Heavy Meddle: Return Of The Toxic Avenger

What's a sister to do when she knows too much about her brother's ex -- and she's back in his life? (hebe/Flickr)
What's a sister to do when she knows too much about her brother's ex -- and she's back in his life? (hebe/Flickr)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Dear Steve,

My brother was in a controlling relationship and broke up with his girlfriend about a year ago. Her controlling ways came between my brother and our family, with tragic consequences. I was glad when they split. Now this woman is back in his life, and I don't know how to handle it!

I should add that it was my brother who who first confided in me about his girlfriend's controlling behavior. She controlled every aspect of my brother’s life, and her behavior went from critical to disturbing.

When my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness, my brother's girlfriend accused my mother of using her disease to pull my brother away from her. (My brother and mother were always very close.) Unfortunately, my brother didn't see my mother until she was comatose, and it was too late to say goodbye. My mom died broken-hearted over this.

At my mother's funeral, his girlfriend made a number of insensitive remarks. Within earshot of my grandmother, she said, "How much longer is she going to live? It can't be that long."

She told our family that my brother would not be going to the private burial because, "Grief exhausts me, and I need your brother to take me home so I can rest." This is when I confronted her and told her that she was being selfish. To my brother, I said, "The decision is yours, but let it be yours." (And yes, he came to the burial.)

Now that this woman has resurfaced in my brother's life, I worry about him a lot. He's an adult, and I know that I can't police his relationships. But what do you do when your family member is involved with someone so toxic?



A Worried Sis


Dear Sis,

I have to assume that you’re giving me the straight dope here, and, given that assumption: holy moly. This woman bullied a dying woman and made comments at a funeral that strike me not just as cruel but sociopathic. You have every right to tell your brother that she is persona non grata to you and the rest of the family, and that you’ll have nothing more to do with her. Why allow such a person to do any further damage?

But that still leaves the question of how to deal with your brother. And that’s a much more complicated matter, because you love your brother and want to look out for him. At the same time, you don’t want to get sucked into some kind of rivalry with this woman. The problem is, based on what you’ve described your brother — consciously or unconsciously — has cast you and his paramour as rivals. He confides in you about this woman, which makes you feel responsible for somehow rescuing him from her clutches. But of course, if he doesn’t want this woman controlling him, it’s his job to throw off the yoke, not yours. If he wants to relate to you, it should be on terms you feel okay about. And clearly you don’t feel okay about this woman, for understandable reasons.

Honestly, I’m conflicted about what to advise here. One part of me wants to say, Don’t add any more fuel to the drama! (Because this woman clearly wants drama, in the form of conflict. Why else does someone act so provocatively?) Instead, draw a clear line for your brother. “I’m eager to spend time with you. But I want nothing to do with your girlfriend, for obvious reasons. She is not welcome at family events. I’m not interested in hearing about her. You’re a grown man, and that’s a relationship for you to work out.”

But there’s another part of me that says, Your brother is in a toxic relationship and needs an intervention. Maybe it’s time to sit down and remind him of how this woman behaved, the pain she caused your family and him.

[Your brother] confides in you about this woman, which makes you feel responsible for somehow rescuing him from her clutches. But of course if he doesn’t want this woman controlling him, it’s his job to throw off the yoke, not yours.

Or maybe it’s possible to say both of these things. Something like, “Look, I’m your sister, and I love you. And what I see is you letting a toxic person back into your life. You need to remember what this woman did, the pain she’s caused. And you need to know that this is the last time I’m going to talk about this with you. I’m happy to spend time with you, but I’m not going to be around her or listen to your complaints about her. This is your choice. I’m not going to be in it with you.”

Again: I realize that this is easier said than done, that he looks to you for support and guidance. But sometimes, the best support you can give is to make your views clear and let the person in question do the rest.

I have lots of questions about your brother. Namely: Why would he let this woman into his life in the first place, let alone back in, given the ugly history? It may be useful for you to think about why that is before you talk with him.

I would feel remiss if I didn’t ask one other question, Sis. And that’s whether your understandable loathing for this woman might be coloring your account of her behaviors, which seem almost cartoonishly wicked.

I raise this question — and it is just that, a question — because there’s some chance that this woman will be in your brother’s life for some time to come. If that’s the case, your goal should be to find some inner peace in your dealings with her — even if you never spend another second in her presence. If she’s the monster you portray, obviously job one is to stay away from her and to put her (and her negativity) out of your mind.

But the ideal outcome would be for you to see her not as an inherently evil person, but someone whose good impulses have been overtaken by fears and doubts that make her behave destructively. Such mercy — particularly in the face of persistent and extreme misbehavior — may not be easy work, but it’s the right work.

Good luck,


Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football."


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