BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

A couple of months ago, I had to cut off communication with my 30-year-old brother. We have had a volatile relationship for many years, in part because he is a recovering addict. When he was drinking or using, there were a number of really horrific incidents, but I had always assumed that once he got sober, we would be able to mend (or at least improve) our relationship. Unfortunately, his sobriety has not been the magic solution I was hoping for.

He and I have different political views, ideas about gender, and levels of education. Whenever we are together in person, he will make disparaging comments about people who are educated, yell about people with different political opinions, and generally create an incredibly uncomfortable atmosphere. My father and I are also really different, but we have been able to maintain a relationship, because we don’t talk about politics and religion. With my brother, though, it’s gotten to the point where even if I try to establish a healthy boundary and say something like “You can’t talk to me like that,” he accuses me of “playing the victim” and then continues to scream.

I don’t live in the same state as him now, so not talking to him is easier than it used to be, but we still had something of a relationship until a few months ago, when he sent me an ugly Facebook message in response to something I’d posted. After that, I blocked him, because I didn’t want to be treated that way again. The only time I’ve heard from him since was when he messaged me to say that my mother was in the hospital when she wasn’t, which was super manipulative. He has not apologized for any of these actions.

What’s hard is that both of my parents still have a relationship with him. This really hurts my feelings, because while I know they’re his parents, I can’t help but feel like they’re choosing not to acknowledge his abusive behavior toward me. My mother has said that she understands why I wouldn’t want a relationship with him, which is validating, but then she’ll mention going to his house or having him and his girlfriend over to visit, and I’m just baffled. My parents’ maintaining their relationship with him makes me feel like I’m either the only one with healthy boundaries, or a total bitch for cutting him off.

Not talking to him feels healthy and safe for now, but I also still feel like I have this open wound that’s just not healing. Do you have any advice for how to handle this situation?

Lauren
Chicago


Dear Lauren,

What you’re experiencing is grief—and with it, the typical sadness, anger, and even guilt that many people feel in response to a significant loss. This may sound strange to you, given that you chose to separate from your brother in order to feel less sad and angry. But estrangements, even when they offer great relief, almost always involve loss as well.

I realize that for you, the benefit of not having to experience your brother’s upsetting behavior outweighs the prospect of interacting with him, so you might not be thinking of this as a loss. But if you don’t acknowledge (or aren’t aware of) the loss, you might struggle to hold the relief and the sadness simultaneously—and in order to help heal this wound, that’s exactly what you’ll need to do.

So let’s look at the loss before we address what you might do with your parents. You say you had “something of a relationship” with your brother until a few months ago, and as difficult as that relationship was, I wonder if a part of you misses your brother—not the gut-churning experience of his volatile behavior, but whatever else existed between you, both in adulthood and growing up. In cutting off contact from your brother, you lose a connection to your shared history, which can feel significant, because that shared history includes experiences that no one beyond the two of you shared. Additionally, you've lost someone who knows you (and your parents) as only someone who grew up in the same household could.

For this reason, many therapists believe that estrangement, even if it’s ultimately the best choice, should be considered a last resort—that before cutting things off, people ought to explore how to protect themselves from a problematic family member while maintaining contact of some sort. Of course, this isn’t always viable or desirable, but even then, the grieving process can be easier if people know that they rigorously considered other paths.

For example, you were wise to try to create boundaries around your brother’s behavior, but many people mistakenly believe that effective boundaries are what you impose on others (“You can’t talk to me that way”). The problem with this setup is that people may not want to do what you’re asking them to do. An effective boundary is something you set for your own behavior: If my brother goes off on a tirade, instead of taking it personally, I’ll remember that what he does is about him, not me, and I don’t need to argue with him or convince him he’s wrong.

The other thing to remember about boundaries is that they’re less effective if discussed in the heat of the moment. If your brother is saying things that upset you, and he has a predictable pattern of escalating, asking him to stop when he’s in this heightened state will only exacerbate the situation. What he wants is exactly what you want—to be heard and understood—even if he goes about it in inappropriate ways. A more productive approach might be to reach out a week or so later and ask to get together—maybe at a coffee shop, because people tend to be less volatile in public places—and when you do, to say something like “I’m really glad we’re getting together, because you’re my brother, and I know there’s been a lot of friction between us. I’ve been hurt by you in ways you may not realize, and I imagine you’ve also been hurt by me in ways I may not realize. I know we don’t agree with each other’s views on a lot of things, but I’d love to find a way to have a peaceful relationship even with these differences between us. Are you interested in that too?”

I don’t know if you’ve had this conversation with your brother in this particular way (content, tone, timing—without any mention of what you don’t like about his behavior, which only instigates an argument), but my guess is that any attempts to communicate with him have left you feeling frustrated and completely unheard.

This brings me to your issues with your parents. Cutting off contact, as you have done with your brother, is both a way to protect yourself and a cry to be heard—the only way you’ll hear me is if I leave you. But it’s not only your brother who you want to hear your pain; your parents, too, are a part of this dynamic. You seem to feel that the only way you’ll know that they hear your cry is if they cut off your brother too. But there are other ways to get them to hear you—if you’re willing to listen.

First, consider that they have their own pain, and it’s twofold: the pain of seeing how their son has struggled and the pain of seeing their daughter hurt. Second, remember that while they may have compassion for him because his behavior isn’t directed at them, that doesn’t mean they don’t also have compassion for you. Third, try not to position their love as a meritocracy—I’m the “good” sibling; they should love me more. And the corollary: Because they love me more, they should demonstrate their love by shunning the person who hurt me.

Instead, you can share your pain with them without requiring that they do, or even agree with, what you did. It’s one thing to say “I’m sad about the situation with my brother” and another to seek their explicit blessing to choose not to be in contact with him or to cut off contact themselves. You’re going to have to process your grief on your own—nothing your parents do or say will get you out of that. Meanwhile, it sounds like your parents, despite your differences, are trying to do their best by both of their children. If you can refocus your relationship with them so it’s not about how they interact with your brother but about you and the ways you three enjoy one another, you won’t keep re-wounding yourself by holding them responsible for something they can’t fix.


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.

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