My older brother, “John,” is what you might call a late bloomer when it comes to relationships, career path, and adult independence — he has just begun to come into his own as he approaches his thirtieth year, and, as a result, I tend to feel (and be treated) like the oldest child. John has been seeing a woman I’ll call “Ursula” for the last three years. Initially we were happy to see John entering into his first real relationship – but we quickly saw concerning patterns of controlling and manipulative behavior that forced my brother to walk on eggshells just to avoid fights and turned our family get-togethers into sour, segregated events.
In the years that followed, we did our best to make Ursula feel welcomed into our tight-knit family despite her cold and distant attitude and upsetting behavior towards my brother. Her attitude towards me in particular began to worsen (for mind-boggling reasons I won’t even get into) until it got to the point that she would make snide remarks and passive aggressively pick fights with me at family gatherings while John just looked the other way. I have admittedly mostly tried to keep my distance from her, but, when we are forced to be together and interact, I have done my best to take the high road and treat her pleasantly and politely. But try as I might, her attitude and personality have made it difficult for any of us to genuinely connect with her. However, out of respect and love for John, we kept our opinions to ourselves and let him live his life.
Fast forward to this summer. A few days before the first anniversary of my father’s death (a difficult and sensitive time, to be sure) Ursula dumped John out of the blue for murky and vague reasons. Among many things, she claimed that he wasn’t enough of a “man” who could “support her financially” and give her a “wealthy suburban-soccer mom life.” (For reference, my brother is an introverted homebody who lives a simple life out in the country on a relatively small income, but these are things she has always known about him and pretended to be fine with for three whole years.)
Naturally, John was deeply hurt, confused, and humiliated at a time when he was already grieving anew for my dad. My family and I rallied around him and offered round-the-clock support and advice to get him through and help him see what a blessing in disguise it was. Eventually, he began to bounce back and told us that he realized deep down he’d wanted to end things for a long time but was afraid of being alone (his insecurities and low self-esteem are deeply rooted and tangled up with depression and anxiety). He even started rebound-dating someone else whom he claimed opened his eyes to all of the things Ursula wasn’t: kind, patient, tolerant, laid-back…the list goes on. Recently, Ursula found out he was seeing someone else and decided (after weeks and weeks of silent treatment) to tell him that she wanted to get back together. My brother told me all of this news incredulously, as if it were the final nail in the coffin on their toxic relationship, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
And then. THEN. Within days of finding out that she wanted to get back together, he went to see Ursula “to talk.” He then promptly dumped the new girl he was seeing and now refuses to answer any of our questions about what’s going on. My mom has gently tried to assess his current feelings towards Ursula, voice our concerns that she is once again manipulating him, and remind him that we only want the best for him (and that Ursula has very clearly demonstrated that she does not have his best interest at heart). He refuses to discuss the situation at all and gets defensive at even the most innocent questions, insisting “You don’t understand – I love Ursula.”
I’m at a loss for words and feel nearly sick at the thought of him bringing her back into his (and our) lives. The last thing I want is a rift in my family, but I no longer feel that I am able to take the high road or “tolerate” her presence. I am deeply, deeply hurt and angered by his decision to go back to her, after everything that’s happened, and I feel that I can’t sweep these feelings under the rug any longer. (My dad even told us, two weeks before he died, that “she has to go.”) I know from other columns that your advice in these situations is to butt out and let him make his own mistakes, but I’m worried about the tension and resentment that this situation could heap on our already-fragile family dynamic (especially since John lives with my mom, whom we try to spend as much time with as possible). Based on her immaturity and his insecurities, I don’t think an open and honest conversation would do much in the way of “smoothing things over” — she has her mind made up about us, and he seems to have his mind made up about her.
Wendy, what should I do? Do we tell him how we feel and risk him choosing her over us? Do we smile and nod and allow someone like her back into our lives as if her behavior is okay? Or is there another way to create boundaries without alienating my brother and dividing our family? — Sick of Ursula
You’re right that my advice in situations like these is usually to let your loved one live his or her own life and make his or her own mistakes, and that’s the case here, too. As much as you may want to, you can’t control whom your brother dates or loves or marries and brings into the family. He already knows how you feel about Ursula since you all expressed yourselves in your support to him after their breakup. You validated him when he said he was realizing that Ursula was not kind, patient, tolerant, or laid-back. Upon their reconciliation, your mother even voiced your collective concerns that Ursula is once again manipulating John, and that didn’t do any good. John is still going to do what John wants to do, and, the more you express your worry for him or your dislike and distrust of Ursula, the more power you give her to manipulate him against you.
I know it sucks and, as much as you don’t want a rift in the family, you dread a lifelong tie to Ursula almost as much. And you know that if John marries Ursula, that’s exactly what you’ll get. But if having John in your life means dealing with her, aren’t you willing to pay that price over the price of losing him if you don’t?
And you don’t know for sure that Ursula is going to be in the picture forever. This is hopefully a momentary blip that will pass as quickly as it began again. As you said, your brother is especially vulnerable right now — you all are — and, as prickly as Ursula is, she represents familiarity to John, which can be especially comfortable when one is grieving. And there is probably also a comfort in their dynamic, as unhealthy and dysfunctional as it may be or seem. Since your 30-year-old brother still lives at home and is, as you say, a “late-bloomer,” I’m going to assume he’s not a “take-charge,” independent sort of guy. He probably feels a lot of security in a partnership with someone who takes the lead and makes the decisions, especially if she is doing so while putting him down and making him believe he’s helpless without her. “Laid-back” (like John’s rebound girlfriend) has its value, but for someone who is very dependent (and insecure), it may actually be detrimental. He needs someone to tell him what to do because he doesn’t have faith that he’ll figure it out or do it right on his own.
So, what can you do? Well, for starters, you can let time do its job of healing all of you and bringing a little more light to what has been a dark period for your family. All of you are still grieving, with an anniversary of your father’s death resurrecting those initial raw emotions and highlighting the enormous loss you feel in your family. He was here, and now he’s not, and, while the pain won’t go away, balance will be restored eventually. You will each take a little of the role he played as your own and will find an equilibrium within your family dynamic again. You could even let John know in what ways he reminds you of your father and how and why your father would be proud of him. Empowerment is a great antidote to manipulation and insecurity.
Along those lines, can John live independently? What’s the reason he lives with your mother? If he had his own place — even a small studio near one of you — he would be better positioned to cultivate some independence, and you would be able to visit your mother without the threat of Ursula being present. Regardless, if he continues living with your mother, then some house rules need to be instated that would create clear boundaries keeping Ursula away. And as long as she is around, I would make plans with John when you know she is unavailable, and I would keep my distance from her while remaining coolly cordial when you can’t avoid her. You managed to do so before and nothing has really changed except the temporary idea that John may have moved on. He clearly hasn’t just yet, so you need to re-adopt the stance you took before and hold onto it as long as she’s around. I think you feel less inclined to do so because you tasted freedom from her and it’s hard to give that up, and you are also feeling the effects of this sad anniversary. Rather than let that weaken your resolve, find strength in it. Choose what traits of your father’s you’d like to cultivate in yourself in his honor. Choose the traits that would fight to maintain closeness with John at whatever cost — even if the cost is holding your nose and smiling at a woman like Ursula. Your father may have said, “she has to go,” but he didn’t mean immediately and he didn’t mean for John to go with her, which could very well happen if you actively try to push her away.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.