Should I intervene in my brother's relationship? How?
January 16, 2016 3:31 PM   Subscribe

My brother is behaving in ways that I consider emotionally abusive towards his long-term partner. She's on the cusp of moving across the country to be with him under questionable circumstances. I'm very alarmed by the patterns I'm picking up. What on Earth do I do, if anything?

Everyone involved is an abuse survivor -- me, my partner, him, his partner. I've done a tremendous amount of emotional work and I'm very aware of patterns of abuse. Him and her, less so. He and I have become closer this past year after many years of near-estrangement and we're building the beginnings of a close adult relationship which is something we have both wanted for a long time. But I can't condone the way he is behaving right now and I am worried for his partner, who I also consider a friend.

They're been long distance for a few months and having a painful go of it, in particular because there is no end point and no plan for being in the same place. He's now issued an ultimatum that she move to his city, leaving behind her friends, family, and budding career, or else he is ending the relationship for good. However, he's simultaneously claiming it's not an ultimatum and it's her choice to make... and that if she does make it, it will be some kind of proof that she wants them to be together (he said this to me, not to her). It's the latest in a long pattern of push-pull, breakup-back together. They're both pretty emotionally unstable, but she's the one on the cusp of losing control of her life, while he's not giving an inch. If she asked me what to do, or if she posted a question to Metafilter asking what to do, I am pretty sure the consensus would be that this is a huge red flag and she should look out for herself and definitely not move in response to an ultimatum like this.

Neither have them have asked for my advice. I am biting my tongue super hard and the most I've done is show some reluctance endorsing his latest behaviour when we talked on the phone. He picked up on this, but changed the subject soon after. I feel his walls are up on this issue. In her case, I feel like she needs some positive voices telling her to make choices that are best for her own life, and calling out what seems like questionable behaviour, but instinctively I feel reluctant to be the one to tell her this, because it will put me between the two of them. At the same time I can sense that she's vulnerable to this type of pressure, and the threat of aloneness will exert significant power over her. Last I heard, she was seriously considering moving, even though months ago she seemed firm in her convictions that there was nothing there for her in that city.

I want him to start facing his emotions and recognize what he's doing. I know I can't make him do this, but I feel the best chance this is going to happen is if I maintain my presence in his life as a positive support. Thus my current plan is continue to bite my tongue and not interfere with their choices even though my internal alarms are all firing. And then when this does come up in conversation, to continue to respond with 'um...' rather than encouragement, in hopes of gently planting the idea that he should look critically at what he's doing and asking.

As for her, I'm stuck, because I want her to feel empowered and like she has a real choice here and that I think what he's doing is not cool, but I feel if I say that, I likely torpedo my relationship with my brother, and miss out on any chance to make things better in the long run. In any case, maybe it's not my place to say it. And maybe I should just step back and not try to interfere in her life. But then I worry she will just get emotionally crushed. I already see it beginning to happen. And maybe even that my silence will be taken as a tacit endorsement of the reality he is pushing on her.

What do I do? Anything?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total)
Your instincts are correct. Stay out of this.
posted by pintapicasso at 3:41 PM on January 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

It is reasonable for your brother to not want to be in a long distance relationship without end, and it is okay for him to not want to move. It's a sad situation, but not abusive in and of itself. It's absolutely not your place to interfere and your description of the situation honestly reads to me as pretty infantilizing towards her.
posted by kelseyq at 3:41 PM on January 16, 2016 [17 favorites]

Also, I think that you are considering "the threat of aloneness" as such a coercive force as to suggest that a breakup constitutes abuse indicates a direction for you to explore in your own self-work on healing.
posted by kelseyq at 3:44 PM on January 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

She's a grown person and she's capable of making her own terrible mistakes. Unless and until she asks for your opinion, keep it to yourself.

As for your brother, if he asks you can tell him what you think. With love. "I don't know, she's giving up foo and bah and blah. What are YOU giving up? Since she's ditching her job and her friends and family to move, maybe you ought to pick up the cost of the move, bro." Just a thought, he's not going to ask for your opinion.

Chances are, he's not going to see it. He's testing her to see how much she loves him. I suspect that he'll do a lot of that. But people aren't going to change until they're ready and his shit's working for him so far.

One thing you can do is once she moves, you can be an ally for her. Introduce her to some of your friends that she might like, help her not feel so alone in a new place. Maybe suggest a good therapist for her to work with while she settles in.

Other than that, don't take sides, don't get in the middle of it and don't advise anyone unless they point-blank ask you, and even then, temper it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:48 PM on January 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

Ending a long distance relationship, one that has no end point or end goal, could be a healthy thing.

If she didn't ask for your help, don't offer it. You said they're both having a hard time; they need to process this at their own pace and in their own way.
posted by RainyJay at 3:51 PM on January 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've done a tremendous amount of emotional work and I'm very aware of patterns of abuse. That's great, and it's natural to want your brother to have the same kind of awareness. However, it isn't something you can gift. He has to come to it on his own.

