My brother seems to have some sort of deep seated issue with me.
May 31, 2014 7:26 PM   Subscribe

My brother (four years younger than me, we are both in our 30s and single, I am a woman) and I have had a back and forth relationship - it was normal brother/sister stuff - fighting and whatnot but nothing crazy - until I went to college, when we were super close. Then when I graduated college, he started and dropped out and went to community college and finally graduated after 7 years, and is actually doing really well as a banker, though he's between jobs now. Our relationship deteriorated rapidly after I graduated college though, because he had a big issue with drinking and was living with our parents and using them, I thought. That was a long time ago, and I've tried really hard to see where he's coming from and I thought our relationship had improved, but now new issues have come up... (wall of text inside)

The other night my brother texted me that I'm "obsessed with racism and sexism" and "see sexism everywhere" and "need to change." This (I think) was precipitated by the fact that I posted something on Facebook about changing demographics of immigrants in the US that said West Virginia now has more Indian immigrants than from any other foreign country. Our parents are Indian immigrants, and we are from Virginia, so I just thought this was interesting. He had also sent me an article that was one of those listicles that said "Things Not To Say When on a First Date with a Desi (Person of Indian extraction)" and had things like, "what ARE you?" or "where are you from" He knows that I hate when people ask "where I'm from" and expect me to say "India," whether on a date or elsewhere.

I shouldn't have taken the bait, but it was very late and I was tired, so I texted him back that we just have different ideas of what sexism and racism are (he thinks the only definition of prejudice is if you are denied a job or housing because of gender or skin tone, people can hate you as much as they want in secret I guess, as long as you get jobs and housing). I think asking someone with an obviously American accent if they're from another country is racist and othering. (This is just one example, there are so many more, like people telling me I have "Chinese eyes" so can't possibly be Indian because of my Chinese eyes. Or that I must be part Mexican idea.

I don't want to convince him of this, but he seems to passionately believe that I am irrational and horrible and making myself miserable because I talk about race and sexism. I actually find it very relieving to talk about it and get empathy and similar stories from other people who have experienced similar things, or can just listen even if they haven't. It actually makes me feel much much better than revising my views on what racism and sexism are ever would, or just never talking about anything ever.

He doesn't believe this, he thinks I am "so angry at white people" - it is not just white people who say I have Chinese eyes or ask what country I'm from, so don't even know what that's about. I'm not "so angry at white people," most of my friends are white and honestly most of them understand where I'm coming from. Growing up in VA, people were "colorblind" but I felt like it was OK for people to walk up to you and make swami motions and say "what's it like in your country" and he never left that environment so I can see why he would feel differently about racism, and that's fine so I try not to discuss it with him, and edited my Facebook so that he can't see any of my posts any more.

But I think there's another, darker issue at play. During this text fight, he said I'm "just like our father", inflexible and unwilling to change. I don't think this is true. My father has a lot of health problems and still smokes, and gets crazy defensive if you try to talk to him about it. I said I'm happy to have an open conversation about my views on racism and sexism, I'm just not going to change the definition to "it's only racism if you don't get a job or house".

He just unleashed a torrent of rage at me, like I'm so selfish, I'm just like our father, I don't have any empathy or introspection, I don't care about anyone, I'm perpetuating racism by "focusing on it," etc. I was like, "seriously, you don't know me, I feel like we're strangers if you think these things about me" and he was like "what does it mean to know you? why can't you be vulnerable" I thought I WAS being vulnerable by saying " I feel like when people ask me what country I'm from, when I was born in Virginia and have no discernible accent, and yet would feel out of place when i go to India, it makes me feel like there's nowhere I belong." But no?

He also texted me a picture of himself with an Indian American woman he's dating and said "If I hated my race so much why would I be with her?" I never said he hated his race? I have no idea where this is coming from.

Add to this that I am pretty sure he was drunk when he was texting me. We seem to have this pattern where he gets really drunk, and tells me all this really hateful stuff, and then I try to talk to him about it when he's sober, and nothing. He literally won't acknowledge anything bad was ever said and will just say 'I probably shouldn't drink.'

I actually thought our relationship had improved dramatically in recent years. We take trips together, we talk on the phone. I feel like he baited me with that "desi" article and I don't understand the desire to change my mind about racism. He can think whatever he wants, it doesn't affect me.

Also comparing me to my father - I love my father. He can be really difficult, but I don't have the raging hate my brother has for him. Sometimes I wonder if I should, but I honestly don't. Who knows how many years he has left, and I accept him as he is. He did the best he could, and you could do a lot worse for fathers, honestly. (My mother is still alive, but I haven't mentioned her because she wasn't part of this and is unflappable in her mood and love for her children. I know the arguments i've had with my brother upset her.) My brother thinks he is like my mother, unflappable and kind, and I am like my father, inflexible, crazy, and unwilling to change (where "change" means "be the sister I wish I had", which is, I don't even know).

TLDR and question time: I've kind of reached this point where I don't want to have a relationship with him anymore, at least not until he can have some kind of honest, sober conversation about why he seems to really hate me at a deep, visceral level. I was hard on him when he was hard on my parents and living with them and getting DUIs, but that was a long time ago and I've changed a ton since then.

If I tell him I'm angry, he'll say "you're just like Dad, so angry at the world." If I say I'm sad about it, same thing. I honestly cannot change my entire worldview so that people asking me "what's your ethnicity? you're so exotic" won't bother me at all and I won't ever discuss it with anyone or post interesting things about it on social media.

Do I write a letter? Ask him to see a therapist? See one with him? Go to Al Anon and just forget about having a rational relationship with my brother, ever?
My therapist says "talk to him" but I feel like that's hard due to everything above.

I think if you could ignore for now if it's weird or not that my brother and i try to have this close bond despite lots of reasons we should maybe just be estranged. If that's the answer that might be the answer but for various reasons, including cultural ones and what would make my parents happy, that's just not that easy right now.

