How can I make my brother treat my mother better?

He's being thoughtless and insensitive to my mother -- and to me, too!

Published July 5, 2006 11:15AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My brother is an amazing father. He has two well-mannered, respectful children, and they are the only grandchildren in our family so far. He and his wife have taught them to be kind and considerate, and it is obvious these children have learned these values well. So why is my brother not demonstrating these values to his own family?

My mother calls me often (I am the only member of the family who left our home town, and I now live 900 miles away) and complains about my brother and sister-in-law's treatment of her. Despite her offers, they rarely leave the kids with her; instead, they leave them with the other grandmother. On Mother's Day, they made plans with my mother, but soon plans changed and they did not inform her, so she was left sitting and waiting for them, wondering if they would show up. There are many other circumstances I could describe, but I think you get the point.

My mother is entrenched in Southern culture. She believes that you should always be polite, despite the circumstances. So she never says anything to my brother. Instead, she voices her hurt and anger to me.

I have remained out of the fray, more or less, until now. I have often wanted to say something to my brother on behalf of my mother, but I never have. Perhaps I too believe in politeness above all else, or perhaps I feel that it is not my place to speak for my mother. I have encouraged her to talk to him, but she doesn't want to cause trouble. Recently something happened that made me feel the way she must feel. I scheduled a trip to visit my family, and soon after that, my brother and his family scheduled their vacation at the same time. So, when I visit, they will not be there for most of it. From what I can gather, there is no real reason why they must take a vacation during that time. I know my brother did not intend to hurt me, but I am afraid that his complete disregard for my family is beginning to create irrevocable damage.

When I am home, I plan to speak to my brother about how his vacation plans hurt me. My question is, Do I bring all of my mother's grievances into this conversation? I know he is utterly oblivious to these problems because she refuses to speak to him about it. Is it my place to speak for her? I have tried to get her to talk to him, and I really don't see much hope in that endeavor. I feel that my brother needs to get the full impact of how hurtful he has been by consistently choosing his wife's family over our own, but I don't want to relay information when it isn't my place. I am not so good with confrontation myself, so the whole idea of this makes me very nervous. I love my brother, but I hate that he is hurting my mother so badly. What do I do?

Sister Stuck in the Middle

Dear Sister Stuck in the Middle,

What is it about this question that is causing me so much trouble? Is it because I'm identifying too strongly with your situation -- not that my situation is like yours, exactly, but maybe in some formal way it is?

Let me tell you. First I wrote this beautiful reply. It was lovely. It was all about how if your mom is a Southern mom, then maybe your brother's wife doesn't even know that your mom wants more attention because she's too polite to come out and say it. Maybe your brother, after growing up with your mom, has married someone markedly more direct and forthright than your mom, and the two aren't communicating well, and your brother doesn't really care because it's such a relief to live with someone who actually spells out for him what she's thinking and feeling and what she wants.

Anyway, I drew up elaborate speculations and also gave you some very practical down-to-earth advice, which is a bonus in this column. Not everybody gets the practical down-to-earth advice. Lots of people just get the elaborate speculations and have to make do.

So I did that and it was great.

I usually hit Save frequently, but sometimes if I am deep into an answer as I was with your question I will write for an hour or more, totally in the zone, and then arise as if in a trance and walk around the house looking for something that needs doing. I do this so I can reenter the world of things. Sometimes I don't know I'm actually done writing but just taking a pause. In this case there was indeed something that needed doing. I needed to replace the old downstairs bathroom outlet with a ground fault circuit interrupter-type outlet. I have done this type of work before. I had all the materials and thought it would only take half an hour or so, and it would take my mind off the writing long enough to get back to it with a fresh perspective (my perspective freshens rather quickly).

Years ago I had carefully traced and labeled all the circuits in the house and diagrammed them in a notebook. So I knew which circuit controlled that outlet.

I switched off the circuit that I thought controlled the bathroom outlet but it didn't go off.

When the circuit didn't go off I realized the electricians must have rearranged some of the circuits. I would have to find the breaker. There are many breakers.

I had made sure the computer was not on the circuit I thought the bathroom outlet was on. But when I realized the electricians had changed things, I forgot about the computer. I focused on finding the breaker that controlled the outlet. I started switching circuits off to find the one the bathroom outlet was on. I guess maybe I forgot to save my changes to your letter before I got up to install the GFCI. I guess my computer was on one of those circuits I was merrily switching off and on. I guess that writing disappeared.

You should have seen me when I realized what I had done.

If I were still a drinking man, there would have been an abrupt exit, a prolonged absence and a late-night return possibly accompanied by officers.

But I've had too much therapy. I just let it go.

The thing is, though, I started wondering: Where does writing go when it vanishes from a computer's RAM? Does it go into the atmosphere like an aerosol? Is there some trace, some vapor, some barely perceptible impression left on the air the way the pen leaves an impression on the page underneath? Could I find it somehow? The thought that it is completely gone is disturbing.

But winners have options, says my guru friend.

And there is a GFCI-type outlet in the downstairs bathroom now.

The other troubling thing is this: I know I was in the zone before: I was answering eloquently, with passion and interest and clarity. But I can't get back there. I was there and I lost it and it's gone into some cosmic realm of lost thoughts. I feel like my current answer to you is sort of bland and piecemeal.

Best as I can reconstruct it, the idea was this: What is most important in your relationship with your family is each one-on-one relationship with each family member.

That is the best way I can put it.

You may judge at a distance that family members are not acting as you think they should. That is normal. We all do that. But if you make that complaint the focus of your interaction with an individual member, your relationship will deteriorate. The more critical you are, the worse it will get.

So rather than let your relationship with your brother deteriorate by concentrating on your complaints, I suggest that you instead build and reinforce that relationship. Sure, if you were hurt because he made conflicting vacation plans, you can let him know. But there may have been a million reasons for it. So I wouldn't give him the third degree. Instead, work to maintain and reinforce your relationship with him.

That means being patient, understanding and kind. That means listening. That means trying to understand where your brother and other family members are coming from. Understanding them doesn't just mean understanding their thinking. It means understanding the pressures on them -- the job pressures, the other relationship pressures, and the pressure of their unmet and perhaps unexpressed needs. You may not know what those needs are, but you can bet that they are there and they are unexpressed and they are unmet. It's possible that one of those unmet needs is the need simply to be heard.

I'm just saying it's possible. So be kind to your brother and do some listening.

Maintain pleasant neutrality. Be interested in your brother's problems and in your mother's problems but do not attempt to fix them. Just try to keep a good relationship with each of them.

Another reason to try and maintain neutrality is this: Family systems theory indicates that shifting alliances in a family can have unintended consequences. In the language of Bowen theory, you are now in a triangle with your mother and your brother. You and your mother are insiders and your brother is the outsider. If you try to draw your brother closer to your mother, the alliance may shift: You may end up as the outsider.

There are other triangles too. Your brother and his wife may be "insiders" in a triangle with your mother being the outsider. If you approach your brother and try to draw him closer to his mother, his wife may be threatened and create a triangle with her husband in which you are the outsider.

What I'm saying is these family things can get wacky. The best thing to do is just try to keep a good relationship with each individual.

Damn, I wish I had my notes! (Hope this helps anyway.)

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