Dear Therapist: I Don’t Want My Nightmare Brother at Thanksgiving

On one hand, we don’t get along. On the other, he lives 10 minutes away.

Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

I have struggled to get along with my brother for the past 15 to 20 years, putting up with his sarcasm, his demeaning behavior, and his planning family gatherings in which everyone is invited but me. If I dare to voice an opinion that differs from his, he raises his voice in a loud, frightening manner against me. Both my husband and I try to never bring up subjects that my brother and we disagree on, but on occasion something will slip out before we realize our blunder.

I know my brother has had a difficult life and I do feel a lot of compassion for him. He struggled with drug addiction throughout his late teen years, 20s, and 30s. He’s been through two failed marriages and is presently working on a third marriage, which has lasted 15 or 20 years, and I feel like he’s put a lot into making it succeed. All of us siblings had a difficult childhood, growing up with a father who frightened us with his loud, angry voice and his severe punishments. As much as my brother hated our father, it’s ironic that he has turned out to be just like him—he even looks exactly like him.

About a month ago I was happy to hear from a couple of cousins who want to come with their families to our house for Thanksgiving, but then I realized my dilemma. My brother lives 10 minutes away from me and I know my cousins will ask about him and want to see him. As badly as he treats me, my brother is held in high regard by his nieces, nephews, and cousins.

I thought I could invite my brother to this gathering but, as time goes by, I realize I’m terrified of the idea and don’t think I can go through with it—I don’t want to be mistreated in front of the rest of the family. What can I do?

City Withheld

Dear Theresa,

I can imagine how unpleasant it is to be around your brother and how stressful the idea of including him in Thanksgiving must be. Holidays, especially, are occasions we want to enjoy and remember fondly. But I don’t think that your only options here are to exclude him and have a nice time, or include him and have an awful time. Instead, I think you might benefit from extending a different invitation—for coffee.

Let me explain. You’ve expressed two feelings toward your brother in your letter: fear and compassion. Like many siblings, you grew up in the same household but had a different response to your shared environment. This might be due to factors like your innate temperament, birth order, or even gender (a father-son dynamic can be more intense than a father-daughter dynamic). When you were younger and didn’t struggle to get along, he probably didn’t seem like your father, and this inspires your compassion. But as he aged, he resembled your father more and more not just behaviorally, but also physically, and this likely compounded your fear. And I’ll bet that he can sense that fear.

I bring your conflicting feelings up because although your brother seems like the cause of the difficulty between you—and I’m in no way minimizing how difficult he can be—you also, without intending to, might be contributing to the tension. Note that I say contributing to it, and not causing it. People often give up on family or friends without thinking about what they themselves can do to help generate change. Nobody operates in a vacuum; our behavior influences other people’s behavior. In ways you might not realize—through body language, glances at your husband, a lack of warmth in your demeanor—you may be sending your brother the message that you don’t like him very much and barely tolerate him. Your cousins and nieces and nephews, on the other hand, may make him feel valued and accepted, all of which would engender a more positive response than the one he gives you—abrasive, sarcastic, threatening.

I don’t know how much you and your brother have talked about your underlying conflict over the past couple of decades or if you’ve simply fought, felt injured by the other, left things unresolved, and then avoided each other (you say he doesn’t invite you to family gatherings, either). I’m guessing that you haven’t expressed much of anything positive toward each other, which has created a toxic negative-feedback loop. You feel that he’s a ticking time bomb, and that takes you right back to, Uh-oh, it’s Dad all over again; he feels that you’re critical of him (whether that’s communicated verbally or nonverbally), and that takes him right back to, Uh-oh, it’s Dad all over again. In other words, you both remind each other of your father. And round and round it goes.

If you want to shift the flow of negative energy, you have to rewire the circuit. It will take many interactions to do so, but you can start right now by inviting him out for coffee (being in a public place also reduces the likelihood of escalations). Greet him warmly, thank him for coming, and start by telling him some of what you wrote to me: how much you admire the effort he’s put into turning his life around and making his marriage work. How much compassion you have for his earlier struggles because you know how hard it was growing up in that house. How you remember what it was like between you two before there was so much friction and maybe even how much you miss whatever connection you used to have.

Then, instead of rehashing all the incidents that have upset you and listing the changes he needs to make, tell him that you’re genuinely curious to hear what he thinks would make your relationship better—specifically, what makes it hard for him to be around you and what he hopes for instead. This will require you to do something that’s incredibly difficult to do with someone you feel injured by: make room for his experience—which means imagining yourself in his place without getting defensive—even if you see things differently.

I know that’s not easy, but once you can really hear how he feels—and he feels heard—he’ll be more receptive to your experience and to understanding that your holiday dilemma comes from a place of conciliation rather than contempt. Explain that you want to be able to spend the holidays together, but you also don’t want to worry that you might set him off the way you as kids worried you’d set your father off. Enlist his help in figuring out how you can both be more supportive of each other so that the time you spend together feels—for both of you—safe and calm and not reminiscent of your childhood. The message is that nobody’s the villain here, but that you’re on the same team—you both want to create something better for yourselves and each other in your adulthoods.

Best case scenario: Eventually, your relationship becomes something closer to the mutual enjoyment that he and your cousins share. Worst case scenario: He comes to dinner, but despite your new approach, Thanksgiving still goes south this year, and you plan future holidays without him.

Of course, you can simply not invite him to this year’s Thanksgiving and write him out of your life, which could ultimately be what happens anyway. Doing so now might provide immediate relief, but if you take a risk and open yourself up to hearing him out, you may discover the richness and healing that come from a long-overdue reconciliation. Even if you don’t get that, you’d know that unlike your father, you tried to make changes in yourself, and if you look back years later with any sadness, at least you’d be free of second-guessing or regret.

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. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.