Question: I am in my seventies and I’m writing with regard to my brother, who is a few years younger than me. He is single and to put it bluntly - he is a very difficult man. He is a bully and a victim and sees only his own point of view. Every time I have a conversation with him, I leave it feeling upset. Interacting with him is changing who I am. I have become very defensive with him and I find myself snapping - which makes me feel unhappy with myself. I have always included him in our family celebrations, but I’m considering not inviting him for Christmas this year. I find as I get older, I am less willing to allow him to ruin my time with my family. My question is, should family ties over-ride everything else, or can I cut ties?
A. Congratulations you are in the process of cultivating healthy boundaries. This will be a pivotal moment in changing the quality of your relationship with yourself and everyone you choose to have in your life.
I always wondered how useful the ‘blood is thicker than water’ argument was, to me, it seemed to encourage putting up endlessly with inappropriate and dysfunctional behaviour. If you wouldn’t put up with this from anyone else, why would you let yourself be continually subjected to emotional ransom by a family member? I think it’s time for this unhealthy rhetoric to stop.
When I think of healthy boundaries, how and with whom you spend your time and energy with would be the cornerstone and a great starting point to draw your line in the sand on unacceptable behaviour. It seems from what you are saying that this has been happening for many years and consistently at family celebrations that you are hosting. One gentle tip, you are in charge of who you invite. Would you invite anyone else who ruined many important family occasions?
The one sideways positive is, that it sounds like your brothers’ behaviour is consistent. How is this a positive, it will help you take the next necessary steps. Frustration and anger are good behavioural motivators. Also, when it’s consistently negative it will reduce disappointment as you know what to expect, however you may feel angry at yourself as you allow him to trespass on your boundaries.
You say your brother is a bully and a victim. This difficult combination disempowers you and strips away your ability to stand up for yourself. Your defensiveness I would imagine, is as a result of feeling ‘attacked’ if even verbally, which psychologically pacts a life-long punch. Often chipping away at your confidence and leaving you doubting your own emotions.
Have you ever had a calm discussion with your brother where you have outlined specific events or situations that you have found upsetting? If you haven’t, I would suggest writing this out to yourself first. Bullies can make conversations very one sided and minimise your feelings about what has happened.
You have two options: Create and maintain healthy boundaries with clearly defined rules about what you will and won’t accept or cut ties.
If we look to option one, after writing out the various times you experienced difficulty with your brother, I need you to identify what you will not accept going forward and why. He may or may not agree with you, the difference here, is going forward, he will be very clear about what you are not going to accept and the subsequent consequences. Often people play ignorant until it is named explicitly. Therefore the consequences need to be laid out for example ‘If you speak to me badly, aggressively, turn up late or change the tone by being argumentative with me or my family I cannot and will not continue having a relationship with you’. Sometimes, stating that you have ‘had enough’ showing where the line is and that if he crosses ‘said’ line that you will cut ties.
You are in your seventies, so this is not an impulsive reaction. I really like that you are valuing your time and want to enjoy what would hopefully be happy occasions. However, when someone repeats behaviour with unfortunate consistency the anxiety is anticipatory and the dread probably builds weeks in advance. I do believe in a zero tolerance with bullying,
Bullying behaviour is manipulative and draining. Your energy is a great indicator to the health of a relationship and consistency is the key here. If you consistently walk away feeling bad, upset and most importantly emotionally tired and then your needs are not being met and lines have been crossed. If the relationship is one sided, then the emotional drain game is fully operational.
By deciding to value yourself and your family’s time and energy you have started putting you first.