Dealing with a "platonic relationship" between brothers
May 11, 2017 8:14 AM   Subscribe

I am dating a guy who has a relationship with his brother that I am trying to understand. Hive mind, please help. Snowflakes inside.

So I have been dating this sweet guy who was really, really, REALLY introverted and basically relied on his younger brother to do enjoyable things like travel, outdoor sports (they like the same kind of stuff and have a similar level of ability at these things) and have friendships.

His brother (who is 35, my guy is 37) then moved about 400km away (they had been living at home with their mum until last year because they partly couldn't afford their own space and, erm, because it is/was comfortable) to live with his girlfriend. Now my bf is completely lost without his brother and feels like the good stuff in life (going out to do sports together, hanging out with mates together) has been taken away from him.

Conversely, he did not make an effort to reach out to friends in common after his brother left due to both shyness and because the absence of his brother was too much to bear. At the same time, he does things like cycling alone and feels that it sucks. They can no longer split purchases like an offroad car. In summary, they have a really strong connection and my bf's world is crumbling without his sibling.

I am trying to do some of this stuff with him like cycling an outdoorsy stuff with him which I also do enjoy, but it feels like it isn't enough and perhaps will never be. Also, I recently needed help in a house move for example and he didn't bother showing up because his brother was visiting. FWIW, his brother's gf of 10 years seems to be totally adjusted to this situation. I spoke briefly to his brother about this and he reckons it was good for him to distance himself a bit so my bf could live his own life a little - dating me is part of this, actually.

I am the only child so I really struggle to understand this relationship. Is it normal? I can only describe it as platonic but I might be totally off the mark here. How do I deal with this without feeling left out or being intrusive? How do I help him see that his brother is not the only person he can do fun things with? This is sort of frustrating and I would really appreciate the hive mind's help on this. Thanks!
posted by longjump to Human Relations (37 answers total)
I have one sibling and to me, this is not normal - words like enmeshed and codependent come to mind.

Regardless, I don't think I could date someone who a) didn't have a sense of joy in his or her own life and own agency and b) didn't see me as someone to do amazing and fun things with. You deserve someone who is thrilled to spend time with you, and who shows up for you when you need him.

I don't think this is a sibling issue, I think this is an issue with this guy.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:27 AM on May 11, 2017 [43 favorites]

Also, I recently needed help in a house move for example and he didn't bother showing up

You needed help moving and he didn't show up for a social reason? He couldn't tell his brother, "hey, see you for dinner with my girlfriend, but she needs help moving today so I have to do that"? Regardless of what's going on with his brother, that's not cool.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:36 AM on May 11, 2017 [53 favorites]

Yes agreed: the sibling issue is a red herring. It would be the same if this guy was overly attached to his best friend, pet, librarian. It's not uncommon for siblings to be really close, but it sounds like your guy's personality is such that he has invested all his emotional energy into his relationship with his brother - and that, I do not think is common.

I spoke briefly to his brother about this and he reckons it was good for him to distance himself a bit so my bf could live his own life a little - dating me is part of this, actually.

Sounds like his brother feels the same!

What you are dealing with is a shy, introverted guy who isn't willing to prioritise you in a way that is normally suggested by the labels boyfriend and girlfriend. I don't know how you can change that; you can't change someone's heart or mind. You can either adjust to it, the way your boyfriend's brother's girlfriend has adjusted to the presence of a guy who must take up A LOT of her boyfriend's time - or you can tell him that it's not working for you, and see if the two of you can work it out.
posted by Ziggy500 at 8:41 AM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

How recently did his brother move away?

Your BF was in a co-dependent relationship with his brother. Now this his brother is gone, he's floundering. It'll take time for him to adjust, the exact length of which is unknown, but probably at least a year or so.

The question for you is how much you want to help him through this time (if at all) and for how long.

How do I deal with this without feeling left out or being intrusive?
1. Make sure you have your own life
2. Talk to his brother's gf and see how she copes
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:46 AM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

As I see it, you have two separate issues here:

1) Your boyfriend isn't that great at being a boyfriend to you.
2) Your boyfriend has an unusually close and codependent relationship with his brother.

