I’m in my 40s, and have two brothers. Our mother, despite a difficult marriage and divorce, is happily married for the second time. Unfortunately, a huge rift has opened up between my two brothers and I don’t know what to do about it. My older brother has two children; he and his wife have been undergoing multiple rounds of IVF to produce his third (her second) child, sadly without success. A year ago, my younger brother announced that he and his wife were expecting their second child. My elder brother and his wife did not respond to this news, and have gradually disengaged from them completely, refusing to see their daughter. This has been incredibly difficult for us all.
My mother is distraught and has tried through multiple channels (verbally, by text and even a lengthy but measured letter) to persuade my elder brother to build bridges and visit his niece, who is not well. His response was to shout her down and ban her from seeing his daughters. He has never been very rational and has done this before. My younger brother is so hurt by his brother’s reaction to his daughter, that he will not now engage with him, either.
I feel the onus is on me to try to heal this rift, which keeps me awake at night. I also feel the need to defend my mother and call my brother out on his behaviour. But if I do he will cut me out, and my children, too, which would be incredibly sad for the little cousins. I just want to make everything OK.
I know you do. But you can’t, unfortunately. You’re over-involved in this situation. That isn’t meant as a criticism; nearly every family has a “fixer” who makes everything OK, and that’s fine – up to a point. But when you can’t fix everyone, it’s time to step back.
Vasia Toxavidi, a psychotherapist who specialises in interpersonal relationships (bacp.co.uk), picked up on this when I shared your letter, saying: “Are you the person who always builds bridges in your family?” We noted that you were the metaphorical and literal child in the middle and this may have been the behaviour pattern growing up, too – sorting things out between your older and younger brothers. Your letter also read as if you felt you were an ambassador for your mother – but you are not. In fact, you are not responsible for, or in charge of, any of them. Toxavidi said: “It seems as if you take on too much responsibility, and the more we do that for others, the less we let them take responsibility for themselves.”
If this is a pattern in your family, your brothers may well know they can behave the way they want and you will make everything OK, or try to. Time to stop.
You say the onus is on you to heal the rift; think about why and when that became your role. What has made you feel like this, and what would happen if you left them all to it? That doesn’t mean you can’t be kind and supportive but, for whatever reason, your brothers don’t seem to want to get on at the moment, and you can’t remedy that. The IVF may have brought to a head a situation that has been brewing for a long time. “IVF is not a subject that everyone understands,” Toxavidi explained. “There’s a lot of loss, pain – even envy – that’s difficult for others who have not been through it to understand.”
I’m sorry your niece isn’t well, but you didn’t mention how your mother or younger brother had supported your older brother and his wife through IVF. They may be now projecting how they feel they have been treated on to the rest of you (which is completely wrong, of course). There’s also no real expression of how you feel, other than stuck in the middle with a need to sort things out. Your every emotion is filtered through how it is for others.
Concentrate on your relationships with your mother and brothers. The moment you are tempted to go into “party line” mode, stop and bring it back to you and that other person, not how it feeds back to the others. That is really all you can do. It’s up to your elder brother if he wants to see his brother and his mother. This doesn’t stop you being a good daughter/sister/aunt, by the way. But it does stop you being a pinball shunted between these warring factions.
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