been blessed with an opportunity to dodge a bullet if you find out he falls into the latter category.
posted by JanewayJunior at 7:58 AM on March 7, 2014

Whoa, so much more than you bargained for.

Here are some scripts.

1) "Sibling, I really feel for you and it sounds like there's a lot going on. I don't think I'm qualified to help you. I know when I had similar issues going on with my family, I found it really helpful to talk to a neutral third party, but I'm not neutral due to my relationship with your brother. Have you considered talking with a counselor at school, therapist, or your pastor?" (as appropriate).


"Sibling, it sounds like you're really frustrated, but there's a lot more going on than I can help with, and I care about both you and the family. Have you considered talking with a neutral third party, who isn't a member of your family or dating a member of your family?"

2) "SigO, sibling reached out to me for support, but I don't feel comfortable with the depth and breadth of the support he's looking for. I've recommended he talk to a counselor or therapist, who might be able to help him more."

If SO asks what the topics are, you can say:

"Well, most of it is stuff that I don't feel comfortable discussing, but he did mention that you committed us to X, but I'm pretty sure I only committed to Y. Can we talk about that?"

Good luck. You should not continue to play sounding board for Sibling. I don't see many good things that come from this.
posted by RogueTech at 8:34 AM on March 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This is tricky. But one thing I'll comment is that reason is not superior to emotion, and that when someone is angry with someone else, it is usually counterproductive to defend that person.

Your goal should be to extricate yourself. But in the meantime you might read up on empathic communication, active listening, that sort of thing. Here is an article on dealing with someone's anger. Don't worry about the problem solving steps. But take note of the part where it says angry people (all people really) want to be heard and understood.
posted by salvia at 8:39 AM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

He does need someone to talk to, but you are not that person.

How bad is it to spill the beans on SO's sibling?

Eh. The question is more how destructive will it be to your relationship if you keep aligning yourself with brother. Giving audience to his gripes about your sweetie nudges you out of the middle and onto brother's side. As unintentional as this is, you're running the risk of alienating SO to avoid alienating brother.

If you want to be blunt without feeling like an asshole you could play around with some variation of "I think you are contributing to this problem in ways you may not recognize. I'm contributing to it by being over-involved. For everyone's sake I need to step back, I hope you understand." Apologize if you agreed to keep secrets from your SO about brother's complaints and explain that you can't continue to keep a promise that shouldn't have been made to begin with. He may not like it and may think you're the new bad guy, but at least you'll have been honest with him and honest with SO. That alone might help this situation seem less confusing.

This isn't all that delicate or complicated, it just seems so because you're trying to solve a problem that's not yours to solve and you're trying to suss out who's right and who's wrong when it's not all that relevant.

So yeah, talk to SO, fess up that you wanted to help brother but realized too late that your loyalties got confused in the process. I suspect that once you get this out in the open it will seem simpler, easier and you won't feel as awful as you do now.
posted by space_cookie at 10:05 AM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Call the brother and speak to him on the phone. "I wanted to give you an outlet to discuss your frustrations, clearly this is very deep and very murky and as someone on the periphery, I don't think I have any value to add. Perhaps you ought to discuss these issues with a professional."

Then bow out. Alphanerd also has a good line.

As for the rest of it, absolutely discuss with your SO. "I spoke to Spike today, and he's VERY angry. So much so, that I told him that while I wanted to be there for him, that I didn't know what to do for him."

If you want to mention the X and Y situation, you can, "BTW, Spike mentioned that according to his understanding that you had committed us to X. I just want to be clear, I'm only down for Y, and I'm only down for Y under protest."

Otherwise, keep your eyes and ears open, this is the part of the relationship where, if you're serious about joining his family that you need to take a long, hard look at the dynamic. You don't just marry your SO (or partner with him) you join the whole damn family.

If this is NOT a level of Cray-Cray you want in your life, you may want to rethink your relationship.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:08 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

But today he said something that deeply concerns me — supposedly SO has told his family that I am amenable to X arrangement in the future when, in past conversations, I've only went so far as to say I am okay with Y. (X takes Y a step further/demands more on my part but is not entirely contradictory, so I could see how it is possible that SO said Y but the sibling understood X. But at the back of my mind, I'm also entertaining the idea that maybe SO really said X after all when all we had agreed on was Y.) I have been resisting the temptation to confront SO about this all day

DO NOT let him stir shit between you and your SO.

He's mad, he wants a fight. Don't let him play you, don't let him manipulate you, don't be his pawn.

I don't think there's anything wrong with telling him you feel you've done all you can do in the situation and you don't think you can be of any help to him. But if you don't feel comfortable going that far yet, you can just tell him you're willing to listen to his feelings, but you don't wish for him to tell you any more negative tales about other people and things they've said or done.
posted by cairdeas at 12:46 PM on March 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Tell him you are giving up gossip for Lent.

And make no mistake, this is gossip. My rule of thumb is this: If I am not part of the problem or part of the solution, it's gossip.

(between me and you, I know your intentions were pure as the driven snow, but this is gossip and no need to endure one more second of it.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:57 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

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