It doesn't matter how weird or not-weird #2 is, because #1 is still going to be a problem. You can't pin the solution for him being a lame boyfriend on his relationship with his brother. You can't solve his codependency issues.

Your feelings matter, too here. If your needs aren't being met in this relationship, this is not a good relationship for you to be in.
posted by phunniemee at 8:46 AM on May 11, 2017 [16 favorites]

Based on your description, he sounds really immature both socially and emotionally. Is he otherwise absolutely AMAZING? Because if not, this really might not be how you want to spend your time.

If you do think he's worth your effort, I'd try bringing him out to do things that you enjoy and that he might enjoy if he gives it a try. And every time he moans about not doing stuff the stuff he used to do with his brother, use the broken record technique instead of being his therapist or encouraging him to dwell on it. Pick a line, such as "I hope you find ways to rebuild your own life," and stick with it instead of engaging.
posted by metasarah at 8:48 AM on May 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

There are a lot of reasons someone would feel a closer connection to family than non-family. Schizotypal types and people on the autism spectrum in particular sometimes don't form close bonds outside of their immediate family. When they do it is a very slow process. I don't think it is automatically untoward without knowing him or their history. Personally I don't find it odd.

I had a really close bond with my oldest brother since I was a child that I've been trying to replicate with others and I can't seem to. He could practically read my mind and we had a lot of the same interests. I have a social life (sort of) and can do things on my own, but I do feel no one quite measures up to him as a friend, which isn't fair to most people who didn't grow up in a mutually influencing environment with me on a daily basis.

I do know I definitely wouldn't stand up someone to hang out with him so that is an issue that needs addressing in and of itself. That's beyond rude and maybe indicative of something regarding his personality or interest in dating you or perhaps a miscommunication.
posted by Young Kullervo at 8:58 AM on May 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think it's interesting that your boyfriend's brother describes a "bit of distance" as a 400km move. It sounds like he really ripped the bandaid off of by moving away (I wonder why?) and your boyfriend is having a hard time coping.

Here's a question: does your boyfriend want to adjust to life without his sibling being involved in a day-to-day way, or does he just want things to go back to the way they were? FWIW I don't think you should try to be "enough" for him -- even if it "works" it will only lead him down the same emotional path.
posted by sm1tten at 9:00 AM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

At 37 years old I fear that these issues are unlikely to change. He probably needs therapy.
Unless he is otherwise the most incredible person on the planet, DTMFA.
posted by k8t at 9:24 AM on May 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

Being very, very close to a certain family member or friend isn't unhealthy unless it veers into codependence and inability to grow and mature on your own. Your boyfriend is 37, unhealthily dependent on his brother and was living in the family home with Mom last year. It sounds like this has impacted his ability to be a well-functioning, autonomous adult. I think he needs a significant amount of therapy and some independence.

It's not your place to do this work for him, adjust to his massive deficits, or enable his lack of commitment to growing up. He's already letting you know that he's unwilling to make his relationship with you something that you can depend on. You're moving house and he just no-shows because brother is in town? Beyond being wildly inconsiderate, it demonstrates that your needs will be cast aside with blinding speed if he has a chance to be with brother. That's not good for you. Find a well-adjusted, emotionally healthy man to have a relationship with. This is not normal not will it be changed easily if at all.
posted by quince at 10:01 AM on May 11, 2017 [9 favorites]

I would be very wary of this situation. It's very possible that he will adjust to losing his dependence on his brother... by transferring that dependence onto you. It's common in hetero relationships for women to be the social glue that maintains all the friendships, while the man lets his friendships fade and goes along for the ride; and then suddenly the couple finds his entire happiness and social life is dependent on the woman. And I can tell you from experience that this puts a lot of pressure on the woman and on the relationship, unless that is a dynamic you want. (And my circumstances were not where my partner was already showing signs of a tendency towards codependence.)

