Distancing from sibling without hurting his kids and ruining Christmas
December 16, 2018 1:01 AM   Subscribe

My sibling is a bit of a bully. They also have sweet kids who I love to pieces and who are very attached to me. My SIL is nice but a bit spineless. If I don't come to the family Christmas dinner (celebrated at their place because of how large their family is) I will ruin Christmas for everyone but if I go I will lose all respect for myself. Help me navigate this situation with grace and dignity.

I am single, my mom and grandma are widowed and we all live in the same city where my sibling and I grew up. My younger sibling has kids and he relies on my mom and me for a lot of help - for a long time my mom would come in the morning to walk the kids to school, go home by public transport, then come again in the afternoon to walk the kids from school. I come by every Friday to spend time with the kids and help the older ones with homework if necessary. I also help my sister-in-law care for them when they are sick (like, I'm wiping the floor while she bathes the kid that just threw up all over themselves, that kind of stuff). We also do crafts and museum visits and walks and go to the park. The kids love me and miss me when they don't see me for a week. My sister in law calls me a sister and she and I are very close. She also often tells me how she appreciates the help and that she wants the kids to have a lot of aunt time. My brother often calls to say he misses me and or the kids miss me... but all is not great.

Now, my brother is a minor bully. He is not physically abusive but he can be verbally mean. He berates my sister in law for minor stuff in front of me every time I am over and I have seen him berate his employees (when he was still working for himself) for stupid stuff that was actually his fault. He will tell his wife that she needs to lose weight and that she is mean for deliberately eating chocolate in front of him. (Ironically, she is not even really overweight - she just has a big belly after going through five pregnancies). He also often verbally attacks me when I say something like, hey, don't be mean to SIL. But also when I do stuff with kids that he explicitly approved he lashes out at me afterwards. One example that's fairly typical of what it's like:

[he and two older kids are visiting mom, I am there as well]:
me: "Hey, can I take niece (14) for a walk?"
him: "Yeah but other kid and I might leave early [from mom's place] can you drive Niece home [ten minutes away by car] after the walk?"
me: "No problem"
and then thirty minutes later my phone rings and it's him
"Where ARE you??? we are leaving early and we need you to come back IMMEDIATELY. What do you mean you are turning back and will be there in ten minutes? SIL needs me and I need [niece] to help me and you are being irresponsible".
after niece and I come back in a hurry almost breathless:
"We are leaving in a few minutes I need to finish my tea"

Another example:
"I do not want MY KIDS to spend time around screens! I am still mad that you INSISTED on buying my daughter a cell phone!!!"
"But brother... you ASKED me to buy her a cell phone. Here, see? I have YOUR EMAIL on my phone where YOU asked me to buy her a phone for her birthday along with a link to the specific model I should buy".

Stuff like that happens all the time. I already know checking things with him before-time is no guarantee he won't lash out at me afterwards for "being selfish" and "doing stuff WE DON'T DO IN THIS HOUSE" (this one after taking the eight year old out for a walk and ice cream at 7 pm when it was a hot summer night and he was going crazy at home running around - I asked my SIL for permission, she said good idea, we were back in forty minutes, nobody was even close to bedtime). I feel like it's completely random. Also, he sits in his bedroom with his laptop when SIL asks for help and he says "yeah, not now" "I am writing an email" or ""I am booking our family vacation can't help now" so it's not like I am tearing his kids away from Dad time, I just help my SIL not drown sometimes.

I think he feels invaded by me being there such a lot but also he is the one expecting the help. He tells me stuff like "[Niece] is having trouble with [subject at school] we thought you would be coming on Friday and help with homework". So, for a while I have been only coming over when he wasn't home. But now he has quit his old job that required long hours and his new position hasn't started yet and he is there all the time.

So he was a jerk again last weekend and now Christmas is approaching and I dread Christmas at his house. Because, you know, it's HIS Christmas. Two years ago when my SIL was getting stuff ready I asked her if I could help with anything she said yeah, can you keep the kids out of my hair? So, I gather the kids who are just running around like crazy and say "hey how about singing some carols together to quiet down?" The kids cooperate (yay!) and my brother comes FUMING and says "we do NOT sing carols before the Christmas Eve Dinner IN THIS HOUSE. You are not going to introduce your own traditions IN THIS HOUSE!" I was shaken and the kids went back to running around because I just couldn't think of anything and I was close to tears. I had no idea singing carols before dinner was not done. I mean, I get the idea, but why raise his voice with me?

