Writer and broadcaster

I feel duty bound to spend Christmas with my mother. But I don’t want to. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

My relationship with my brother (my only sibling) has deteriorated to the point where I want no more contact with him. This causes my mother a great deal of distress but is made worse by her interfering. I don’t have any communication with my brother as I dislike him intensely but my mother keeps me updated on his life and – infuriatingly – keeps him updated on mine. I don’t want him to know anything about me because of my dislike for him.

My brother and I have never been close. He started drinking heavily about 25 years ago (before my dad died), which caused tension in our family and brought a great deal of upset to my parents. My father died 15 years ago, leaving just the three of us, and my relationship with my brother plummeted even further. My mum makes excuses for his drinking and behaviour but then leans on me heavily to support her. For example, he has been excused from having to take part in Christmas Day every year since my dad died as it’s not his thing, but if I were to make my own separate plans for spending Christmas that didn’t include my mum she would make me feel so guilty and mean, as if I were abandoning her, that I have no option but to make myself available. 

I’m not married, although I do have a partner, and I don’t have children (I’m too old for children now) and regularly receive invites to spend Christmas away doing something alternative and fun with friends but have always turned these invitations down as my guilt would prevent me from enjoying them. I feel deeply resentful that my useless, selfish brother gets to spend Christmas where he likes but I am always expected to be available.

I would like to sever all contact with my brother but don’t know how to and whether I can. 

But you have severed all contact with your brother, haven’t you? And it hasn’t helped. Your brother is certainly behaving selfishly (you told me about other aspects of his behaviour beyond the drinking), but I think quite a lot of the anger is also directed at yourself. I think part of you would dearly like to be a bit more like your brother. I don’t mean the drinking, but the way he seems to do what he wants (let us not pretend he is happy) and being able to detach from your mother. But you have an overwhelming sense of responsibility – which if you don’t obey, leads to esteem-busting guilt.

Psychotherapist James Rye (bacp.co.uk) thinks your anger was “reasonable, but, it’s not the anger that’s the problem, it’s the extent of it.” I agree. I think this anger goes well beyond your brother’s behaviour. You really need to start living the life you want.

“I was also struck,” says Rye, “by the locus of control – other people have control, not you.” Rye thinks the bit that really stuck out was you saying you had “no option but to make yourself available”. You do have options. I’m not saying reject your mother – not at all – but you need to start getting back some control of your life and leave them to theirs. “You are making yourself powerless,” says Rye, “you are giving them all the control.”

But it’s not easy to break these family patterns is it? Rye says you should start “one step at a time because if you don’t break patterns, you reinforce them. Think of five small things that you could do to stand up to your mum and then do the one thing that’s the least problematic, first.”

You also need to realise, “it’s OK to upset your mum at times. It’s not the worse thing in the world.” And it also sounds as if she is choosing to be upset at certain things and you need to let her take responsibility for that because you are never going to be able to control what she says and how she feels. She needs to own that. You need to let her.

I say this to be helpful, not unkind, but by continuing to play the victim role in this triangle, you are reinforcing their behaviour and it’s not working is it? The way you are behaving is not making you feel better. So you need to change it. Your own behaviour is the one thing you do have control over.

You get all these invitations to do fun things, and I wish you could find a way to say yes to them. (Also, what does your partner think about always having to spend Christmas with your mum?) I’ve put your letter in early in the hope that you might say, “This Christmas I’m doing something else.” You can see your mum before, or after. You’re not abandoning her, you’re just spending Christmas doing your own thing. For once.

If you try focusing less on your mum and your brother and more on your own life, you may find that, as your sense of worth and satisfaction increases, your anger will lessen. It’s not going to disappear but you may get it to a reasonable level.


This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 5 December 2014.