It's up to you if this guy is worth walking him through getting over his codependence on his brother; I can't answer that for you. But realize what you are signing up for is either a lot of emotional labor in terms of being the new focus of his dependence, or, alternatively, a lot of emotional labor to walk him through the process of gaining independence at age 37 when these tendencies will be hard to change.
posted by misskaz at 10:06 AM on May 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm a twin, and therefore have a lot of experience in a relationship where there was enormous external expectation where everyone treats you like a single unit, and wonders if you do everything together, and if not, why not. To me this reads like a whole lot of failing to launch. Living with Mom until mid-30s, depending on family members for basically was Mom's job 25 years ago to start treating her kids like they would eventually grow up and become functional people. And 15-20 years ago, it was BF's job to seek independence out himself, and he didn't. Why not? That's a good question for a therapist.

It's normal to miss your brother, and to struggle in an environment where the things you used to do together are now done without him. It's normal to have an adjustment period where he has to learn to do those things. But it's shitty of him to diminish and deprecate the time he spends with you (or anyone else) because it's not spent with his brother. It certainly isn't acceptable for him to ditch you when you need help, just because he had an opportunity to do something he preferred instead. He needs to learn how to have other relationships in his life. But that teaching does NOT have to come from YOU.

You have every right to expect a 37-year-old to act like a fully mature adult with responsibilities to others, and the ability to prioritize appropriately, and this dude is not that. I would tell this dude that you don't feel that he's emotionally ready for a relationship at this point in his life, wish him well, and walk off into the sunset.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:15 AM on May 11, 2017 [13 favorites]

I have four siblings. The dynamic you are describing is not typical, but that's not really the problem. Plenty of "flawed" people manage to be good boyfriends and partners. Your fella is not. Why are you concerned with his feelings rather than advocating for what you deserve in a relationship?
posted by snickerdoodle at 10:22 AM on May 11, 2017

Nah, this isn't just about two brothers. This starts with the parents (or even grandparents). Both brothers in their 30s and living with the mom? Is there a dad in the picture? Any other siblings? Extended family?

I would bet money that there is some weird/unhealthy family of origin psychological stuff going on here. You're probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg. How is mom? Have you spent much time with her? I strongly suspect perhaps she's contributing to her boys not growing up and getting out due to some psychological need of her own. Or maybe it's a complicated multi-generational saga.

This brother dependency thing is annoying but perhaps possible to overcome, but I am seeing it as a symptom of some deeper hidden even more wrong stuff that you probably don't want to marry into, just being honest. Keep a sharp eye out.
posted by stockpuppet at 10:31 AM on May 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

It doesn't matter whether their sibling relationship is "normal", it matters whether it's something you want to live with in a relationship.

If you do decide you want to stick around during a rough transitional period for your boyfriend, I would suggest that the best way to do this, both for you and for him, is probably not to try to slot yourself into the place he's missing his brother (taking up the same hobbies, etc.) Rather, can this be a chance for both of you to find something new and different to do together that is yours, that can be purely enjoyable and not dragged down by the memory of when he used to do that thing with someone else? Can you have a conversation about how you need your boyfriend to (literally and metaphorically) show up for you when you need him? Maybe that is or isn't "literally showing up to help you move when he's got a visitor in town", but if he didn't do that, did he help you pack beforehand or unpack after or pick out new things for the apartment or arrange furniture with you or look at places with you? Did he do something, at some point, to be a part of that moment in your life when you wanted his help?

That said, it would also be completely fine and reasonable of you to say that you do not want to be in a relationship that is this much work, this early, where you basically have to drag this guy kicking and screaming into enjoying time with you, or tutor him extensively in how to be the kind of boyfriend you're looking for. It would be okay to decide to prioritize yourself over the relationship.

You get to make that choice either way. But I really would suggest trying to refocus your thoughts away from "is this sibling relationship normal?", because normal or not, it is what it is, and it is not yours to try to judge or change except where it is impacting your own relationship. That's where I would put your focus - your own relationship, what you want out of it, and whether it's worth what you would have to put into it to get that outcome.
posted by Stacey at 10:41 AM on May 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

he reckons it was good for him to distance himself a bit so my bf could live his own life a little - dating me is part of this, actually.