Now, he is like that only about 10% of the time but it just feels so humiliating.
Last week he said something really hurtful again and this time refused to apologize saying that "he does not like all I say either" and "you have to understand people with good manners do not do things you do".

So... I think I am ready to take a nice long break from visiting their home and have the kids visit me if/when they or their parents want to. I think it would be healthier for us to become less enmeshed. I also really, really do not want to spend Christmas at his house. My mom and grandma are going to be there and the all-round family expectation is that of course we spend Christmas together like in the past zillion years. My mom is on my side and thinks my brother is a boor sometimes. But she will cry if I don't come. My grandma will be upset with me for ruining family Christmas. The kids will be sad. My SIL will think I am being overdramatic. And my brother will feel superior again. But I really really do not want to go.

How can I protect my own feelings and dignity and still not hurt the kids and my mom? I was thinking I could just pretend to be sick but a cold wouldn't be enough to convince anyone. My SIL is pretty laid back about germs. I do not want to make a point - I just really need a break.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Christmas isn’t the day to make a point. Go, have the usual time and then enact what sounds like a really good idea (seeing them at your place, etc) from new years. I know you said it’s about self respect but there’s a lot of smallys involved and I think you can respect yourself for taking a hit for them on Christmas as well as having made the decision to take a break from bro, but not them, after that.
posted by Iteki at 1:54 AM on December 16, 2018 [27 favorites]

You are not ruining Christmas, he is with his terrible behaviour. You should feel justified in pointing this out when people try to guilt you. It’s typical for people to lay the blame and responsibility on the person who they think will actually cooperate, namely the one who is not causing trouble! If he changed his behaviour, not you, none of this would be a problem.

I think the fact you’re considering skipping Christmas with them shows the gravity of the situation and how much you are at the end of your rope. But then again what does “Spend Christmas” with them mean? Perhaps you can define exactly how you want to spend that day (how many hours, with who, enforce minimal contact with sibling) and then stick to it knowing you have a defined point where you can bow out on your own terms. I think that may help you feel like you are exerting control over how you are treated and thus protecting your dignity.
posted by like_neon at 2:31 AM on December 16, 2018 [15 favorites]

Don’t go this Christmas. You can’t win, so don’t even try. Don’t debate your decision. This is going to be hard, but once you have stood up for yourself it will be easier next Christmas. I agree you are really enmeshed in his family - is that holding you back from having a fuller life yourself with your own partner and kinds (if that is what you desire?). If you don’t have a therapist, I would recommend getting one that you can vent to. You need to be validated by other people that your gaslighting bully of a brother does not share the reality the rest of us do.
posted by saucysault at 2:48 AM on December 16, 2018 [8 favorites]

You know, I hear a lot of people think or say that "X event will be ruined if Y doesn't show up". But literally never in my entire life have I been to a social gathering that was ruined by anybody's absence. Been to plenty of events that were nearly ruined by somebody's presence, sure. But absence? Unless the event in question is your own wedding, you're not going to ruin it by skipping. They'll get over it.
posted by phoenixy at 2:53 AM on December 16, 2018 [68 favorites]

You sound like a really kind, loving, and thoughtful aunt. As someone who was also overly enmeshed in the raising of a child who wasn’t mine, I applaud your instincts in realizing that this dynamic isn’t healthy for you. I think, however, in the big picture it may not be healthy for your SIL and her family either. Your help allows them to perpetuate a family dynamic that is ultimately harmful.

You say you can’t skip Christmas without hurting your mom and the kids. But they’re being hurt already. The kids are old enough to know and see their dad’s behavior, and your family’s tacit endorsement of the status quo isn’t without cost. In your shoes, I told myself that being heavily involved was the greater good, and it was, until it wasn’t. But it took moving away before I could clearly see that it wasn’t, and I think it’d have come sooner had I gotten myself into therapy.