I just feel this deep hatred from him, I don't really understand why, and i feel like it's about me as a person, things I fundamentally can't or won't change. In the past, he has criticized the way I sit, the way I talk, the things I eat and drink, facial expressions, just anything.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This is total armchair psychoanalysis, which means it's not worth even 2 cents, but: I would put money on him being really really really angry at your father (is he still living with your parents?) and he's taking it out on you because you're safer to talk to than your dad. I suspect that if you start reframing his diatribes against you as actually being against your father, it'll be easier for you to take it less personally and to disengage.

Regardless, I think letting him know you don't want to communicate with him when he's drunk is absolutely valid, and might be a good first step to getting your relationship a bit more manageable. Going to Al Anon might also help you, yes. I don't think you need to "forget about having a rational relationship with him, ever," but setting some boundaries and getting some help are good things to do.
posted by jaguar at 7:35 PM on May 31, 2014 [19 favorites]

I suspect that if you start reframing his diatribes against you as actually being against your father, it'll be easier for you to take it less personally and to disengage.

I should have said, you don't need to tell him that he's actually angry at your father, just maybe internally think, "This is not actually about me."

It might also be worth trying picking up on his various "You're just like Dad!" comments and seeing if you can find some common ground there -- "Yeah, Dad does get really angry, doesn't he?" or whatever. Basically, I think it might be an interesting experiment to validate your brother's feelings about your father while absolutely not engaging in his complaints about you.
posted by jaguar at 7:38 PM on May 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

My brother thinks he is like my mother, unflappable and kind, and I am like my father, inflexible, crazy, and unwilling to change

This is a shot in the dark, but since you mention that you know that your mother's love for both you and your brother is steadfast, and your brother is framing the family dynamic as though it's him and your mom v. you and your dad, it makes me think -- maybe he doesn't think that you (or your dad) love him.

If I were you, I would actually try to be really sweet to him, just really loving, and straight up tell him that you love him and care about him. I would try being just really gentle and interested in his life. It sounds like he needs that right now, for whatever reason. He sounds to me like he's hurting.

Since it sounds like he's in pain and lashing out, maybe the least confrontational way of communicating your love for him would be best -- so maybe cards or letters for now? I think even just some silly surprise card or gift with "I love you" or something similar written on it would probably be enough to start on the right path.

And yeah, it would be better if he just opened up and was loving toward you and then gave you the opportunity to *reciprocate,* but I don't think that's where he is right now.

I get why you're feeling a lot of anger -- it's frighting, hurtful, pretty much terrible when someone who knows you *this* well and who you care about *this* much shows disrespect and anger towards you. I think anyone would be angry. But you don't have to let that anger cost you your brother, by any stretch.
posted by rue72 at 7:47 PM on May 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

I just feel this deep hatred from him, I don't really understand why, and i feel like it's about me as a person

My suspicion (and what do I know? I'm a stranger on the Internet) is that it's more about him. Specifically, him as an Indian American, or as someone who on some level does pick up on the kind of problems you're critiquing.

So in some ways, he experiences things same way you do (but more strongly and resentfully), and is refusing to admit to himself his negative own feelings, because he equates those feelings with becoming your dad, and not being able to fulfill his ambitions, or feel comfortable with the kind of milieu he's chosen. So instead, he's projecting his negative feelings onto you, and then rejecting you on that account.

Like I said, he's your brother and I've never met the guy. But projection seems worth considering, as part of the equation. And that would account for the vehemence of his denials and delusions about you.
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:48 PM on May 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

I was hard on him when he was hard on my parents and living with them and getting DUIs, but that was a long time ago and I've changed a ton since then.

You've changed since then, but have you apologized to him about this?

I really don't know what's going on. Perhaps your therapist can give you more specific advice about how to talk to him? Maybe write a letter? I don't really know how all the racism related issues figures into all this. It doesn't exactly like it's all about that, since you sense it isn't, but clearly the differing views on racism have some sort of meaning for him.
posted by Blitz at 7:49 PM on May 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

All I can tell you is that my brother hates me, and we are estranged.

I would say that one thing that I wish I had done much earlier was to stop attaching so much value to what he thinks about what I think. He didn't care about what I actually thought. The narrative he had created was much more persuasive than I would ever be, and it was a waste of breath to try to change that. Since you say estrangement is not really in the cards, I would exercise some emotional disengagement.
posted by sm1tten at 7:50 PM on May 31, 2014 [15 favorites]

To be honest, when I get in these weird funks with my siblings, what works for me is to just let it breathe. I have three brothers, and while we mostly get along, all of us don't always see eye to eye about things at this level ("what is racism", "how much of a problem is the pervasiveness of hegemonic religion", "can other cultures be objectively less good than our culture," etc).

For one thing, in certain of these situations, I just know, now that we are all in our late 20s into early 30s, who has what base level beliefs, and where these conversations are going to get play vs. devolve into these "you're just like this to get back at mom" kind of deep family drama stuff. I hate to come off as being cold, but sometimes I choose not to engage because I'm not interested in a four hour ragefest that boils down to my brothers and I having shockingly different ways of seeing the world and also piles of baggage with each other, none of which is going to change.

I feel like it's shit advice to tell you to disengage from your brother, never grasp onto a conversation too tightly, and always be ready to cut and run from any conversation or even just interacting at all.