I'm sorry, but it sounds like you're saying that your boyfriend is dating you to practice life skills?

All relationships are learning experiences but unless you're doing something similar- that is, using this as a practice relationship- with both parties on board, I'd tread very carefully. You're not a therapy dog, you're his girlfriend.

I'd be pretty mad if I had a partner who blew me off to see someone else unless it was someone they saw very rarely. He could have brought his brother along/made later plans/etc.

Its possible that this won't change any time soon. Whether that's okay with you is your call. It's also possible, though, that he'll eventually just transfer this dependence from his brother to you. Is that something you're willing to take on?

You say the brother's girlfriend is "totally adjusted" to the situation, but how close are you and her? Have you sat down and talked in depth about how she feels about all this? Because the brother just moved a 4-hour drive away from your boyfriend to be with his girlfriend. That is, it sounds like he is far more capable of functioning independently; which means this is probably a lot easier on her than it is on you.

Some people are less social than others, and that's okay, but only you can decide if this is acceptable for your relationship.
posted by windykites at 10:47 AM on May 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

Run away from this guy like your hair is on fire. Because it is!

You make an effort to do stuff he likes, but he does not notice or appreciate it? Girl, value yourself more! His problems are his! Find someone who actually enjoys like you!!
posted by jbenben at 10:47 AM on May 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

The moving thing - I might be annoyed, but dude, NO ONE wants to help ANYBODY move and it's a nice thing to do, not an obligation. Was him "not bothering to show up" like, "I posted on FB that I has pizza and beer, and he didn't offer to help because his brother was in town!" or did he commit to help and then renege?
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:12 AM on May 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

OK, I am going to be a contrarian.

Is it normal in your, or their, culture for adult children to live with their parents until they get married? That sort of thing is only really a big deal in environments where it is a big deal. And even if it's not normal, that's not on its face unhealthy or anything, although it sounds like it probably is at least to some degree in this case.

I dated a guy with an identical twin for many years. They lived and worked together, and in some ways, they really were a package deal. I was fine with that, and I actually sort of appreciated that I wasn't my boyfriend's sole social connection, as happens with a lot of men. Also, I have family and a best friend I'm very close with that I would not give up for a partner. I don't see it as a strictly hierarchical thing where you have to choose one or the other (and if someone did want that to happen, they'd be out in a heartbeat). Most people have existing social connections, and unless you're a teenager, it's not really normal or healthy to instantly prioritize a romantic interest over those (and it's not really healthy for teenagers either, but it's pretty normal).

How long have you been together? How long has his brother been gone, and for how long was he visiting? I think that would matter a lot. If you've been together two months or something, and his brother is only visiting for the day, it's pretty different from if you guys have been together for 5 years and his brother is here every other weekend.

I am married, so if my husband were moving, I'd either be moving too, or we'd be splitting up, but if he had some difficult boring thing that I would normally help with, but a good friend or family member was visiting for just that day, I wouldn't even hesitate to leave my husband to deal with his thing on his own, and he wouldn't expect me to.

This does sound like a kind of unhealthy situation right now, but I would not be looking at a solution where you are the one filling his brother hole, but one where I'd think he should be getting out and reconnecting with his friends.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:15 AM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just reread all this and realized YOUR boyfriend/brother is the sad sack living at home with mom and no social life outside of his blood relatives. It sounds like he's pretty behind in life skills for a 37 year old, it's up to you whether that's something you can deal with but that would be a deal breaker for me.

I've dated adults who live with their parents, but not people who depend on family to this level. Is this guy gonna die in his parent's house? Because if he can't organize an ATV trip without his brother, I'm having doubts he feed himself and pay a bill without his mom.
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:16 AM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Stockpuppet has it. There is a lot wrong here, going way back, and you are not going to make it right. Going through a divorce has made you feel you failed, you did something wrong, you need to try harder and harder and harder. That may be why you are putting up with a 37-year-old child, who just moved away from his mum last year. And I agree that he is practicing his life skills on/with you. There is next to nothing in this relationship for you.
posted by uans at 11:27 AM on May 11, 2017

Thanks so much for all your answers so far!