You’re in a really tough spot. I don’t think there’s “right” answer, so I will say this: go with what will bring you the most peace that day.
posted by snickerdoodle at 3:35 AM on December 16, 2018 [23 favorites]

Christmas won't be ruined by your absence, but if you don't go your brother will lash out at you and try to make you feel bad about it. Of course, if you do go, your brother will lash out at you and try to make you feel bad about it. No matter what you do, your brother will try to make you feel bad about it. He does not act like this because he want you to do things differently, he acts like this because wants to make you feel bad. Your brother is abusing you. He's using a lot of classic tactics to break you down emotionally (like having inconsistent expectations, or going on the offensive when you try to assert your boundaries i.e. "well I don't like everything you say" nonsense).

But she will cry if I don't come. My grandma will be upset with me for ruining family Christmas. The kids will be sad. My SIL will think I am being overdramatic. And my brother will feel superior again.

So why don't any of these people who have so much control over you, who you do so much for, care about your needs and wishes? And why does their passing judgment matter more than your own mental health?

I say, screw 'em. If you have a bit of extra cash, hop on a plane and grab a Groupon for Christmas somewhere with a nice sandy beach and free drinks. Or even just a hotel someplace with a nice big tub. Lie and say you won a raffle or something if it will make you feel better. Text them from the plane once you're in the air, then "lose cell service" and block all their numbers until you get back. The drama will go on without you.

It's up to you. But they are never going to give you permission to take the break you have said you need.

There are lots of awesome books and resources on setting boundaries, coping with enmeshed/codependent families, and so on. I really hope you get some help with this in the future- it's a ton of work and a team effort for sure.
posted by windykites at 3:42 AM on December 16, 2018 [41 favorites]

This was hard to read. I'm so sorry you're having to navigate this, it sounds like an incredibly stressful and dispiriting situation.

It sounds like some of the kids are old enough for you to contact directly. Don't go to your brother's house for Christmas, but reach out to the kids to tell them you love them, to say they're welcome at your house any time, and to wish them a merry Christmas. They're lucky to have you in their lives if this is what's going on at home.

Take care, and good for you for recognizing these bad patterns and starting to build some distance from them, it can be so hard to do.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 5:11 AM on December 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

So right now, what the kids are learning is that it's okay for Dad to yell at people regularly over extremely innocent stuff. It's okay for Dad to insult their mother's appearance. It's okay for Dad to check out except when he feels like yelling. It's okay for Dad to make shit up ("we don't do that IN THIS HOUSE starting NOW and lasting as long as I feel like it") to justify yelling. And they're learning that no one stands up to Dad - they may not like what he does, but they all go along. This is the pattern that will set the norm for their own relationships - even if they hate it and work to break with it, they'll still have to contend with having lived it for years.

I guess my question would be, "do you think your brother will forbid you to see the kids if you don't show up for Christmas"? Also, to what degree do you think your presence protects the kids? Kids are aware that when some people are around, their parents won't yell as much.

If you think that you won't be forbidden to see the kids afterward, then don't go. You don't feel like it and your brother is a battle-grade asshole. It won't ruin the day for anyone, and in life people miss events all the time.

Maintaining contact with the kids seems important to me, so if you think that your brother will totally cut you off if you don't show up then you should go and power through it for the sake of access to the kids. My bet is that your brother is too fucking lazy to turn down free help. (And honestly, if this seems true to you, maybe you can use your helping to leverage some respect - "I love your kids very much but I can't continue to spend time in a house where I'm berated like this. Next time it happens I'll just go home".)

The trouble with sick systems is that they're propped up on the labor of good people who support the mission. You and your SIL quite appropriately want what's best for the kids, so you prop up this horrible system, feeling that if you don't everything will be terrible. I think that it's worth seeing how withdrawing your labor affects everything - that's one relatively small, manageable change. I've definitely seen family systems like this one collapse when one person can't support them anymore, and things often get better.
posted by Frowner at 5:29 AM on December 16, 2018 [62 favorites]

I think not going would be ideal but maybe split the difference and show up briefly, say a loving merry christmas to grandma and leave?