But so far I find that, with my one sibling who is most prone to this behavior, if I just let it go and don't engage, it blows over, and in a week or so it's like it never happened, and we can get along on a facile level. I hate having to hold myself apart from a sibling in that way, but I'm not the one who is incapable of behaving like an adult in the most trifling dinner table conversations. I would rather hold someone at arm's length than face their constant abuse.
posted by Sara C. at 7:57 PM on May 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

Well, as your average white American, I can't really speak to the racial aspects of this question with any authority. But I am a younger sister with an estranged (7 years older) sister and we honestly couldn't stop fighting about anything and everything in each other's presence most of our lives. She's a vegetarian, I'm not. She's Christian, I'm an atheist. She's a lawyer and has an extra masters, I didn't want to go to grad school. She hates our father, I'm much closer to him. On and on. For the longest time I tried to be nice to her for our mother's sake, and I hit my breaking point at about age 25 and just stopped. We don't talk at all. Honestly, I am much happier. If my young nephew grows up and wants a cool Aunt one day, I will be absolutely delighted to welcome him as part of my family. If my sister ever gets seriously hurt or sick, I will unquestionably be there for her.

Otherwise we don't talk. I don't feel guilt about it anymore. I don't feel guilt for disappointing my mother, either. In a perfect world I'd have a loving relationship with her, but in reality that's just never going to happen.

I give you permission to give up. Don't be dramatic, don't make any statements, just stop talking to him or seeing him.
posted by quincunx at 7:57 PM on May 31, 2014 [12 favorites]

Do I write a letter? Ask him to see a therapist? See one with him? Go to Al Anon and just forget about having a rational relationship with my brother, ever?
My therapist says "talk to him" but I feel like that's hard due to everything above.

I think this is interesting; a lot of your suggestions here are essentially centered around asking your brother do things, they are "corrective", in a sense, and premised on the idea that your brother and his worldview are not just wrong, but require adjustment.

Forgive me, but this is a very older sister thing to do, and it whips up resentment like a heavy squall does whitecaps.

Are you the eldest in the whole family, by any chance? Because I feel like a lot of the feelings and attitudes you talk about in this post are very common with eldest children. The idea of having to model and guide others, the focus on rightness or justice, a sense of responsibility for all relationships and feelings in a family. These can be wonderful and often courageous traits (my own sister demonstrates all of them and we are super close), but I think in this case they may be hurting you a little bit.

There's an ambiguity to your question that you don't seem have noticed: you want a rapprochement with your brother, but you also wish for him to change his feelings and attitudes, both towards you but also about society in general. Can you see that there is a schism there, and that these two things are not necessarily connected?

In your examples, you had plenty of opportunities to back off, not engage, or redirect your drunk texting brother - but you unable even contemplate doing so; you had to have it out him, whilst knowing that it would exacerbate the situation.

I think you need to consider what you really want here; you don't want reconcile, you want to change him into a person he's not (and you may feel he wants to do that to you). Having a good relationship is simply ancillary to this.

I put it to you that you cannot change what he thinks or feels, and further that attempting to do so or to define your relationship around doing so, is actively hurtful to you both and to your relationship.

Consider your question. There is an awful lot in there about how wrong he is, and why he needs to change; there is nothing about how you could change.

Given that you cannot take responsibility for someone else's emotions (accepting this deep my heart has made me so much happier), surely changing what you can control - yourself and your own feelings - will be much more profitable?

Your brother feels judged - and found lacking - by you (a common thing for younger siblings). He looks up to you on some level, if only subconscious, and this feeling of judgment hurts him. For a healthier relationship, accept him for who he is, explicitly validate his feelings, and his right to feel them, and avoid getting into fraught topics. Focus discussion on things that you agree about and care about. Let him know that you love him, and think he is a good person, son, brother etc. Work on accepting your family as they are, and know that it does not reflect on you or your love for them. Hope this helps,
posted by smoke at 8:09 PM on May 31, 2014 [17 favorites]

Drunks feel shame about their drunken bullshit behaviors. This leads to:

1) self-loathing, which manifests in part as loathing towards reminders of the self (including but not limited to close relatives)

2) denial or justification of bad behavior, which often means devaluing/blaming the people who were subjected to the bad behavior (his criticism) or who objected to the behavior (ditto)

This is based on my experience with an alcoholic sibling. Yes, go to al-anon.

Ultimately it sounds like he's still an active alcoholic.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:17 PM on May 31, 2014 [24 favorites]

Jumping back in, another example: the title of your question "my brother has an issue with me" - not "I have an issue with my brother"; "my relationship with my brother has an issue"; "my brother and I have an issue."

You frame the problem as wholly your brother's, a failing in him, that you need help with.

If it is his failing, there is little you can do about it, and it's not really your problem and you should leave him to it.

But I don't think that's a very healthy/helpful way of framing it.
posted by smoke at 8:17 PM on May 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

Add to this that I am pretty sure he was drunk when he was texting me. We seem to have this pattern where he gets really drunk, and tells me all this really hateful stuff, and then I try to talk to him about it when he's sober, and nothing. He literally won't acknowledge anything bad was ever said and will just say 'I probably shouldn't drink.'

One change that might help prevent these bad situations from escalating into the horrid is simply to not reply late at night or when you suspect that your brother may have been drinking. He seems to be aware that he has a problem with alcohol.

You appear to be looking for how his statements make sense, to himself at least, if not to you, but if he is really drunk, they just won't.
posted by ferdydurke at 8:25 PM on May 31, 2014 [16 favorites]

Oh, and I forgot another anecdote: my stepbrother and stepsister are also basically estranged, for pretty similar reasons. (To make a really, really long story short: He's the responsible one, while she had some drug problems.) I think it's amazing how siblings can look so much alike, sound so much alike, and yet be completely and totally different people. You can love your family and be there for them in emergencies but you don't have to like them. Genetics really, really aren't everything, as I have learned very well.
posted by quincunx at 8:31 PM on May 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

No texting with him when he is drunk or you suspect he has been drinking. Set a firm boundary then stick to it.
posted by mlis at 8:34 PM on May 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

I want to agree very much with the answers suggesting that he is lashing out at you because of his own insecurities. That is absolutely the sense I got while reading your question.

