My brother won't take responsibility for himself

He's delivering pizzas and we've got money -- but he's always begging for more.

Published November 7, 2006 11:34AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm hoping you can help me with one particular matter in my life: my relationship with my brother.

When we were growing up (raised by a single father), he was the popular one, with charisma to spare and tons of friends. I was the geeky one, with my nose constantly in a book. I always envied his skills with people and how easy it was for him to make friends. It seemed like he could do anything with his life.

Now that we're adults, things have changed between us. In every other part of my life, things are really good. Last year, I married the love of my life, and I'm expecting our first baby. I worked in the technical field for years (in a financially rewarding but soul-deadening job), but when my husband and I got engaged I quit to go back to school and work on a novel, which had been a dream of mine for a long time. We live a fairly normal, upper-middle-class suburban life. I am grateful every day for the opportunity to live the way I do, with enough money to pay the bills, living with a man I adore.

My brother and his wife have two children (ages 6 and 5). She's a receptionist, he delivers pizzas. Things never seem to go right for them financially, and he comes to me regularly for financial help. Since their oldest child was born they've always lived near someone in the family whom they can look to for financial help. First, they moved back to our home state to be near our father, and borrowed thousands from him until they were finally cut off. Next, with her parents, same thing. Now, they've moved near me.

They live in a small apartment that is always filthy. (Think bags of garbage piled up in corners -- they are both slobs.) My brother applies for jobs, sometimes gets them, but then gets fired within a few months. He is also morbidly obese, and smells bad a lot of the time. (I'm not sure that he realizes this.) He uses that infamous charisma to charm better tips out of his pizza delivery customers.

He has always come to me for financial help, but it seems to have gotten more frequent since I met my husband three years ago. (There is a perception in the family that he's rich.) Nothing ever seems to go right for my brother and his family, and they come to us for help every time a job is lost, every time a car breaks down, and every Christmas for gifts (e.g., "our kids won't have a Christmas if you don't help us").

Both my brother and his wife are financially irresponsible and blame anyone but themselves when things go wrong. I believe that the choices that we make determine the life that we live. I worry about his family a great deal (especially his two kids), and I often agonize over how to help, when to help, and when my helping might be enabling bad choices.

Since I've been pregnant, I've made a conscious choice to back away from the relationship because of the stress it was causing me. My pregnancy has been difficult, and I felt like I needed to put the needs of myself and my baby first. So, the last time my brother called me for a "loan" -- this time they had run out of money and couldn't feed their kids until next payday -- I gave him the money, but told him not to ask anymore. He hasn't spoken to me since. He also claims that I once told him that I "want to do anything I can to help you," which apparently he translated as regular loans for life. By the way, each time this happens he'll claim to be able to pay us back at the next paycheck, but just ignores us for a few weeks until he feels safe that it won't be brought up.

I would do anything I could to help him (either financially or otherwise), but I want to be sure it is actually helping and not just enabling poor decisions. I never try to give him advice (he becomes instantly furious), but I think he should listen to someone about how to improve things for himself and his family. However, I'm aware of the socioeconomic gap between us, and the last thing I want to do is condescend to him. I rack my brain for ways to actually help without being patronizing. For example, my husband and I recently set up a small college fund for each of their kids, and we'll put their birthday and Christmas money into it. At least they'll have something when the time comes.

Do you have any insight into what else I can do? I love my brother, and it breaks my heart to see the situation he's in, but I also believe he's in it because of the choices he's made. I've tried to apply the Buddhist teachings of compassion and detachment to this relationship in my life, which has helped some, but that doesn't tell me what I should do the next time he comes to me for help.

Love the Brother, Hate the Begging

Dear Love the Brother,

In coming to a balanced and measured approach to your brother, you may be having difficulties withdrawing your support because at some point in your earlier life you did assume responsibility for him. Perhaps that is what he is saying when he accuses you of seeming to go back on a pledge. Yes, somewhere in the past it is likely that you took care of him. He took that as a pledge that you would always take care of him.

The mother being absent, it's understandable that you may have been cast in the role of caretaker. What else were you supposed to do? You probably responded to the challenge admirably, taking care of your brother when necessary. He was an innocent. It was not his fault that he needed to be taken care of.

But he is no longer an innocent. If he fails now, he fails as an adult man. You are no longer morally obligated to protect him. He must protect himself and his family, as you must protect yourself and your family. If you could protect everyone that would be great. But you cannot. If you try, you will fail, and you will deprive those closest to you of what they need from you. So you have no choice, really, and you know it. You have to back away, and you are doing so. Good for you. It is very hard to do, and there is no clear map. You must find your way -- moving backward, as it were, in the dark.

Being taken care of, he did not grow up. He has to grow up. Growing up is painful. Perhaps he faced some unresolved traumas in his teenage years that are still keeping him trapped. This seems very sad because when a charmer loses his outward charm, there must be a kind of panic, suffused with self-loathing. You say he is stinking and obese. That is so sad. What were his dreams? Whatever dreams he had, he must still have them in some way.

I, too, am groping along in the dark: What is the story here? You love him and want to help him but he takes too much and you feel used; and he becomes angry when you try to talk to him about it. I get the feeling that in some way he is taking vengeance, that this is an aggressive and retaliatory kind of failure. Does that sound right? In its extravagance, his failure seems like a rebuke: Here is what I will do with the charming kid you remember: I will make a mockery of him, as if to make a mockery of your love, because it wasn't enough and will never be enough! I want my mommy!

I don't know. I am relying so much on feeling and intuition.

Two more concrete thoughts that may or may not be helpful: One, he acts like an addict. Does he have a history of drug abuse or alcohol? Where is the money going? Two, He needs a budget. Would he absolutely refuse your help if you offered to draw up a budget for him? (Probably. But it's what he needs.)

At any rate, you are doing the right thing in trying to back away and stop propping him up. Moreover, even if it were the wrong thing, it would be necessary in a practical sense. As you begin to raise a family of your own, you are going to need his help, not the other way around. I don't know of any painless or easy way to change the terms of his dependency. When someone has been propped up a long time, when he has developed survival techniques that work, and that are tied to deep feelings of insecurity and family love, and then someone stops cooperating, it's hard.

You know, as you say, compassion and detachment are key. Also key is understanding the drama you are in: What part your character is playing, what his gestures mean, what the play is about. I cannot avoid thinking that his relationship with his father, and the absent mother, are part of it.

There is no precise route to follow. I hope, however, that feeling your way through this, understanding what his deep emotional assumptions have been, understanding how dependent he has become and facing some of the pain that this is about -- the absent mother, the failure to charm the world, the difficulty perhaps in concentrating and applying himself, the overwhelming need for female approval and acceptance -- all these things may help you a little.

The bottom line is that, yes, he has made his choices, and you are not responsible for him. He's a big, grown-up pizza delivery man with a wife and two children. He has to take care of himself and them. You can't ensure that he does that.

You may have to let him fail. Failure may be his only teacher.

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