The way your brother is acting is shocking and I almost had to stop reading when you gave the first example. I've had someone like that in my family; alcohol was a factor, and probably a sense of deep inadequacy for various reasons. I have a feeling your brother is somewhat conflicted and ashamed about getting so much help from family, which is driving him into needing more help because he withdraws. Even if that isn't precisely the case, lashing out at you for doing stuff he asked you to do suggests he is deeply resentful about the position he is in. So give him less to resent.
posted by BibiRose at 5:35 AM on December 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Brother: Why didn't you come for Christmas?
Anonymous: I wrote a letter to some friends explaining how I feel about it, if ever you were interested in knowing about how I feel I could send you the letter to read and we could talk about it.
posted by InkaLomax at 5:54 AM on December 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

This sounds really tough; I'm so sorry you are dealing with this!

I do not want to discount that your sibling may be/is excessively controlling and a bully, but some of what you describe sounds similar to behavior in someone I knew who turned out to have early onset dementia, which can start even in the 30s or 40s in some unlucky people. Just wanted to put it out there so you have it on your radar.

Also, it reminds me of the behavior of a relative who was a "functional" alcoholic, as BibRose also mentions.

In both cases, the dementia and the alcoholism intensified or set free negative personality traits and behaviors in the person affected - it brought out the bad stuff - as they were less able to suppress or filter it.

With all that said I think I agree with this advice:
Christmas isn’t the day to make a point. Go, have the usual time [though maybe cut it a bit short for your sake?] and then enact what sounds like a really good idea (seeing them at your place, etc) from new years. I know you said it’s about self respect but there’s a lot of smallys involved and I think you can respect yourself for taking a hit for them on Christmas as well as having made the decision to take a break from bro, but not them, after that.
posted by gudrun at 6:42 AM on December 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

Your niece and nephew are learning that erratic, abusive behavior is normal and something they should put up with. By not coming to Christmas you are showing them that there is an alternative to having to sit there and take abuse from a bully. That’s one more step on the road to teaching them not to accept future partners that behave like your sibling, because that’s where they are headed if they don’t learn that there is an alternative. In other words, you’re teaching vulnerable young people to prioritize their mental health. You’re not “ruining” Christmas, no matter how much anyone cries. It’s not your job to hold an abusive dynamic together for anyone.

I had to do something similar regarding Christmas and a highly volatile family member and do not regret it, hard as it was at the time. It was worth it to not spend Christmas morning rage-crying in the bathroom.
posted by corey flood at 7:18 AM on December 16, 2018 [14 favorites]

Put your own oxygen mask first. Stay home. You deserve the break. Just call in sick from this unhealthy situation, you deserve to have a minute free from taking care of your brother’s kids, as well as being a target of his volatility and abuse. You can’t “ruin” a day. It will happen whether or not you go. You don’t have to explain or justify, because your family cares more for maintaining the status quo than any one person’s feelings. Save yourself.
posted by 41swans at 7:24 AM on December 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

You can just say you are sick - you do not have to explain. If pressed you can say something like, oh, I need to go lie down, have a nice Christmas, bye.

Or claim the stomach flu. Nobody wants to be part of that.
posted by Archipelago at 7:42 AM on December 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

Can you and just leave early if (when) he starts with his shit? That way it shifts the blame slightly, from YOU ruining christmas by npt coming to HIM ruining Christmas by being a jerk. It may not work out that neatly in practice but it would be a compromise.
posted by Amy93 at 9:22 AM on December 16, 2018

It sounds like you don't want to go because you'll lose respect for yourself by putting up with your brother's shit. Is it possible to go and NOT put up with his shit? If he behaves badly towards you, to calmly draw a boundary? You can practice in advance... "Speaking to me that way is disrespectful and I will not tolerate it. Doing what I'm doing is reasonable behavior, but if there is some reason you would like me to do something differently, you can ask me respectfully." Etc.
posted by metasarah at 9:28 AM on December 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

This all sounds unsustainable and unhealthy and personally I wouldn't go, but... I think going but leaving after the first hurtful comment might be a great idea (although unfortunately it means more stress for you) -- reacting in the moment, instead of in anticipation, can feel quite empowering while getting the point across.

But if you are just so sick it's coming out of both ends on Christmas Day, I respect that too.
posted by sm1tten at 9:29 AM on December 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Skipping Christmas to make a point is the kind of thing that starts multi-year grudges.