I do think he's hurting and I do think it would be good if you can express how much you still love and care about him. BUT, even though he's got some things it sounds like he really needs to deal with, that absolutely doesn't give him the right to insult you or use you as his emotional punching bag (i.e. "you have no empathy" - what an unfair thing to say, not to mention clearly untrue).

My suggestion would be to say something like "brother, I know that we have our disagreements, but I still love and care about you very much, and I always will. That being said, the things you told me the other night were very hurtful and insulting. I can't have a conversation with you unless you can respond without personal attacks. If that happens in the future, I'll have to hang up the phone or leave the conversation."

Then just follow through. It will probably be very hard to do, because I suspect that saying this will make him defensive, and he may immediately try to re-engage you in a fight or start to insult you again, i.e. "Oh, this is just another example of how sensitive you are." Try hard not to take the bait and just say "I'm afraid that's the type of behavior I was talking about. I'd be happy to talk with you another time if we can have a discussion without insults. Goodbye."

Good luck - you can be kind without letting him be cruel to you.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:46 PM on May 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm so sorry. I really think that this is all about alcoholism and not about a deep seated visceral hatred for you. I'm sure he has lots of confused feelings and lots of wacky ideas, but they are all wildly contradictory (for example, it's not okay for you to be concerned about other people's racist ideas, but it's okay for him to dislike your ideas?). He is just lashing out in pain. He is being abusive toward you. He's got a lot of things he's angry about, that he's not able to deal with. This isn't about how he thinks and feels about you. This is about the confused and painful feelings he has about himself, and when they get to be too much (particularly when he's drinking), they spill out onto other people.

I would encourage you to go to Al-Anon.

Another thing that might help you is to go through your post. Pull everything out that is regarding what he thinks about you, what you wish he thought instead, what you feel you want to change about his thoughts about you. Just pull those sentences out - because that's the open window where he can get in and start this painful (and pointless) conversation with you. You would do well to examine those feelings and get to know them really well so that you don't fall into the trap of engaging with him on that level. Make no mistake, it is definitely a trap and it is very hard to get out of once you fall in it!

He probably doesn't only do it to you. He probably does it to anybody who is close to him who he feels safe dumping on. I'm really sorry. Hopefully, one day, he also will grow past this and get some help and he will make amends to you as well. It is a very sad place to be and I hope he grows past being an angry guy.

I think Al-Anon would help you a lot to retrain your thinking. Al-Anon might help you to see clearly when you hear people telling almost the exact same story you've told here, over and over again, how it little it has to do with you. And it will also help you focus your efforts on protecting yourself, instead of on trying to change him.

I would start with drawing a very firm line about talking to him when he is drunk. If he starts in on you, tell him that you love him very much, but that you will not speak to him when he's been drinking. Even if he says he's not drunk, even if he says he hasn't had anything to drink, you can still end the conversation. Tell him you're uncomfortable. If he says you shouldn't be, tell him "that may or may not be, but the fact still remains that I am uncomfortable." It's not easy. It will take practice.

I also think that the guilty feelings you have about your anger toward him are things you'll need some help with. It's pretty toxic and it's easy to focus on them, until you focus on the real thing, which is that he has said things to you that have upset you and hurt your feelings and made you feel unloved and it's impacted your relationship with him.

I agree really strongly with the posters above who also recommend that you take as much judgement out of your interactions with him and allow him his angry thoughts. You don't need to hear them, or empathize with them, or engage with them. Just accept that they're his, they're not about you, it's not on you to change them, and if you feel an urge to stop him from thinking certain things about you, or about anybody, then you probably should be free from him expressing them to you, because they're painful and frustrating to you.

Good luck to you, and I'm very sorry. Loving someone with a drinking problem who acts out is very hard and there's no easy remedy for it. It takes strength and work to see past the feelings and pain it brings up. Setting boundaries is the only way, and it takes a LOT of effort and failed starts and mistakes, for everybody. Be easy on yourself. You don't deserve any of his abusive behavior, and none of it, none of it is your fault.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:18 PM on May 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Do I write a letter? Ask him to see a therapist? See one with him? Go to Al Anon and just forget about having a rational relationship with my brother, ever?
My therapist says "talk to him" but I feel like that's hard due to everything above.

I think this is interesting; a lot of your suggestions here are essentially centered around asking your brother do things, they are "corrective", in a sense, and premised on the idea that your brother and his worldview are not just wrong, but require adjustment.

Forgive me, but this is a very older sister thing to do, and it whips up resentment like a heavy squall does whitecaps.

OP Here (these answers are all really helpful BTW, so thank you thank you) - first, no he doesn't live with my parents. He bought a place not far from them a few years ago.

I think the "older sister" thing is something I worry about - because yeah I'm the oldest of two and don't have any other experience to reference. I was just talking to a friend who's a middle child about her family issues and was trying to point out how her older sister might be feeling, just because I have that oldest sister perspective.

As far as changing his worldview - yeah, I mean I wish he were a little more open to discussing racism/sexism but I think he was the one who brought it to me as my issue - I'm realistic enough to know i can't change his mind about this kind of thing, so I try not to discuss it with him, but he brought up a conversation I had with friends like, in his presence, or things I put on Facebook (which to me are usually things I've seen other friends post, but it's "crazy" and "irrational" to him).

I think the racism/sexism stuff is a red herring though - there's something about me he really seems to hate. I don't know if it's because of stuff from when he was drinking a lot as a kid or not honestly because he won't talk about it, and if I were to bring it up - I'm "angry like Dad, crazy like Dad" so it goes nowhere.

The therapist/letter/etc questions were not "write him a letter to change his views on racism/sexism" or "tell him to see a therapist to "fix" his bad views on racism/sexism (I have had enough therapy to understand it doesn't work this way, nor do I think it should, and actually my own therapist is not super enlightened so we had a big conversation about whether or not it's insulting to insist someone born in the US should say they're "from" whatever country their parents came from).

