My family has always been a bit dysfunctional, but we’re still really close. While we didn’t get along when we were younger, as an adult I’ve developed a really strong relationship with my brother in particular. He is five years older than me but we both make sure to look out for each other and I often feel very protective of him. He had a rough time in his 20s figuring out what he wanted to do with his life but now he has a degree, is starting a great career and has found a sense of confidence in himself that makes all of us really proud of him.
As excited as I am for this new chapter of his life, I am also worried because he has been dating a woman for a while that no one in my family can deal with. It’s not just a personality clash, but we feel she is devious and takes advantage of my brother. There have been a few situations where it’s evident she can be a destructive force in his life but whenever we try to talk to him about it he shuts us down. None of us want to put him in a situation where he has to choose between his girlfriend and his family but it is increasingly difficult to be around them without letting her drama affect our lives as well. How does the rest of my family and I continue to have a relationship with my brother while keeping peace with his girlfriend?
Oh, siblings. They are some of the most complicated relationships within the family unit because half the time you can’t decide if you want to strangle or hug them. I’m glad to hear that you and your brother have managed to create a strong bond, because despite all the headaches, a good sibling relationship is one that will benefit you for the rest of your life.
Whenever people ask me about problems that involve a relationship triangle (even if it’s not romantic) my first piece of advice is try to look at the situation through the eyes of the person in the middle. They are the person in the most difficult position and the only way to come up with an amiable solution is to find the one that best fits their needs. They’re in the middle because there are two opposing sides that care deeply for them, so the most logical thing to conclude is that both sides would want – or at least be more willing to consider – the solution that best benefits the person you care about.
In your case that’s your brother. Whether you’d like to admit it or not, it sounds as if his girlfriend had something to do with this change he’s made in his life. Ultimately, he was the one who figured things out and got his life on track but she was there for the journey (or at least part of it depending on how long they’ve been dating). That shouldn’t go without credit. If your brother feels that she encourages him to be a better version of himself then it could explain why he wants to stay with her despite the negative things your family has noticed.
I’m glad I don’t have to explain that trying to make him choose between his girlfriend and your family is a bad idea. When you push someone to choose, even when you’re convinced it’s the right thing for them, all they do is end up resenting you for forcing the choice and most likely pick the opposite side. He does not want to choose as much as you don’t want to make him, remember that as you try to navigate the situation.
My first suggestion is to try and have an honest, all-out discussion with your family, your brother and his girlfriend to see if there is a way to find some middle ground. Sometimes things you have conceived as devious or malicious can be a misunderstanding and having an open conversation can help clear up those feelings. If that is not an option though, move on to stage two.
The best strategy when trying to handle family disputes is to establish boundaries. While you can’t alienate his girlfriend from your life completely without risking the relationship you have with your brother, you can create safe spaces. If being around her causes you to lose your temper or get aggravated then I suggest start with your home. That is your space and you are allowed to block out any influences you don’t want there. Note: if you make it a rule that his girlfriend is physically not allowed in your house that means mentally she isn’t allowed over either. So if your brother comes to visit without her that is not a time for you to try and bad-mouth her and convince him to leave her. If he has to keep her out of the house, so do you.
You are going to have to share space with her at some points though. There will be commonplace celebrations, birthdays, holidays etc. where you cannot exclude her. For these, practice being civil. Get yourself a peace mantra (my favorite is Gabrielle Bernstein’s “Peace begins with you”) that you can mutter under your breath to help stay calm if you feel your temper rising or when you feel the urge to say something antagonistic. You mentioned “a few situations” in your letter – make a rule that at these all-together gatherings that those situations are not to be discussed. If she’s spending time with your family, who she knows don’t have positive feelings about her, it’ll be easy for her to feel attacked and lash out so it’s your job to avoid topics that create extra friction between your two sides.
These are essentially coping methods for a situation that doesn’t have a pleasant answer. The only way to truly heal is to have that honest conversation, and for both sides to agree to do the work they need to do for the benefit of the person in the middle. I hope you all manage to get there.
* * *
Submit your questions, troubles, and predicaments to Cora via editor [at] intent [dot] com or in the comments section below. The Elephant in the Room advice column will be published every Friday – a blend of humor, compassion, and wisdom specially tailored for our Intent audience.