You're totally justified in avoiding this guy, though. Going out of town is a great idea, either on vacation or "to help a friend;" flights are cheapest on the 25th. Otherwise, well, food poisoning lasts 24 hours (and even if someone drops by, all it takes to be convincing are pajamas, a bowl near your bed, and maybe some evidence of recent bathroom cleaning).

Then in the New Year, you can start un-enmeshing -- especially by not responding to last-minute demands for help, and by leaving whenever he speaks to you inappropriately.
posted by salvia at 9:32 AM on December 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

>If I don't come to the family Christmas dinner... I will ruin Christmas for everyone but if I go I will lose all respect for myself.

So why is it a problem if you ruin it for somebody else, but NOT a problem if somebody else ruins it for you? Why does everybody have a right to not have their Christmas ruined except you?

If your brother acts like such an asshole that you don't even want to attend Christmas, why is your non-attendance your fault and not his? Why is it on you to make everything okay?

Fuck that, at the holidays and at all other times. You're not in charge of not "ruining Christmas."
posted by Sing Or Swim at 9:38 AM on December 16, 2018 [25 favorites]

You need distance from your brother and your nieces and nevvies and your sister in law need you. Your brother has a serious, serious problem and will most likely end up estranged from most of his kids in the long run, with one or two remaining trapped by their anxiety trying to keep him calm.

I'd go into Christmas and work on building my own internal boundaries to him. Make an estimate in your head, dispassionately. How many times is he going to lose it and behave in an inappropriate way? Best guess? Four times? Triggering events? Noisy kids? Having to wait for something? Not knowing what someone is doing? Someone else upset and trying to fake normal? Expect his upsets and his tantrums.

And then when they occur regard them the way you regard someone with Tourette's. Yes, he is directing his emotion at you, but his awareness of how rational he is being is like someone who upon shutting their own hand in the door blames the door by kicking it and calling it a cocksucker. He has developed the bad and extremely effective habit of attacking people in order to get them to cater to his neediness and all of you are rushing around worried about triggering him, when in fact there is nothing you can do to avoid triggering his out bursts because they have an internal cause, rather than being caused by you.

The trick- and it's darned hard trick to master - is to not allow his frantic mood and shouting to effect you. If the kids burst some balloons that might make your startle and your blood pressure go up and give you a stress reaction, or if they spilled cold water on you accidentally. But those things would not make you feel threatened as you know balloons are safe even if they sound a bit like gunpowder, and you have enough control over the kids that you can take the balloons away or move yourself to another room. The tack to take is to process your brother's abusive behaviour as if he were having a seizure and flailing violently.

Christmas is already ruined and your brother has ruined it. Your goal now is to figure out how to salvage those parts of Christmas that are not already ruined.

Your brother is unable to discuss this as he does not have insight and cannot accept insight and his own input into things. He is living in an alternate reality where nothing is his fault. Well, he has so much to be ashamed of this is not surprising. This reads personality disorder to me. So there is no point every discussing his outbursts with him. He cannot deal with making a mistake, and he is intensely irritable so that he can't control his outbursts, and his panicked desire to gain control makes him lay blame for his irritability because he is wishes that laying blame will help him gain control.

Managing things around people like this is HARD. You need a certain amount of security and calm, and when your brother is going to attack you it is difficult to not be anxious and difficult to not try and come up with ways to forestall the explosion, and if you start thinking of ways to forestall the explosion you reinforce his abuse. Your brother cannot manage his emotions, and you cannot manage your brother's emotions. So when brother blows up abusively at your sister-in-law, shepherd the kids out saying, "Daddy is having a tantrum. Let's go upstairs she we can't hear it." and when you see your sister in law ten minutes later treat her as if she has just managed her husband having a violent seizure in the kitchen. "Are you okay? Did he break anything? Do you need a hug?"

If it were just a brief explosion it would be easier to live with. You just stop for a few seconds, nod and wait it out. But the chances are he gets wound up and cannot let go of trying to control things, so he blows up at you for using the kitchen table when that makes him anxious and he won't stop yelling at you until you stop using the kitchen table, or until this kids are being silent and creeping away from his complaints about their noise.

