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Why does my brother humiliate me at family events? Can’t he just accept me? The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

Recently I visited my brother and his wife and was left asking myself some questions. Why did he never like me? What did I do wrong? Why is he talking behind my back with relatives at other family events? Does his wife believe what he says? Why can’t he accept me, like he accepts our little brother, whom he loves unconditionally? 

I don’t think I did anything wrong as a child, or anything to justify this in my teenage or adult years. Everything I have ever done has been a joke and ridiculous to him, all my life choices were jokes to him.

At family gatherings it’s always the same story, my brother refuses to talk to me or even to say hello. It always ends with a proof of how great he is, and him belittling me, and it is never done as a joke. I feel so humiliated. Why does he have to put me down in front of others? Why can’t he just like me? 

His wife makes a great effort to chat with me and my mum and I make a great effort to try to bond with his wife, she is my only connection to my brother – the nice side of him. 

My mum only wants us to be friends. It is her deepest sadness that we cannot get along. These moments are leaving me in a mess. I have reached out a hand to him since I was a child, and I always wanted to have the same sort of relationship as he has with our younger brother. I get no result. 

Do I need to go to these family events just to comfort my mother? It’s a long day of tension that does not end after I go home. It leaves me full of questions that I believe I will never have an answer to.

No, you don’t have to go to these family events just to comfort your mother, but it sounds as if you would like a different relationship with your brother.

I consulted Susanna Abse, psychoanalytical psychotherapist (bpc.org.uk). “To understand sibling rivalry,” she explains, “one has to understand it in the context of the whole family.” Abse says that sibling rivalry “has been with us all of human history, and all who have siblings have an inkling of what it’s like. You can even have sibling rivalry in the closest of sibling relationships. But,” she continues, “it often arises in the context of early deprivation. If there is lots of love and care to go around, things like this [the situation between you and your brother] don’t get going quite as strongly.”

Abse wondered where your dad was – there was no mention of him in your longer letter. The other parent can be greatly beneficial in helping to manage sibling relationships, especially when the children are young.

Both Abse and I wondered where you came in the family and we wondered if perhaps you were close in age and your brother was older than you.

To help you with this – because you clearly want them to be different – we thought it may be useful to turn the situation around and instead of looking at how awful your brother is being, it may be beneficial to look at things from his point of view. Maybe thinking about your early lives – what were your parents like with you both, what were they like with each other in front of you? – and thinking what life was like for you as small children, specifically what life was like for him after you came along if you are younger.

“It’s possible,” speculates Abse, “that your brother is projecting on to you a lot of infantile feelings which you’re having to carry for him. Maybe he had to grow up too quickly [when you were born, if he was born first]. He humiliates you and implies you are silly, maybe this is because he had to suppress his own childlike neediness.”

Indeed, in your longer letter it sounds as if the way your brother behaves towards you is very child-like: humiliating you, putting you down, the way that child siblings are together.

So your brother may be acting in this very way because he’s stuck in his childhood relationship with you. “Your brother has feelings he can’t show, or couldn’t show,” explains Abse, “so he has converted those feelings into something else.”

What can you do? Abse suggests trying to start a dialogue with him away from your mother – and others. I said a few months ago that sibling relationships can be transformed away from the parents.

Could you email your brother and say something like, “I’d like us to be friends,” and at some point ask him what his formative years were like? Honestly, if you’ve never done this with a sibling it is really illuminating! This may not work of course. “You are reflecting [on the relationship],” explained Abse, “he may not be.”

If he does not accept, I would pull back for a while. Find what makes you you, what gives you confidence – outside of family life and put your energies into friends. Be polite to him (and his wife sounds like she may be your greatest ally here). That way, when you do see him you will be more resilient. You can try again, but remember you can only control your 50% of the relationship with him. The rest has to be up to him.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 11 November 2016.