It's more to be like, "This is how I actually feel about you (I love you and think you should keep on as you are)" and also just try to figure out what the hell is his problem with me. He has been slightly open to seeing a therapist in the past. He's only recently started opening up about maybe being an alcoholic. I have *always* tried to be as gentle as possible on that issue, because you can't force anyone to get treatment etc.

The part that makes it hardest is how he's like - "be vulnerable," " have empathy", I feel like he wants something and I'm really confused about it. I've always asked a lot of questions about things he's interested in - his work, sports, etc. We went "planespotting" at LAX on a recent trip, which was the last thing I wanted to do with my time in LA, but he's interested in different things and I think that's cool - I get a sense of something that's out of my comfort zone, and I dig that. He's never shown any interest in any things that interest me. Like, really, anything.

So that's just the explanation - I don't want to change his worldview, or at least I know that I can't. I think the real problem is something I don't even know about - which is why I framed it as his issue - I don't really know what the problem is, so I don't know how to fix it. I think to some degree, I'm like this huge humanities nerd and it affects the way that I talk and things I talk about and I don't even realize it, but I can't really change that, nor would I want to, but I think he sees that as my being a snob or something.

I'm not perfect, but trust me, I am constantly wondering what I did wrong and how I could be the most perfectest bestest big sister so while I think the comments on how I am expecting him to change everything about himself seem to have a reasonable basis based on what I wrote, I don't think it's accurate to the situation.

I know that the right reaction should have been to not respond to the texts, but I felt like his drinking had been getting better, and honestly I don't even really know why I took the bait there.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 9:36 PM on May 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

>there's something about me he really seems to hate... and if I were to bring it up - I'm "angry like Dad, crazy like Dad" so it goes nowhere.

I think jaguar is on the money here. He's very angry with your father, and he's using you as a safe outlet for that rage, both because as an older sibling you're a stand-in family authority figure, and because it sounds like you're a lot more stable than your dad and won't punish him for lashing out. I don't think he hates you, although it's not ok for him to be using you as a safe proxy for his issues with your father.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 9:45 PM on May 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think you know you should never have a complex conversation over text. There are so many presumptions in your wall of text above about what those topics mean to him, and the medium that you used to engage with him is very thin and allows very little of the true richness that such a conversation deserves. Which frankly sounds less like its about these topics and more about emotional content which cannot come through over text.

Next time, pick up the phone and call him. Or better yet, meet up with him more often in a non-judgemental, non-deterministic way. its okay that you both have different world views and different truths on racism and sexism - you are different people with different life experiences albeit from the same family. Whats lacking in your narrative is a sense of compassion and understanding of your brother. Try sitting with him and thinking or having an "I'd don't know" approach. Just listen and hear where he is coming from. It will help both of you - he will feel heard by the big sister he still looks up to, and you will feel compassion and understanding for your little brother's different experience and views.
posted by zia at 10:06 PM on May 31, 2014

Honestly, you sound like a really great, thoughtful, loving sister. I do hope my response wasn't upsetting or felt accusatory to you, it was not my intention at all. A lot of this reminds me so much of my own eldest sister, especially (in your follow up) your focus on 'pushing through', on finding a solution. Statements like:

I feel like he wants something and I'm really confused about it., and I don't really know what the problem is, so I don't know how to fix it

Are revealing in that they probably display a lot about how you think about relationships and responsibility.

I think it's worth remembering that, firstly, he is likely utterly unable to articulate to you and to himself, what it is that he wants from you. People with emotional trauma and dark feelings in their past often struggle to articulate their emotional states in words. The emotions are so powerful, it can be like a different language - one they are not fluent in. The attempt to discuss or analyse these feelings summons not only the upset of thinking about upsetting things, but the frustration of being unable to communicate or articulate. The instinctual action is to pull away and also to lash out defensively, as the person/thing bringing up these emotions is mistaken for the cause of them. In my experience, this can particularly be the case in 'immigrant' cultures where emotional displays or interactions are culturally mediated and only expected in very particular contexts.

Secondly, and to turn it back on to you, you are viewing this as a problem you can solve - and a problem you can solve. It's possible that thinking of yourself this way, and perhaps in this role in the family, is something that's really tied up into how you view being a sister. The upset it's causing you may not just be because of the hurt you feel from your brother, but also your inability to fulfill your "role" in the family, and as a sister. That can be a frustrating feeling, a feeling that you are letting people down.

Is it possible that is part of why this problem is preoccupying you and you are driving yourself to 'get to the bottom of it'? That you are feeling like your brother's unhappiness with you is actually because you are not doing "Big Sister" right, or he's not understanding that? Is it possible that you also have feelings of guilt or shame, and also frustration about this?

I don't know if your brother will ever possess the vocabulary or capability to discuss this with you - but OP that's on him, not you. And it doesn't represent a failing on your part. I would be really interested to know if your brother angry-texts anyone else, and also what your mother makes of all this and if she has any advice. Family relationships are so complicated.

But I would say,

1) You do not have to "fix" this problem. It may not be yours to fix.
2) Just because your brother wants something you are not obligated to provide it. You should give only what you are comfortable with, don't sacrifice your emotional stability or resources on what could be a wild goose chase.
3) Understand that sibling relationships can ebb and rise over time, and different lifestyle phases and also promote or hinder closeness.
4) Don't be afraid to put some of the burden for this relationship on your brother. Like, don't ask him, "What do you want from me?", but do say, "I was really upset when you texted me the other night. I'm really sorry if something I put on Facebook bothered you, but you made me cry and I couldn't sleep that night. Can we agree to be more careful about this stuff? I really hate fighting with you, our relationship means a lot to me." (lay it on thick, your brother is probably vulnerable; any emotionally affirming and ego boosting stuff will likely go down a treat).
5) Be prepared that it may be a bit stiff for a couple of years, and just because it's like this way now, doesn't mean it will be like this forever.
6) Do lots of what works, and avoid what doesn't, where you can.