You could try talking to him about what will make him blow up. And he might - it's doubtful - be able to tell you that if the kids are noisy, and if dinner is not early, and if the kids don't appear delight with the gifts he got them, and if someone disagrees with him about the best hockey team he will blow up. However more likely he is such a mass of frantic irritation inside that the best prediction anyone can make is that there will be an explosion and in his case he will predict it to be entirely because someone will do something that would cause anyone to explode and his explosions are justified.

A good technique is to limit the interactions with your brother. Say he blows up at you because you were with the kids when they changed the channel on the TV. Be silent while he blows up and nod agreeably. Do not defend yourself or the kid - you are so patently in the right that there is no point stating the obvious and torturing everyone further by having to listen to hm justify why he is right and you are wrong. Your brother is in the wrong in every single instance. And you all know it. Inside you are saying to yourself, '"You poor shmo. The kids are going to pick a nursing home in North Korea for you."

To the kids you say, "Daddy is like that. There is nothing you can do about it, to prevent it, or to cause it or to stop it. Protect yourself by withdrawing, and remember it was and is NEVER your fault and we love you and know it."

Sometimes it will feel and sound like people are in agreement with your brother when they say things like, "Don't change the channel on the TV!" but that advice is the same as, "Stand back when Daddy is having a seizure as his flailing arms could hit you." Obviously there is nothing wrong with the kids changing the channel on the TV or eating Christmas dinner, but when Daddy goes boom, you have to move out of the way of his flailing arms and wait it out.

The best way to manage this is to simply allow him space for his tantrums. Unfortunately that may not be possible, because if you allow him space for the tantrums but do not do the emotional labour of trying to manage them, he may up the bullying to solicit the emotional labour. If this is the case then your brother is dangerous. If he escalates - if it ever gets to threats, if he ever does not withdraw after his explosion, if he makes you feel scared rather than angry- at that point you need to try for a relationship with your sister and law and nieces and nevvies without any contact with him. If he is like that you can't spend Christmas with him; it is too dangerous for you both physically and for your mental health.

What is worse is that if it is too dangerous for you and your mental health it is much more dangerous for your sister-in-law and the children.

At that point you need to keep a relationship going with them that is supportive and involves no contact with him and no subterfuge about secret contact with them. That means in-person contact with them only while he is at work or when they are somewhere that he is not.

I know one divorced family where the borderline mother has a major hate on for her ex and expects him to rescue her and the kids, and he has provided the kids with cell phones and pays for their cell phone plans so that they can stay in contact with him. He has to provide emotional support from across the country, and direct financial support to the kids, such as buying them things they need because the support money he sends her gets burned away. long run you might have to try to develop relationships with your sil and the kids with this kind of distance. Set times for talking on the phone - on the way home from school is a good time. Let the kids vent and say only "Your dad is hard to love," but no other criticism of the guy. Let them say anything to you but don't reason with them, or steer their conversation - don't try to manage their emotions, but let them dump.

A good way to manage your families expectations is to put the responsibility on yourself. When telling them why you will not be at Christmas, don't say you don't want to, or you are not willing to put up with, or anything like that. Tell them that if you come for Christmas you are going to "lose it" when your brother has one of his meltdowns. Tell them you can't come because you will lose it and that will ruin Christmas for everybody. Be vague about what "lose it" means. Your brother's outbursts are a threat of potential violence, but (I sincerely hope) only a vague type of threat. You don't have to be specific, just inform them that you are convinced that if you show up for Christmas you would do something scarring, so you refuse to do that to them and the best way to ensure you don't do it is to send your love and best wishes and presents and see them separately during the season. Since your family accepts that they have to tolerate your brother's behaviour, they can accept that they have to tolerate your behaviour.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:46 AM on December 16, 2018 [17 favorites]

Christmas is already ruined and your brother has ruined it. Your goal now is to figure out how to salvage those parts of Christmas that are not already ruined.

