Dear Therapist: My Brother-in-Law Is a Thanksgiving Freeloader
Do I have to invite him this year?
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I have a situation with my brother-in-law. My husband and I have been married for 25 years, and his brother has been mostly single until recently. Because their parents are no longer alive, I have always made a point to include my brother-in-law for every holiday and have also included any girlfriend he has had at the time. He has come to my parents’ house out West, our vacation home down South, and our home here in the East. All he has been required to do is show up and take part. He has never had to cook, plan, or prepare anything.
Right before the pandemic, he met a very nice woman who has a son the same age as mine. But he has made no effort to invite us to spend time with them. I just assumed that he was busy with his new family and gave him space. But now I think that we were just a placeholder until he had what he considered a family of his own. I feel very used.
Thanksgiving is coming up, and I am honestly tired of creating great holidays only for him to show up, then leave—and not even consider inviting us or my kids to anything in return. After 25 years, I should have seen the pattern sooner, but I always wanted to be the kinder person, especially since he has struggled with anxiety.
A recent example of his behavior is a family dinner we were invited to that we didn’t realize he was invited to as well. He knew for weeks about it but waited until the night before to ask my husband if he and his girlfriend could stay at our house—he lives 45 minutes away. My husband said to call and ask me, because I would have to prepare the room. He didn’t call, then backed out of going to the dinner at the last minute. In the past, he has invited people out to dinner near our home and stayed with us—but only for the night, and not to take us out to dinner. I feel so stupid that I always agreed to that.
Could you please guide me on whether I should invite him and his girlfriend and her son for Thanksgiving this year?
For many of us, the holidays wouldn’t be the holidays without some family tension, so you’re certainly not alone. In a way that will probably sound familiar to you, people tend not to deal with their family issues until they’re facing an upcoming holiday gathering—at which point they decide that now would be a good time to remedy those overdue frustrations.
Unfortunately, many of these holiday-season solutions create new problems—such as hurt feelings and misunderstandings—without resolving the underlying dynamic. So let’s take a closer look at what’s going on here and what might be a longer-term solution than simply not inviting your brother-in-law to this year’s Thanksgiving.
First, consider that family members tend to construct stories about one another—you’re the favorite sibling; you’re the critical one; you’re too sensitive and can’t take a joke. It sounds like your story goes like this: Your brother-in-law is selfish, you’ve been overly generous, and you’re justifiably resentful. As a result, you’re angry at your brother-in-law for not reciprocating your invitations and also at yourself for not having “seen the pattern sooner.”
But what if the pattern isn’t that you’ve been overly generous and that your brother-in-law is selfish? What if, instead, the pattern is that when you issue an invitation to a meal or offer to let him stay overnight at your house, there’s a contract in your mind that your brother-in-law isn’t aware of—and that you haven’t shared?
You say, for instance, that when it comes to the holidays, he “has never had to cook, plan, or prepare anything.” But the reality is, neither have you. No one has forced you to do any of this; you’ve chosen to celebrate the holidays a certain way because you enjoy spending the holidays that way. For your brother-in-law, the contract looks like this: Our parents are deceased, my brother’s family invites me to spend the holidays with them, I accept the invitation, and we have a nice time. That’s our family tradition. For you, however, the invitation is more than a request for someone’s company; it’s a quid pro quo: I’ll invite you to celebrate the holidays with us, and I expect you to pitch in with cooking, cleaning, and planning; invite us to your home; and/or take us out to dinner instead of simply enjoying yourself.
The problem with unspoken contracts is people end up blaming others for their own lack of communication. At the same time, you seem to not be considering that there might be reasons other than selfishness for someone to not offer to host the holidays or invite people to dinner. Many people don’t know how to entertain or actively dislike it, feel uncomfortable having others in their private homes, live in too small a place, or lack the necessary resources. Some adults who have spent a lot of their life single, as seems to be the case with your brother-in-law, might not have much experience hosting or feel lonely hosting by themselves.
You also mention that he struggles with anxiety, which might be another reason he doesn’t initiate invitations—that anxiety may be why he waited until the night before the family dinner to ask his brother if he could stay at your house, didn’t call you as his brother instructed, and then bailed on the dinner altogether. And perhaps when he had dinner near your home, he stayed for only one night because he has picked up on your resentment and worries that he’s a burden. Family roles can also play into these dynamics. If your husband is the older brother or was considered the more “together” or “mature” one, it might feel natural to your brother-in-law to be the more passive of the two. Family roles from childhood persist even after the individuals grow up.
Relatedly, given that this is your husband’s brother and not yours, I wonder why you never mention your husband’s view of the situation in your letter. Would he feel comfortable not spending Thanksgiving with his brother, or would he miss his brother’s company? Does your husband “cook, plan, or prepare anything” for the holidays, or does it all fall to you? Is there a reason he couldn’t “prepare the room” for his brother to stay in after the family dinner? Does your husband express appreciation for the work you do to mark these occasions? I’m asking these questions because it’s possible that some of your resentment toward your brother-in-law is misdirected, and that you need to work through some things with your husband first.
All of this is to say that it’s time to communicate openly about what you need, rather than passive aggressively disinviting your brother-in-law from Thanksgiving. Instead of punishing others for your own lack of boundaries, go ahead and clarify your limits. If you feel burdened by hosting, enlist your husband’s help with the cooking and planning. You can also assign your family members specific dishes to either make or pick up ready-made at the store, or ask for their help with preparation and cleanup. You can even order a precooked meal and ask for financial contributions if the costs are high. If you simply don’t want to host anymore, then don’t: Suggest doing Thanksgiving at a restaurant and splitting the bill, or skip the holiday altogether and go on a vacation with just your immediate family.
These are easy adjustments you can absolutely make, but what you might find most useful is adjusting your definition of an invitation so that it’s no longer I will invite you, but you need to invite us back. Would it be nice to be invited? Yes. But rather than expecting something in return, try to see these “great” holidays that you feel your brother-in-law doesn’t deserve as a gift you’re all receiving. Consider the funny stories you’ll retell for years to come; the fond memories you’re creating; the opportunity for your kids to spend time with their uncle, their potential new aunt, and her son who’s the same age as yours.
Not all families have great holidays—someone’s a horrible complainer or makes offensive comments; another relative yells or gets out-of-control drunk. How lucky you are to invite relatives and spend an enjoyable time together—most people would take that over a return dinner invitation any day.
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.