On its surface, there's nothing wrong with telling a partner that they need to be in the same city or break up. It doesn't sound as though your brother is very open to compromise, but many aren't. It may not be wise for his partner to decide to be the one to compromise, but many would. I'm sure that there are nuances you see which we can't catch, but as you describe it no intervention is necessary.

Best thing you can do is to be there if either of them want to talk, and work on your own life.
posted by frumiousb at 3:52 PM on January 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Well, if you don't agree with how he handled this, you should not not not not play games like you are suggesting. Hemming and hawing is so fucking annoying to be on the receiving end from. You'll end up starting an argument with your brother going that way.

Instead I suggest being kind but direct...

"Brother, I appreciate that having a long distance relationship is not working out for you, and you want your girlfriend to move. I wish this was something you two could discuss calmly, rather than you issuing her an ultimatum. I think you are being grossly unfair to both of yourself and your girlfriend. You both deserve better than this type of tactic. Maybe you could tell me more about how you got to this point?"

Then listen. Be open. Maybe you can get him to approach this problem from a more mature place?

Just don't lie. You should DEFINITELY stay out of it except for being a proponent of mature discussion rather than ultimatums. Preach discussion and diplomacy.

You might really enjoy courses on non-violent communication and/or mediation techniques. If you can demonstrate maturity, it might rub off on your brother.
posted by jbenben at 3:55 PM on January 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

Are you leaving out important aspects of his behavior? In itself, what he's saying is not unreasonable. Long distance without foreseeable end is not sustainable, and if he is very particular about where he wants to live, then... that's that.
posted by namesarehard at 4:13 PM on January 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

This is written in a very over dramatic way when in actual fact it's really very simple. Your brother has just stated he doesn't want to be in long distance relationship and either they live in his city together or he doesn't want to continue being long distance and it's over. This isn't abusive, otherwise every case of someone ending a LDR because it didn't eventuate in them being together would be an abuser.

How is the girlfriend moving to be with him 'losing control of her life'? I man, ultimately, someone has to move for them to be together in the way they want. It's not losing control of your life, it's starting a new life with someone you love in a new city.

I'm not concerned about your brother being abusive at all, he just sounds like he knows how he wants his life to be and is communicating it. I am, however, a bit concerned about you. You seem to be viewing this through a skewed lens. I know you come to this from a place of wanting to do the right thing but your perspective seems really off and you have the potential to stir up a whole lot of drama where there really need not be. I would leave this well, well alone.
posted by Jubey at 4:58 PM on January 16, 2016 [13 favorites]

Letting her know they don't have a future together unless she moves to his city isn't abuse. Accusing him of abuse for this reason would be a pretty terrible, as well as inaccurate, thing to say.

I don't think it would be wrong to observe "oh wow, she's giving up a lot for you, huh?" in the way one would observe it to any close friend, though.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:11 PM on January 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Asking a long-distance partner to move is not abuse. What is it about your brother's current city that you think she couldn't build a life for herself there, with or without him? How is that going to make her 'lose control of her life'? She most certainly does have a choice here. She can either move or end the relationship. But it's not your job to decide what's best for her, or protect her from what you see as inevitable heartbreak.

If things don't work out between them, she'll either move back home or build a new life for herself out there. It's not the end of the world.

Also, if you are truly interested in building a healthy relationship with your brother, coming from a place of wanting to 'fix' him is probably not the best idea. If he is not ready to change he's not going to just because you want him to. You can't micro-manage other peoples' healing or emotional development, and you are not his therapist.

I know you're coming from a place of caring for both of them, but interfering in this is probably not going to be of service to any of you.
posted by ananci at 7:32 PM on January 16, 2016

I feel like sometimes the resounding "do nothing" advice in these situations can be a little tough to actually handle in real life. Because while OP certainly cannot fix their brother or his girlfriend, she's probably the best 3rd party this relationship has got around if things DO go south.

OP, if you're really worried about the impact your brother's actions might have on his girlfriend, know now that you cannot change him or fix him. But, you can be there for his girlfriend if she ends up moving, and helping her out when she asks. The choices in this situation are their business only, but you can be there to help her if she makes a choice that impacts her life in a difficult way.

There's no good way to intervene, but you can be there. It can feel unbearable to have to bite your tongue, but it is actually the most helpful thing to do. If his gf ends up moving, then the best thing you could do is just be there for her. Make sure she knows someone is listening. That is all you can do. I don't think "doing nothing" is a good idea, but "doing something" does not always have to mean intervening. Sometimes the best thing you can be doing is simply being present and at-the-ready for someone when they need help.
posted by InkDrinker at 9:20 PM on January 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with others that there's nothing inherently wrong with saying he'll end the relationship if she doesn't move, but I think it's pretty dependent on how it's done.