Yes, I do appreciate the importance of my own feelings in this and have mentioned that to him. In fact, misunderstandings have started to come about because he is unable to express himself properly about my role/importance in his life. He said that my insecurity and need to be told that he likes me are quite upsetting. And I think this neediness (which is quite normal and to be expected in my situation, right?) is cascading from mixed feelings of inadequacy and disappointment at this whole situation with him and his brother that stops him from actually growing up.

I wish I knew about all of this before getting emotionally involved :(
posted by longjump at 11:31 AM on May 11, 2017

How long have you been dating?
posted by tristeza at 11:51 AM on May 11, 2017

In fact, misunderstandings have started to come about because he is unable to express himself properly about my role/importance in his life. He said that my insecurity and need to be told that he likes me are quite upsetting

It doesn't matter who is right and who is wrong (but he is very, very wrong). Your needs are not getting met, and he has no interested in meeting them. You are not compatible lovers. It is time to move on.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:54 AM on May 11, 2017 [10 favorites]

my insecurity and need to be told that he likes me are quite upsetting.

OMG you deserve so much better!
This guy is being a sucky boyfriend. You are "needy" because your well attuned gut feeling is telling you that this guy does not love you enough. He doesn't. No wonder you're insecure!
And now he's blaming you for it!

Either way, he's telling you that he can't provide what you need. He's unable to. And your insistence that he show you that he prioritises you is "upsetting" to him.

He's not got what you need and he blames you for needing it.

Just leave the guy. This is a one stop shop of suckiness that'll leave you feeling unloved and unlovable, needy and like a wretched person. You don't need this. You are such a caring, empathetic, wise person. You're great!
It's not your job to be this guy's road to redemption. It's not your job to be anyone's helper, regardless of how society portrays women's role in relationships.

It's your job to be your own best self. Your most joyful, kind, strong self. Nobody else's!

Find a guy who think's you're the best thing that ever happened to him. You deserve it!
posted by Omnomnom at 12:05 PM on May 11, 2017 [14 favorites]

You are responsible for what is happening in your life. Dump this guy. You're not a victim, you are choosing this. Choose something better! Choose by dumping him.

You can stay. But everything that happens is your responsibility. He's not an adult despite his age in years, he doesn't really even seem to like you. Talking to him will not fix these issues. You can stay in this relationship, but know it is this weird dynamic where he does not prioritize your needs and he labels reasonable relationship features as insecurity on your part...

As I write that, I'm just astounded by what you are putting up with. This is as sick and emotionally abusive as relationships get. You don't live together, this should be an easy choice. Break up.
posted by jbenben at 12:36 PM on May 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

In fact, misunderstandings have started to come about because he is unable to express himself properly about my role/importance in his life. He said that my insecurity and need to be told that he likes me are quite upsetting.

It's not unreasonable to want to know where you stand with an intimate partner. Him flipping it around and making your needs a negative isn't a good sign at all.

I'm loathe to say dump him, because we're just getting a tiny sliver of the whole package that is him. But this in not an attractive sliver at all.

It would be entirely reasonable for you to have a serious talk with him about what you mean to him. If he's not where you are feelings wise, consider terminating the relationship. Life is short, everyone deserves a partner who appreciates them and it doesn't sound like this guy does.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:44 PM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

The more I read the worse I feel for you. Only one of you is emotionally involved. The longer you stay in a one-sided "relationship" the more self-respect you will lose. Save yourself
posted by uans at 1:20 PM on May 11, 2017

He said that my insecurity and need to be told that he likes me are quite upsetting.

Given his totally unhealthy and codependent neediness directed at his brother, the fact that he'd say such a terrible thing to you when you're expressing legitimate needs in a relationship is both rich and shows how little self-awareness he possesses. You deserve to be treated much better than this.
posted by quince at 1:53 PM on May 11, 2017 [15 favorites]

Is this the dude you were struggling to keep things "light" with a few months ago? Now you're seeing why he wanted to keep things light. Because he has no intention of participating in anything remotely emotionally involved.

