Heavy Meddle: How Do I Deal With An Emotionally Abusive Brother?

(Daniel Lee/ Unsplash)
(Daniel Lee/ Unsplash)

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Dear Steve,

One week before booking a long-awaited family vacation, my 30-year-old brother announced that he had been dating a woman for the past six months and that she would like to attend. Though taken aback at only learning about her then, we welcomed her along even though no one had met her. One day before we booked, my brother announced that he and his girlfriend thought it was now too expensive, and they found cheaper options and wanted to restart the planning with the new girlfriend looking for options "because she has traveled.”

My parents were generously offsetting the cost of the trip as everyone's Christmas gift; we were working with a travel agent and were happy with what had been selected. No one took them up on their request. I asked my brother via text why his new girlfriend was now planning a family vacation for a family she didn't know. Not my finest moment but after months of planning and said brother wanting nothing to do with the process, I was frustrated. He immediately lashed out at me, I apologized and reiterated how I was looking forward to meeting her but the damage was done. They didn't come on the trip and my brother refuses to speak to me.

We spoke once, months after the trip was booked, and my brother took the opportunity to say some really hurtful things to me, bringing up personal digs and saying things like, "you can't handle that I have a woman in my life now." He hung up on me. It's now been almost a year and he has made zero effort to mend any fences. He's ignored my son's birthday, holidays, etc. all because of me. My son is 2 and is his only nephew. I feel awful but I'm also incredibly hurt by the things he has said to me; they were over the line and ugly. He has always had anxiety issues and has had blow-ups at other family members in the past. Usually I was the one to calm him down and bring him back around, but this time I'm the target and no one in my family has been able to talk to him about it. He shuts them down and refuses to say anything more on it.

I know what's expected when we are face to face next (we live out of state). I'm expected to ignore everything that has happened and never bring it up again to keep the peace. I'm tired this time — tired of the emotional abuse he threw at me and will never apologize for (a pattern for him), tired of always having to walk on eggshells around him to avoid another blow up, tired of having to be OK with the way he has just ignored his nephew. I'm sad but I also don't want my son to think behaving that way is normal or ever OK. I'm happy he has met someone that makes him happy and was looking forward to meeting her but now I feel there is so much awkwardness to overcome.

Any advice or words of wisdom on how to either heal this or learn to let go of a toxic relationship? I would really appreciate your thoughts on this, please.

A Sad Sister


Dear Sad Sister,

I don’t think I can tell you anything you don’t already know. For many years, you’ve been the soothing force in the life of your troubled brother. You’ve been there for him as he’s struggled with anxiety and anger. You’ve watched him mistreat other members of the family, and he has now turned this abuse on you. Your initial comments to him around this vacation were perhaps wrongly pitched. But you apologized and he responded by verbally abusing you and holding a grudge. This is terribly sad. But it’s also where things stand.

Trust your instincts here, Sad Sister. A guy like your brother, who has struggled to truly grow up, doesn’t just need love. He needs limits. This may be hard for you to do, as a long-time ally of his, but you’re wise to set some boundaries.

Quite clearly, you should not put up with his verbal abuse. But it also sounds like you’re no longer OK ignoring his behavior. My advice would be to compose a letter setting out your feelings. I would keep the emphasis on your own feelings. That is: that you love him, that you want him to be a part of your life, and that of his nephew. That you don’t feel it’s healthy for you to muzzle your reaction to his behaviors, which have made you feel hurt and bullied. And furthermore, that you don’t feel it’s healthy to interact with him unless he can treat you respect, if not affection.

A guy like your brother, who has struggled to truly grow up, doesn’t just need love. He needs limits.

Is that an easy letter to write? No. Will it result in your brother changing his ways? Maybe not. But I suspect the act of composing the letter will produce the single emotional result that’s most important here: allowing you to speak your truth to this troubled sibling, and to draw a clear boundary for him.

One thing that might help in this task would be to read the book "Walking on Eggshells" by Randi Kreger and Paul Mason. It’s specifically about dealing with family members who have Borderline Personality Disorder. This may not be your brother’s situation. But there’s enough overlap, in terms of his behavior, that I think you’ll find it revelatory.

Once again, I should emphasize that this is all very sad, and it’s important to acknowledge your feelings of sorrow and loss. You worked hard to be loyal and supportive to your brother. But the time has come for him to recognize that your love cannot coexist with his contempt. If he wants to be in your life, and especially in the life of your son, he needs to do some growing up on his own.

I wish you patience and courage.


Author's note: Please give credit for the book recommendation to my wife. Actually, give her credit for most of what I write in this column. She’s had some of the same struggles as Sad Sister and had to find ways to let go of certain destructive relationships. How about you? Post your feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. Send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Headshot of Steve Almond

Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 12 books. His new book, “Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow,” is about craft, inspiration and the struggle to write.



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