Heavy Meddle: My Jerk Brother Is In Crisis; Should I Reach Out To Him?
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My brother is a jerk. Always has been and probably always will be. He is the type of person that asks where you got his gift so he can return it. He is the type of person who doesn’t share the food you sent his kids but rather eats it himself. He has never once walked beside anyone, always five steps ahead. He’s a tortured guy — that is a fact.
Our family is blended: two adopted kids, two biological kids. And despite my parent’s focus on creating a harmonious unit, that divide has colored the family dynamic since the beginning. His twin sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 18 and committed suicide a few years ago. They were always a pair, even though she was difficult and institutionalized a lot of her life. Her death comes after he had taken over care from my aging parents; they felt they couldn’t handle it anymore. I’m pretty sure he blames himself for her death.
When she died, I reached out to him and offered to help empty her belongings. He said, “You would do that for me?” I felt it could be a turning point in our relationship. No dice. I never stopped trying to reach out to him (call me a hopeless optimist) and my oodles of text messages go unanswered. Despite his poor personal life, he has had an incredible professional life. He was a professional mountain climber and summited every mountain he could and recently opened up his own accounting business that is radically successful.
Should I reach out and try to have a heart to heart with him or should I just steer clear?
But the fact that he got married 15 years ago still blows our mind. My sister-in-law is a gem of a human being and I just assumed that he treated her differently, that he liked her in a way he could never like us. So when she broke down six months ago and told me she’s in crisis and can’t take it anymore, I didn’t know where to begin.
Turns out, he treats her exactly the same way. She has lived with it silently for 15 years and four children. From being in touch once a year, she started calling me all the time, most of the time sobbing. I had no idea what to say or what to do. I wanted to tell her to leave him but my mom advised me to not get in too deep. She called all of us and basically was a wreck. Despite couples and individual therapy, it doesn’t look like things are improving.
Recently, my SIL asked me to have a heart to heart with my brother about our lack of a relationship. I didn’t feel like I could. I know he’s hurting, but I also think he simply doesn’t know how to feel. His marriage is about to fail and then he will be completely alone. No family, no kids, no wife (he has no friends). Should I reach out and try to have a heart to heart with him or should I just steer clear? I guess I’m worried if his marriage fails, he could really just give up on life altogether.
Dear Heavy Heart,
I found your letter deeply moving, but also deeply confusing. You’re genuinely concerned about your brother, and his wife and children. It’s clear the marriage is in crisis and you’d like to be able to help. At the same time, your brother is a difficult guy who pushes people away. It’s a sad and vexing situation.
My hunch is that part of you wants to be able to write him off as a contemptuous jerk — and thus to disavow any guilt or responsibility you might feel toward him. I get that.
But there’s another part of you that clearly knows your brother isn’t cruel or heartless, but tortured. And you also seem to recognize some of the experiences that have shaped him, in particular caring for a twin sister with schizophrenia, and feeling responsible for her death. The compassion he showed for this sister is literally the opposite of cruelty.
The most useful thing you can do is to recognize that your brother is a complicated guy. Look at how you describe him, in a single sentence: I know he’s hurting, but I also think he simply doesn’t know how to feel. Can you see the contradiction here? It’s not that your brother doesn’t know how to feel. It’s that he’s in pain.
The question you face is whether you can do anything to make less that pain. I don’t know the answer. But your SIL’s desperate request has clearly activated your sense of familial duty, and caused you to ponder what you might do to reconnect with your brother, to help him feel less isolated, and, by extension, perhaps help him work on his marriage.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that he’s a grown up, and that he’s already engaged in efforts to address the problems in his marriage. But you wouldn’t have written me — and honestly, you wouldn’t have been so blunt about your brother’s shortcomings — if you didn’t feel guilty about refusing to reach out to him.
As with any relationship ... both parties have to be willing to open their hearts, to listen to one another, and to be patient.
So here’s what I think you should do.
First, to the extent you can, you need to forgive your brother for not being an easy guy to relate to, or help. You need to recognize that his experience growing up in your family was distinct from your own, and that much of the behavior you find off-putting is really more about externalizing his pain.
Second, you need to figure out if you want to have a better relationship with him.
Third, if the answer is yes, you need to think about how to reach out to him in a way that doesn’t activate his robust defenses. You mentioned having texted him a lot. Given your long and troubled history, it makes a lot more sense to write him a heartfelt letter, and/or to meet with him in person.
Fourth, you need to recognize that your brother might choose to rebuff your efforts, no matter how compassionately they are couched. You need to accept that you can’t control the outcome here. As with any relationship — in particular, a fraught sibling relationship — both parties have to be willing to open their hearts, to listen to one another, and to be patient.
It would be wonderful for everyone involved if you could repair this relationship. But you have to recognize that this may be a long and halting process, and that you can only control your half of the equation. The rest is up to him.
Author's note: My own relationships with my brothers have been quite tortured, so I really related to this letter. But I also think it’s important that Heavy Heart not fall into the trap of thinking she can fix everything, or nothing. Any siblings with relevant experiences, please weigh in. 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.