This one's a dud, toss him back.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:47 PM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Please break up with this guy. He's 37, he lives with his mom so she can keep a roof over his head while he gets to play and spend his money on fun things, but worse of all -- he's actually pissed off that you would like him to appreciate you.

I really really hope you can see that in your two questions about this guy, you've asked us to justify his shitty behavior, saying you're needy and maybe being silly.

You're not needy. You're not being ridiculous. You're dating a man-child who not only has NOTHING to offer you, but is actively tearing you down.

Trust your instincts. When it looks like a frog and moves like a frog and acts like a frog, it's a frog. This dude is a frog.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:58 PM on May 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

He already has a partner, and it's not you. Right now he's going through what sounds like a divorce from his brother with probably a lot of the (non romantic) emotional feelings you'd expect from having their significant other walk out on them, even if that person is his sibling. Now imagine you're the rebound person, because you kind of are, just there because they need someone to fill the hole. Now remember how well those usually turn out. Then run. Sorry if this was a little harsh but that's what it looks like from the outside.
posted by Jubey at 5:11 PM on May 11, 2017

Here's how I would reframe this: your boyfriend is having a hard time dealing with his brother and best friend moving away and with finding a new social circle. It is your job as his girlfriend to support him in this, as you've accurately perceived.

However, it is not something you can do FOR him. you can't replace his beloved brother and shouldn't try to. You can't take away his grief at losing this friendship and you probably can't short-circuit it either.

Do not try to carry all his problems upon your shoulders. He might be going about forming up his social life badly or lazily but you stepping in to solve his friendlessness is not going to work and also is kind of insulting (ok, really it doesn't work and is a bad dynamic, and I just use "that would be insulting of me to assume you're a child who can't even be trusted with your own ___" as an excuse that puts the responsibility for his life back where it belongs on *him*).

Let him make his own friends and find his own activities, and you can *support* him in that but you can't do it for him or become his one and only friend.
posted by Lady Li at 6:53 PM on May 11, 2017

And good luck to him in finding a relationship partner to whom he never needs to express that he cares.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:39 AM on May 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am super close with my sister- holiday together, chat for hours, etc. My long-term ex is super close with his brother. Dating a person who is close with their sibling should be by and large neutral to nice. What you are describing is not normal at all. His relationship with his brother is clearly a mask for other issues he has; from what you said his brother said to you about the distance being good for him clearly even his brother recognises this. Him not helping you move just makes him plain old selfish. Dump him- you deserve so much better.
posted by hotcoroner at 3:20 AM on May 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

You just got out of a scenario in which you were asked to repeatedly subordinate your preferences and needs for the benefit of a third party. Do you really want to keep getting crumbs?
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:32 AM on May 12, 2017

I thought I had issues with my partner and his sibling, you can read my posts, this is another level compared to even that. You don't say how long you've been in the relationship, but I suspect it hasn't been that long since you say you're dating. The time commitment you've made might not be enough to warrant sticking around, his behavior certainly doesn't.

If someone else, even you, holds the strings to his emotional balance in life that is deeply unhealthy. What's working for you right now?Iif the inability to leave is the reason above and beyond all others that is keeping you there, get therapy, you might not even need it for long, to sort out what you want.

I'm guessing you want a life partner, father to potential children etc. He is not financially secure, and emotionally tethered to his family in a way that there is no room for you. At 37 he finds your very very normal emotional needs oppressive. I know it hurts to read everyone's DTMFA advice because you love him. For a moment though, focus on the dissatisfaction that prompted you to write this post, and that surely is nagging you all the time as well. Consider a break, even a short one to sort out your feelings, talk to a therapist. He's 37 and only working on himself will bring about any change, perhaps they need family therapy too, but you are unlikely to bring about any change of your own. All the best girl.
posted by whatdoyouthink? at 4:37 PM on May 27, 2017

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