Good luck.
posted by smoke at 10:15 PM on May 31, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'd disengage. Just don't respond when he's texting, or when he's drunk.

If he keeps after you though, I'm very mellow, very calm, but sometimes a statement that cuts right to the heart of the matter can get someone to back off. They're usually angry because they feel guilty, or ashamed, or they're attacking you what they dislike about their own behavior.
I've had to tell family members that they need to stop getting angry at me because they feel guilty about their own behavior, and hung up. It was absolutely cutting, and hurtful (because I knew what I was saying was true, and couldn't put up with being their punching bag), but it got them to knock it off (and apologise, but you can't count on that every time).

If you need to pull out the big guns, then in a call, not a text:
"Brother, I love you, but this isn't my problem, it's yours.
I don't think you're angry at me, I think you're angry at Dad. But that is still not my problem.
If you don't want to be like him, then stop contacting me to attack me when you are drunk."
And hang up.


But, I'd have some compassion for his situation, and avoid getting to that place if you can. There is a certain level of racism, sexism, bigotry, that gets absolutely overwhelming if you acknowledge all of it. So, you can't. You can only call out the worst of it, essentially, because you know most of it is cultural, and cultural isn't going to change any time soon.
And the 'worst of it' in a very liberal environment is on a different order of magnitude to that of a very, say, racist environment.
You are in a situation where you have to face less of it, because you have moved away from the situation your brother is in.
He, on the other hand, if he got angry at every micro-expression of racism, would probably be angry all the time. And at people who he'd like to consider his friends.
So he can't live by the same standards you do, and is probably very resentful you get to.
If at all possible, absolutely back off from anything that suggests how he should be dealing with racism in his own life. If you do talk to him about things, acknowledge that people in that state, are still caring people, they just don't know any better, what can you do, yadda yadda, you're in different social circles now, and you acknowledge it's different.
posted by Elysum at 10:21 PM on May 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Blitz (and maybe others) beat me to this, but: I was hard on him when he was hard on my parents and living with them and getting DUIs, but that was a long time ago and I've changed a ton since then. Maybe you have, but does he know that? How much have you worked on forgiving him? Not that it's a requirement to forgive him, but if you haven't -- if you are still holding that period over his head, somehow -- he has some right to be resentful/distrustful.*

The sibling relationship can be one of the most intense and complex relationships that we ever experience. Frequently, there's a level of respect and trust that most parents can only dream of. I was four years older than my brother, but circumstances combined to make us unusually close as we were growing up. Amidst the usual (extreme) frustrations, there was a lot of mutual admiration, and my descent into addiction was incredibly painful for him. Restoring that relationship in the years since has been one of the biggest gifts I've ever received.

I suspect that the whole racism thing is a symptom of/smokescreen for something deeper. Maybe this isn't really the issue for him; your lost respect for him, and his shame over losing it, is.

I also suspect that his self-assessment as being the "calm, reasonable" one is accurate; at least from his perspective, when he's sober. I was the calm guy, relative to my brother. It was only when I was blackout drunk that a very different, wildly emotional, and bitterly angry Credible Hulk emerged.

*You probably won't be able to fully forgive him for the things he does while drunk until he stops being drunk. You have no obligation to forgive him, even then. In any case, he won't likely stop doing the things that hurt and anger you, until that time comes. If you haven't yet calmly explained how he's hurting you, start doing so.

This means putting aside the tertiary argument, tone, or unflattering familial comparison that's pissing you off, and staying on message: "Brother, I love you deeply, and miss being close to you. But don't call me when you've been drinking." If he can't honor that, stop engaging. Nothing else you can do at that point will "help" him, really; any positive changes are up to him, and any further effort will just drain you and add resentments to the growing pile.
posted by credible hulk at 10:23 PM on May 31, 2014

If he's drunk or otherwise being unreasonable, you won't be able to have a productive, substantial conversation with him. I also suggest setting some boundaries for yourself and sticking to them. This may be hard at first, but it is so worth it. In your examples he's texting you about things that are stressful and bait-y. Perhaps one of the boundaries could be to not engage with this. You don't necessarily have to ignore his texts to not engage; you could text back something like "I'm sorry you feel that way/that's happening/things are hard" the first time. Perhaps you could pick a number of texts that seems reasonable to you after which you will not text back. Just make sure to text him and tell him that that's what will be happening. Maybe try something like "This is stressful. I can't talk with you about this anymore." If he texts you about something else equally stressful, consider "I can't talk with you about this either." You might even add something like "I hope your day/night/whatever gets better." Don't just ignore him without telling him you're doing that explicitly. That way he can look back at his texts when he's not drunk/more reasonable and you've told him exactly what you're doing and why. Also consider not engaging during certain times of the day, if you aren't already doing so. For example: at work, when out with friends, after a certain time at night and before a certain time in the morning, and so on.

I agree with the suggestions that you go to Al Anon or some other type of support group. If possible, try to find another therapist. You might not be able to find one with no learning curve, but you might be able to find one with less of a learning curve. Ideally, therapy is for improving your life, not educating your therapist. I say this as a person who will almost certainly have to educate every therapist I see about at least one thing. Just knowing for yourself that you've tried to minimize how much you have to do this, even if you can't find a better therapist right now or at all, really can make a positive difference.

On a similar note - you don't have to try to change your brother or engage with him in these types of conversations even when he is being reasonable, just like you don't have to engage with every incident of injustice you witness in the world. There are times when you should not. It could be good to consider how much you really want to do this, why you want to do it, and how likely it is that you will be able to effect any positive change. It could also be good to consider the effect that confronting different types/situations of injustice will have on you and your health. You're important too.
posted by Verba Volant at 11:01 PM on May 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Drunks say stupid things that they later regret. Don't do late night or texting when he is likely to be drunk. Turn off the phone, and in the morning reply to him and see what he says then. Drunk talk is not meaningful, it can be spiteful, but is usually only a small part of the truth of what a person is thinking. Drunks tend to get stuck and repeat themselves, as though it makes them make more sense.

