Not all advice need be professional. Sometimes your problems merit a bit of unvarnished honesty from a dude equipped with nothing more than a computer and a conscience. Luckily for you, I’m that guy. Welcome back to Tough Love. (If you’d like to seek my advice, email me at [email protected])
Today we’re discussing how to negotiate a reunion with a family member you’d rather avoid at all costs. What do you do when you’re going to have to spend multiple days with this person? Can you avoid them? Should you?
Note: I’m a columnist, not a therapist or certified healthcare professional. My advice should be interpreted with that in mind. If you have a problem with anything I say, file a complaint here. Now, let us begin.
For the last seven years, I have been happily estranged from my brother. I was the executor of our parents’ estate, and he cut off contact with me over a decision I made. I have been so happy not to have to deal with him anymore. For years I worked hard to maintain a relationship with him out of respect for my mother despite my brother being a rageaholic narcissist. His hair-trigger temper had everyone walking on eggshells. His MO was to play my sister and me against each other — although we both had his number and would make jokes to each other about how she was saddled with him and vice versa when he would cut off contact with one of us and try to ingratiate himself with the other.
My last encounter with him was when he was screaming at me that I am a “liberal” and to never to talk to him again. Because he has many weapons, I slowly closed the door on him and haven’t spoken to him since. My lawyer managed all contact with him to settle the estate, and I’ve been so relieved not to have to deal with him. I don’t like him. I don’t enjoy his company and see no reason to try to repair this relationship. I don’t wish him ill, but I really don’t want anything to do with him.
However, my older son has maintained a relationship with him, which is fine — he’s an adult and he makes his own choices. However that son is getting married and will undoubtedly invite my brother to his destination wedding. The thought of having to spend a week around my arsehole brother sets my teeth on edge. I won’t tell my son and his fiancée what to do, but I desperately want to enjoy this weeklong celebration. Having my idiot brother there will assuredly cast a pall over the party.
He wasn’t invited to my other son’s wedding because he was a tremendous jerk to his nephew, who also wants nothing to do with him. But my brother doesn’t have the capacity to learn or understand or apologise. Despite being in occupationally provided therapy for decades (he is a first responder), he weaponizes therapeutic insights and terms to absolve himself of any responsibility for his abhorrent behaviour. It makes no sense to engage him on any level as far as I’m concerned. But destination weddings throw everyone together for a few days of intense interaction. I don’t see how I can avoid him.
How do I handle this? Do I grit my teeth, ask to be housed as far away as possible from my brother and try to minimise our interactions? Do I stay offsite? Walk the other way when I see him coming? My brother has no self-control and I can imagine all sorts of scenarios where he tries to engage me, bait me and otherwise initiate interaction of some kind. He could truly disrupt the wedding — as he did our mother’s funeral when he sulked and stalked off in a huff over some minor comment a cousin made to him. He has also spoiled several holidays by throwing wild accusations at my sister and stalking out in a fury.
So how I do I successfully negotiate this forced proximity?
Done With Him
Dear Done With Him,
I can certainly understand why you’re “done with him,” as your alias makes clear. This dude sounds like pure chaos; someone who’s perpetually aggrieved, but has never truly reckoned with his own inner-torment (even if he has gone to therapy). Instead, he hurls his anguish onto other people in the form of psychological abuse. No wonder you want to avoid him — but how?
The good news (sort of) is, you’re dealing with someone who has the emotional maturity of a child. It also sounds like you’ll have the refuge of a family that largely feels the same way you do. Presuming everyone in your family is as rational and clear-eyed as you are, it’s safe to presume that nobody is going to defend the raving narcissist looking to spoil a joyous event.
It sounds like your brother thrives on chaos, which is one of the hallmarks of a narcissist, as you perceptively put it. One question to ask yourself: How many people are actually willing to put up with his bullshit or even come close to sympathizing with his bullshit? He’ll find few, if any, allies on this trip, I imagine. You’ve mentioned his history of sulking and storming off when his tactics fail him at family events. Who’s to say that he won’t resort to his usual histrionics and just bail out on things when nobody feeds into his chaos?
Nobody wants a dramatic bust-up to happen at a destination wedding, especially when everyone is presumably hanging out on the same turf for a number of days. But if he storms off like a toddler, is it really such a bad situation in the grand scheme of things? He’ll be gone, after all.
Moreover, I wouldn’t advise you to stay elsewhere, unless you’d otherwise be sharing a house with your brother for that week. As long as your safety isn’t jeopardized, don’t let him have the upper hand in any conceivable sense. This is your son’s wedding, and from what it sounds like, your brother is sort of the guest of dishonor. He got a sympathy invite. He probably feels hurt and insecure that your other son didn’t invite him to his wedding. Let him feel hurt and insecure; his loathsome reputation is nobody’s fault but his own.
One technique that’s good to keep in your back pocket is called grey rocking — it’s when you act as passively and uninterestingly as possible to avoid feeding a narcissist’s desire for conflict. It calls for short, one-word answers and the aversion of eye-contact. It’ll probably drive him crazy, but, as you know, he’ll be in a position where acting up will just dampen the mood for everyone, which means nobody will stand for his reckless outbursts.
In your general interactions with him — if you absolutely have to communicate — just kill him with kindness, even if he tries to provoke you. Responding to provocation with neutrality can be really vexing, even confounding, to the aggressor. Why not throw him off guard? If it comes down to it and you need the help of people in your close family orbit, I’m sure one of your sons would be willing to intervene. In the meantime, don’t trouble yourself thinking about him too much. He doesn’t sound worth it.
That’s it for this week, but there’s plenty more Tough Love to go around. If you’d like to be featured, please get in touch by describing your dilemmas in an email to me (please include “ADVICE” or “TOUGH LOVE” in the subject line). Or, tweet at me with the hashtag #ToughLove. Serious inquiries only: Don’t email or message me if you don’t want to be featured in the column. Disclaimer: I can’t respond to everyone, so please make sure you outline a specific problem in your note. I won’t respond to generalizations, like someone “being mean” or vague descriptions of “relationship problems” without any concrete examples of what’s ailing you. Until next time, take care of yourselves!