Exactly. People on the Internet are great about telling you how to stand up for yourself, and that's important. But I think too often people undervalue long-term relationships, which do best when a person continues to also care about the feelings of other people, such as your nieces and nephews, SIL, mom, and grandma. It comes off to me like "someone was mean to you? Then screw everyone! You have to protect yourself." I mean, don't get me wrong, if you're so vulnerable right now that the only thing you can do is cancel while shouting "I'm not coming because Brother is an a******!" then okay. But if you have the ability to cancel more subtly, to make a brief appearance, to attend but leave if he mistreats you, or to attend and handle things like Jane the Brown just outlined, then that's better. It's not betraying yourself; it's finding a way to protect yourself while being gracious towards other bystanders; it's balancing the part of yourself who wants to avoid him with the part of yourself who wants to see and have harmonious relations with the rest of them.
posted by salvia at 11:34 AM on December 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

This is a difficult situation! I too have a very difficult family member. I found the website Captain Awkward to be immensely helpful. Immensely. I think I read through the entire archives because I needed that many examples of how to deal with my difficult family member.

If you can, I might go just for s few minutes and then leave once your brother misbehaves. But, but, that takes a lot of emotional effort and you are well within your rights to skip it entirely.

Best of luck!
posted by ticketmaster10 at 12:10 PM on December 16, 2018

From the OP:
Thank you all so much for your thoughtful responses.

I gave it a lot of thought over the past few days.
In the end, I decided to, as one commenter put it, do what would give me the most peace.

So, I am going to go and leave early. I know that not going would really disappoint the kids and I also know that my brother is feeling a bit guilty right now.

Also - it's hard to give a complete picture in an AskMe question while staying concise. My brother is a good person 90% of the time. He has been in therapy for the past few months and things have definitely improved during that time between him, the kids and SIL. He is much less emotionally volatile than our dad used to be and I give him a lot of credit for trying very hard to be a good dad despite some real baggage we both inherited from home. Part of the "MY house, my rules and y'all shut up" posturing may result from the time when he was a young dad and got a lot of unsolicited advice/pressure from our dad on how to do things the right way. It's like he wants to prove he can do what he wants now and is finally the boss of his own home now that dad is not there anymore. (And for the record, my dad was a very good person with a lot of baggage from his family of origin - kind, affectionate and very controlling).

So in a way neither of us has had good role models on what healthy boundaries look like. I do a lot of conflict resolution in their family although less now since therapy started. I am afraid to let go and help less because the kids often ask for time to talk, for hugs, for help with homework or to spend time at my place playing with cool toys (I have a science background and some teaching experience so my home is full of this stuff).

Trying to discern what good boundaries are going to look like is going to be another AskMe question.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 12:22 PM on December 16, 2018 [8 favorites]

gracious towards other bystanders

Not even just bystanders. Your SIL is a grown woman who can make her own choices, as is grandma. Your nieces and nephews are kids, vulnerable and dependent, and you owe them all the help you can reasonably give them. The correct answer isn't obvious in any situation--but demonstrating, however you choose to (or can! there are real limitations here!) demonstrate it, that your brother's behavior is unacceptable for grown humans and that you are there for the kids is something you will never regret.

If you want to know how this story ends, it's something like this: your brother dies of some unpleasant disease relatively young, maybe married to a successor wife after the first one finally gets fed up and leaves. His kids, who moved away and built their own lives, won't have seen him in ten to fifteen years. (His grandkids don't know him.) One of them goes to his funeral. None of them mourn him, only the decent parental figure they never had. The real variable here is how they will feel about you. Were you just another schmoe standing around doing nothing while terrible things went down? Were you involved in pointless ego-driven conflicts that only made the overall atmosphere worse? Or did you stand for something better?
posted by praemunire at 1:53 PM on December 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

What would happen if you stood up to him? Why aren't you calling him out on his behavior? His house or not, if he's being a bully then you should tell him that he's being a bully. At the very least his kids will see that it's not a normal way to treat people. Besides, who better to tell you you're being a total jerk than your sibling?

I think you should go to Christmas and hold your ground. If your brother starts in on you tell him that you will be spoken to and treated respectfully or you will leave. If he continues to bully you, make good on your word and walk out. That way everyone knows exactly why you left. If you simply don't show up or just leave early it leaves questions. SIL or nieces and nephews may wonder if they're the ones who did something wrong.
posted by TooFewShoes at 1:59 PM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

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