Listening to and believing a drunk is like talking to a toddler who is mad at you. The toddler will try to hurt your feelings and get a rise out of you by saying he hates you. But you know the truth, and it makes the toddler mad when you point out you both love each other. A tantrumming toddler you need to ignore until he comes to his senses. A drunk is the same, ignore until sober. Then ask if he still wants to talk about the subject.

Please, while the things he says while drunk are hateful, please ignore. It is not about you, it is all about him and his brain under the influence. I hope that he can get help for his problems. But he may not, and you are under no obligation to talk to him when he is not sober.
posted by 101cats at 11:03 PM on May 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Reasons why he might be saying the things he's saying to you about empathy and vulnerability:

1. He knows that you value empathy, rationality, and open communication/vulnerability, and he wants to hit you where it hurts, so he tells you that you are unfeeling, irrational, and a poor communicator. Fits with the pattern of insulting you by saying you are like your father, and needling you about sexism and racism. He is a provocateur. He knows how to push your buttons - it's not about the reality of how you do or don't act.
2. He is lashing out at you for things that he wishes he could change in his own life. Why are you so irrational? (as he's being irrational) Why are you so hostile and inflexible? (as he's being hostile and inflexible) Again, using you as an emotional punching bag. Lacking the insight to see that he's just facing his inner anger outwards.
3. Regarding your follow up: "I am constantly wondering what I did wrong and how I could be the most perfectest bestest big sister"
I kind of think that this IS what you're doing wrong, in his mind - how do you think having a big sister who's always striving for perfection feels to someone who might feel like they've always been second best? He might wish you'd stop trying to be so perfect. Stop trying to be the best. Just be a sister. Go to him with your problems (not your cerebral type problems about structural racism and whatnot, your problems that involve you screwing something up and making mistakes - things in your own life that you need to fix). Now that would show some vulnerability….
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:14 PM on May 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

It sounds like you both are super defended and caught up in superficial content rather than talking about the real issues.

To get out of that, you probably have to switch to talking about your feelings and listening for his at the deepest level you can. That'll require pivoting the conversation out of the content.

> you're obsessed with sexism and racism and you hate white people and you need to change!

"Huh, that's not how i see myself. it seems like you're pretty angry?"
"I get bummed when we have conversations like this."

Apart from fielding his attacks, i don't see why you can't level with him about your theory. "It seems like you're mad at me. Maybe because I was kind of a judgmental jerk back when you were living at home?"
posted by salvia at 12:16 AM on June 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your dad primed you to this kind of hardcore bending over backwards to please behavior. It seems unhealthy to be constantly thinking about improving your reasonable, normal behavior in order to get a difficult, critical alcoholic to approve of you.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:16 AM on June 1, 2014 [17 favorites]

You're arguing with a drunk? He's in the bellicose stage of the thing and probably isn't remotely in control of what he's saying. Disengage. Quite likely he doesn't fully believe half the things he is saying and is more flailing than rational.

His opinion of you is irrational and coming out of the bottle. He thinks you are a hater because he is one and is projecting it on you.

The most I would do is lightly suggest he check his public profile after one of these things so that he can make sure he stands by everything he posted. And I might mention to your parents that you are worried about his drinking, if you are.

If you are desperate for reassurance you could ask him if he really believes all those things he said about you a day or two later when you figure he is definitely sober. He probably doesn't even remember what they are but would likely assert that he does stand by them. You might get reassurance but you might not.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:39 AM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can't have a dialogue with your brother when he is drunk or hateful or both.

A discussion happens when two people have mutual respect for each other and are willing to listen and consider each other's side. Your brother was berating you.

Simply say to him, "you may have a point, but you sound drunk and argumentative and I won't discuss this issue with you under these circumstances."

Also, you seem really invested in his opinion of you. While I love my sister, sometime she can be talking through her ass, and rather than engage, I let it go. If its important, I might say, "I disagree, I think blah."

But neither of us is drunk, and we can disagree respectfully.

At some point it's okay to say to your brother, "that's your opinion, but its not my problem."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:40 AM on June 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am constantly wondering what I did wrong and how I could be the most perfectest bestest big sister.

Honestly, if there is one thing I would change about what you're doing it would be to get rid of this mindset. Just because your brother is unhappy and taking it out on you does not mean that you are not a good sister. As others have said, I get the sense that your wish to fix the situation is somehow feeding his anger, but I don't think you should take this to mean that you need to see things more from his side and etc etc. I think that when your brother is acting out you should redirect the energy you have been expending in trying to have a genuine interaction with him, and invest it in taking care of yourself and asserting your right not to put up with angry outbursts and personal insults. You love him, but that doesn't mean you have to accept hurtful, disrespectful behavior.

I understand that this may sound cold, but I think that when someone has been hurting you, it is within your rights to take a step back, rather than beat yourself up trying to think of ways to make it better. I'm saying all this as someone who feels a lot of uncertainty about how to deal with a sibling with anger and substance issues, so I hope this doesn't come off sounding glib or unsympathetic.
posted by mustard seeds at 7:50 AM on June 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

My sister has a narrative about me that seems utterly baffling on the face of it. It begins to make sense when her thoughts and actions are pulled into the picture. Because of her defensiveness, it's very difficult for her to admit the things she doesn't like about herself, but it's quite easy for her to decide she hates them about me. That I don't have these thoughts, or do these actions, that's an easy enough detail to ignore.

My guess is that, living immersed in that racism is creating a cognitive dissonance that he finds especially difficult to manage when he's drunk. He becomes terrified that his hurt and/or anger about the shit he has to tolerate is going to show and ruin his stated happiness. The alcohol brings that closer to the surface and it's time to get mad at the feelings! Since the feelings have been assigned to you, you get the bait text to get the ball rolling!

