I’d like to have a healthy adult relationship with my brother, but he fobs me off. The Guardian.
I’m the older sister. Growing up, neither my brother nor I had a great childhood because of the domestic abuse, child abuse and anger issues in the family. It was quite difficult and has affected me as an adult. Since attending therapy, I realise that I want to reconnect with my brother.
I have resented him because my mother used favouritism as a part of the abuse. She still does treat him preferentially to me, but I want to move past this and try to have a normal relationship.
We’re in our 20s and neither of us is very friendly with the other. We never talk or even call or visit. As far as he’s concerned, he doesn’t have a sister – I’m just someone who lives “up north”. I struggled with seeing him too because the last time he did visit before we stopped talking he was so rude and dismissive of my ex-partner that we ended up having a fight. I think the way he acts is because my mother was much less critical of his behaviour and more patient with him. He “got away with it”.
Part of this is because he might have undiagnosed Asperger’s. Yet I often felt, when my mum would physically punish me rather than him, that this was an excuse my mother used to hurt me more.
Over a year in which I have tried to make an effort, such as buying tickets for events or organising a meal or trip, he always turns me down or stops replying. He says things like, he doesn’t want to go and purposefully hurtful things, such as he has better things to do. I understand there is hate on his part, as well, for what happened when I couldn’t protect him, but I’m starting to get tired of trying and wasting money when he cancels.
You’ve had a lot to deal with. Some people don’t look back and realise what’s happened in their family till much later and yet here you are, in your 20s, already incredibly self-aware.And you have sought therapy, which is fantastic. There are also organisations, such as Napac (napac.org.uk) that provide helplines and local support groups, should you find that useful.
I contacted Nicola McCarry, a psychotherapist (aft.org.uk) who deals with families in situations such as yours. I asked what it might have been like growing up in such a household and she says that you and your brother “may have felt it was your fault [the abuse and general situation], as children, and felt responsible or to blame.” You weren’t, of course, but children tend to internalise and think everything is their fault. I think this blame may have stayed with you both into adulthood.
I wondered about your line “some hate on his part … when I couldn’t protect him”, because it sounds as if you did protect him. “Sometimes,” explains McCarry, “the older child may try and draw some of the fire [away from the younger]”.
I wondered if your brother felt he hadn’t protected you. Also, being “the favourite” isn’t always a hallowed place to be. The favoured child can often see the injustice, but is powerless to do anything about it. Your brother also had to see you being physically punished, which would have been fairly traumatising for him. Not to mention how traumatising it was – and still is – for you.
Growing up in such a household would, as McCarry explains, have “affected your sense of security; your secure base was threatened. To thrive, we need to feel safe, safe to go out and explore with the confidence that security gives us, and then be able to return home and say if something bad happened.” You didn’t have that. I wondered how you would feel if you knew, somehow, that your brother was hurt and wanted to reconnect, but yet still acted the way he did.
However, you can only do so much. “You could contact him – an email or a letter,” suggests McCarry, “and say something like: ‘I would love to have an adult relationship with you [crucially, away from your mother]. These are the things I regret [if there is anything] … are there things about me you want to discuss?’ However, you can only do this up to a point because otherwise you are perpetuating the abusive family relationship.”
In other words, you can’t keep knocking at his door if he is vile to you. You can offer him a grownup, loving sibling relationship – but you can’t make it happen.
“You do make yourself vulnerable [by doing this],” says McCarry. “But you need to release that power [which he seems to have] and, actually, in making yourself vulnerable, that’s a very strong thing to do.”
Remember, she continues, “If you were to decide that there isn’t a future with him, some people make a ‘family of choice’ with people who aren’t blood kin.”
I’m really sorry you had such a difficult start to life, but you do sound as if you are on the road to making a life that’s worthy of you now. If your brother chooses to join you, that’s up to him.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 28 May 2016.