Dear Therapist: My Brother’s Behavior Sickens Me. Should I Cut Him Off?

I can’t tolerate his attitude toward my mom, so I’m considering not talking to him anymore.

A photo illustration of a therapist's couch
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Dear Therapist,

About 10 years ago, my mom announced she had left my dad. She later explained that one of the reasons (among many) was that he had sexually assaulted her (an assault that was never reported to authorities).

My brother has told me on numerous occasions that he doesn’t believe her sexual-assault accusation, though from conversations with my mom, it’s apparent that she is not aware of his lack of belief. I have believed her all along and find myself unable to continue a relationship with my brother given his dismissive opinion of my mom and his dishonesty about it to her directly. Frankly, it makes me sick. I am now the father of a beautiful daughter and my brother’s attitude toward our mom, which I think has misogynistic roots, makes me distrust the way he might treat my daughter someday.

Given that my brother’s attitude sickens me and that I don’t trust him, I have more or less stopped talking to him and don’t see a way out of this stance. Is it possible to have a relationship with a brother who doesn’t believe my mom’s claim that she was sexually assaulted by my dad?


Dear Anonymous,

This sounds like a very upsetting situation—not only hearing your mother say that your father assaulted her, but being alone in your reaction to this disturbing news. I can imagine how hard it must be to have to sit with this information and the intense feelings it brings up while perhaps the one person in the same familial position—your sibling—sees it very differently. What I think would make things even more painful, though, is cutting off your relationship with your brother.

You asked whether it’s possible to have a relationship with a brother who doesn’t believe your mom’s claim, but what you’re essentially asking is, Is it possible to have a relationship with someone who doesn’t share my perspective? And the answer is yes—if you can let him have his.

Of course, one of the worst feelings in the world is not being believed, and while you’re upset that your brother doesn’t believe your mom, I think that what hurts even more is that he doesn’t believe you—meaning, your conviction in her veracity. You may feel so injured by that breach that it’s hard to see your brother’s view as anything but a comment on his character—it sickens you, he’s a misogynist, he might mistreat your daughter. But my guess is that you’re conflating your feelings for your father with your reaction to your brother. (Meaning, your father sickens you, seems like a misogynist, and isn’t to be trusted around your daughter—and by not recognizing that, your brother is implicitly endorsing those things.) I don’t know what your conversations with your brother about this have been like, but I wonder how much effort you’ve made to understand why he holds his point of view—even if you don’t agree with it.

Similarly, you fault him for not telling your mom that he doesn’t believe her, without considering that he could be holding back because he doesn’t want to hurt her or damage their relationship. And besides, what would be the point of his telling her? “Mom, I don’t believe you.” Then what? Cause her anguish? Create conflict? Lose his mother? How would that disclosure be helpful to either of them?

Siblings sometimes have vastly different ideas, opinions, and feelings about their parents. In other words, you probably have a different relationship with your mom than your brother does. It could be that in your brother’s experience of her growing up, she tended to exaggerate or play the victim, whether that perception is true or not. You, however, might have been more aligned with her and naturally sided with her when you felt she’d been wronged. You don’t say anything about your relationship with your father, but it could be that while you and your brother both saw your father treat your mother in a certain way, your brother’s overall impression of him was more positive, and that, too, will inform his perspective. Whatever the history was, it will affect how you both hear your mother’s claim.

All this is to say, maybe there’s room for each of you to have an experience of your parents that’s your own, and still have a relationship with each other. You might have lived in the same house and been raised by the same people, but that doesn’t mean either of your perspectives on, or feelings about, your parents cancel out the other’s. Both are valid—he’s entitled to believe what he wants, as are you. Both of you can love your parents in your own ways.

I don’t know that your brother doesn’t want you to have your opinions so much as he doesn’t share them. But it doesn’t sound like you’re offering him that same level of respect. Before you take the moral high ground, you might want to talk with him instead of judging him, and really hear what he has to say. And even if you still disagree, I’d think long and hard about whether his having different ideas than you do about your mother calls for ending your entire relationship.

Sometimes, when people are in deep pain, they cut people off in order to—whether they know it or not—inflict pain on others. That might be what’s happening here: You, dear brother, will be deprived of my company! Your children will be deprived of an uncle—take that! But inflicting pain on others doesn’t really soothe our pain in the long run—here, it just deprives you of a brother. The alternative to cutting him off is to examine more closely why his having a different belief feels so intolerable to you, and to open yourself up to the possibility that there’s more to be had in your relationship with your brother than whether you see your parents in exactly the same way.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.