Arguing is completely useless or worse. Just ignore until he sobers up, and then when he says "I probably shouldn't drink", muster the flattest affect you can and respond "I couldn't agree more."
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 9:02 AM on June 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Chiming in with everyone to say that this is definitely his problem, not yours, and that it is impossible to have a coherent, rational conversation with somebody who us drunk. Refusing to engage with him under those circumstances is not the same thing as cutting him off entirely: as others have pointed out, you can always bring up the things he says later, and ask him if he really believes those things and/or wants to talk about them now.
posted by rpfields at 9:22 AM on June 1, 2014

Lots of good advice above. One very minor thought: if someone keeps using my FB posts for drama, I limit what they can see of my FB posts. Not because I'm ashamed of my viewpoints or to accommodate them, but because my goal in sharing on FB is to generate helpful and interesting conversations. Not to deal with someone else's drama.

If someone isn't going to participate in that type of convo when it comes to certain subjects, they get left off of that group.
posted by bunderful at 9:53 AM on June 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

From a member that would prefer to post this as anonymous:
Hmmm, well I'm not sure I can give objective advice here -- only try to relate my experience and see if it adds any perspective to your situation. If I could have privately messaged this to you, I would have.

I am also an oldest sister with a younger brother (by 6 years) who self-medicates his issues with alcohol (one parent is of Hindu origin; the other is a "white" North American). We were also really close (I thought) growing up, right up until I left for university. He stayed home much longer, struggled with going to college or pursuing a career. I also perceived him as having a big issue with drinking (in this case though, encouraged by his alcoholic dad who is also a heavy smoker) and taking advantage of my parents. He didn't move out from home until just last fall, into a lucrative position that's equally stereotypical for men like my brother here as your brother's banker position; my brother became a millworker.

When I moved back a couple years ago, and my father happened to pass away, THAT's when my brother's issues with me came to surface -- issues I never knew existed. In fact I'd guess I'm the safest vent for all his dissociated anger towards his father. It's become very clear to me now that my brother was NOT happy to stay home as long as he did. He did so out of pure obligation to my parents: in spite of the big show they put on about what wonderful parents they are, it's clear that my parents needed him around to stay distracted from how fundamentally unhappy they were with each other. And to make it even worse, I know my father used toxic guilt on my brother to keep him around. Example: something I *do* remember about being my father's child was how he not-so-subtly inserted comments about how he'll just go out back and shoot himself when we [his children] don't want him around anymore. A lot of that negativity I got to leave behind when I left home as soon as I could, but for my brother, absorbing that kind of low-level depression from a parent lasted several years longer.

As a further caveat, I also discovered when I returned home through a series of haphazard events that my brother's alcoholism is not just about being unhappy -- it's also been about medicating the pain of a traumatic sexual assault that he endured as a toddler by a relative who *my father* brought into the family. It's about being a child who was deeply wounded, and who was so unworthy of genuine love that his own parents and siblings never picked up on the confusion and pain he was going through. This relative eventually left in a dramatic way, and my father spearheaded sweeping all related issues under the rug to never be spoken of again (heavy alcoholic years here). My mother has confided in me that over the past several years my brother has tried many times to have a conversation about this with my dad (especially while drinking, when he feels he has the guts to talk about it), which my dad reacted to by either changing the subject as much as possible or turning the conversation into a discussion about his own unhappiness.

I'm definitely not suggesting that traumatic rape is what's at play here, but the fact that your brother been drinking since you left home speaks strongly to me that there's deep-rooted issues that you, as Sister, are not necessarily aware of. So don't purport yourself to be that most awesomemest bestest big sister ever when it's obvious there's such a disconnect in your understanding of your brother's life experiences. Posing as that big sister ideal really communicates to your brother on a behavioral level that you condone the way things were handled by your parents/father -- including whatever was done to perpetuate ongoing emotional pain for your brother.

In summary, I think your experience of your family is not on par with what your brother experienced of your family, particularly your father. Also that pride in one's ethnic heritage is one of the shaming tools your father used to keep your brother in line. There is clearly something your brother needed from your parents, particularly your dad, that he did not get, and being the most perfectest bestest big sister is really driving home the fact that you Just. Don't. Get. It. Just because you found a way to be okay with your father's shortcomings does not mean your brother did, and it also does not mean you got the same education about those shortcomings as your brother did either -- especially as a female child vs a male child (also true in my case -- both my white and brown parent had very different standards for acceptable behavior to teach boys vs girls... it's really fueled all our inabilities to connect as adults, which pretty sad at times).

I agree with others' standard advice not to engage in any conversation with your brother while he's drunk. Own the fact that you do NOT understand what's going on with your brother or why he's so unhappy with himself. But at the same time, do not own your father's mistakes for him. Clearly your father has expressed his anger towards the world to your brother, and this was wounding for your brother. (I would definitely guess at one time your brother wanted to be with a white woman, and was shamed for it by your father.) Make it clear that you support your brother to get the support he needs to feel worthy of a happy life, but it is not within your scope as his older sister to guide him as to how best to do this.
posted by mathowie at 11:32 AM on June 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have two kids who have this sort of relationship. The younger one always has something critical about how the older one is critical. I don't know why it started but the younger one lies to people about why she hates her sister saying she is an alcoholic for instance when she is reflecting on it and the very similar dynamics I would say that your younger sibling always thought you got the better end of attention and is dying to prove your parents were wrong in thinking you were the "best" child. Although I suspect that like most parents they loved you both. And since you were the older, your younger sibling often heard praise for things you did but he was not able to because of his age, thus forming an indelible impression that he was inferior and could only be better by attacking you.

What you should do about it? I don't have a clue yet but asking your brother if he thinks your dad liked you better than him might be interesting.
posted by OhSusannah at 3:21 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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