"I can't handle long distance anymore, but I'm tied to my town. I'd love for you to move here, but if you can't, this has to end." Mature, honest, clear, necessary

"If you really loved me you'd have moved here already. Move here or I'll dump you." Immature, emotionally manipulative

It's hard to tell from your question which scenario this is. Does he seem to think that her not wanting to move is somehow a bigger crime than him not wanting to move? Either way, I agree with InkDrinker that the best thing you can do is be there for her as a part of their lives.
posted by Gravel at 11:20 PM on January 16, 2016

As I read this question and the replies, I get the sense that there may be facets to this situation that the OP is leaving out.

Yes, it's true that LDRs are challenging and that it's perfectly within rights for someone to end a long distance relationship, as in any relationship, if it doesn't look like it's headed in the preferred trajectory. In a healthy relationship this is a challenge but not, as many have said, a marker of abuse.

But that presumes a healthy relationship, and I think the subtext is that there are other dynamics at play that are far less healthy.

I presume that the OP has a heightened awareness that isolation (from friends, family, familiar places and things) and dependence (financially, until she has a job; socially, until she makes her own friends, which may be delayed because the relationship needs repair, etc, etc) and control (the only way this LDR can be resolved for him is for her to do it his way, there is apparently no consideration of him changing anything) are classic and fundamental aspects of abusive relationships.

If it's otherwise not a healthy relationship, and I think that is what is implied by "they are both emotionally unstable", then yes, I think it's reasonable for the OP to be really worried about this.

OP, are you in his city? Are you friends with her, or is that a friendship that you'd like to cultivate? I think maybe the best approach here is not to actively intervene, in the sense of telling anyone what to do right now, but to adopt the stance that is recommended when someone is a bystander to a clearly abusive relationship.

Honor that she is an adult capable of making her own choices, so don't get in there and make choices for her; be a friend and available for nonjudgmental communication even when sometimes it can be frustrating to be a sounding board for a bad situation when the solution seems obvious; and be willing to help if and when the dynamic shifts and she needs to make a change.

Maybe the best thing you can do is be her friend, grow an independent friendship with her that has nothing to do with rescuing her in this situation: be part of the social fabric that helps her get established, so she's not so isolated and dependent.

It's a delicate situation and I commend you for caring. Hope it all works out!
posted by Sublimity at 4:52 AM on January 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

As his sister, you can't share your concerns with his girlfriend. You can only hope that she has friends and family who are able to have these conversations with her.

What you can do:
- be her friend when she moves - set up a regular "girls' night out" either with just her, or with her and some of your friends too, or both. Don't expect her to talk much about her relationship with your brother, and don't pry, but be aware of her demeanor, particularly if it changes from month to month. (Oh! Just realized that I don't even know if you're a girl. This suggestion won't work so well if you're a boy...)
- find out what her interests are and make suggestions for how she can keep pursuing them in her new city, and introduce her to local acquaintances who share those interests.
- if you're not in the same city, try and call her every couple of weeks, preferably at a time when your brother isn't home. Find a pretext to start the conversation - e.g. "brother's birthday is coming up soon, any ideas for gifts?" or "you're a crochet / graphic design / baking wizard - a friend of mine is getting into that, do you have any recommendations for websites / blogs / books?" - and take it from there.
- encourage her, as much as you can, to stay in touch with friends and family from home. If she's feeling overwhelmed or isolated or scared, she needs someone to talk to - and that won't (and shouldn't) be you.
- if you're at a family event, and you see behavior or hear words that you find problematic (and you feel safe to do so), call him out (in private). Let him know that you're someone who loves him and wants him to have a successful relationship, but that what you just witnessed wasn't cool.
- continue to talk to your brother. Listen and ask pertinent questions (even leading questions), but save the advice for when it's requested. I think you know this already, but helping him to figure out the answers for himself is more effective in the long run than telling him what you think he should do.

And please look after yourself too - you clearly care about your brother and his girlfriend, and have some genuine concerns, and that's really tough when there isn't much you can do to change the course of events.

Good luck! I hope it all works out well...
posted by finding.perdita at 12:07 AM on January 18, 2016

It sounds like this could be an unhealthy relationship, but I'm not seeing abuse in someone being a) unwilling to move and b) unwilling to be in a long distance relationship. I've actually been in this position before, and in our case it ended in a breakup, no abuse present. I don't think it is inherently manipulative or bad to decide that your career (or whatever is keeping you in a certain city) is your priority, and that a long distance relationship just isn't working for you. And then the other person gets to make the decision of whatever their priority is. I don't think your brother is wrong that if she decides to move, she's making the decision that she does want to be together, as opposed to breaking up, which would be the choice if she decides not to move, right?

Now, there could be abusive dynamics involved here other than what you've written, but what you've said here doesn't sound like it.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:57 PM on January 18, 2016

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