Dear Dr. Michelle:
My older brother, who is 54, has a long history of mental health problems. This has led to a lot of family conflict over the years. He will come in and out of our lives and will accuse family members of things that make no sense. Issues don’t really get resolved because whenever we try to discuss the problems, everybody gets emotional and it seems like it makes things worse. My brother recently reached out to me after not speaking to me for two years and I don’t know if I should respond to him like nothing ever happened, ignore him, or confront him about his past behavior. We are beyond working out old history.
It is good that you recognize that your brother’s mental health issues play a part in the family conflict; this certainly helps keep things in perspective because at the end of the day, you have no control over how your brother is impacted by his mental health and as a result, how he treats you.
You mentioned that you do not want to try and fix the past. Sometimes this is the best choice unless all family members are committed to working together and addressing the issues in formal therapy.
Fortunately, you do not need to heal old wounds to reengage in your relationship with your brother. How you choose to respond to him depends on what you are trying to accomplish in terms of your relationship and what you can handle emotionally.
Stay True to Yourself
The key to knowing how to handle your relationship with your brother is to be true to yourself about what you need in order to engage with him in a healthy way. In other words, put yourself first. Make sure you can live with your decision without regrets, without resentment, and without sacrificing your own convictions and boundaries.
For example, if in order to move on, you need to him to talk to you about the two-year estrangement then you are essentially putting your need to express yourself as the priority. That can be a very healthy step, just make sure you are choosing to express yourself because you need to do this for you, not because you expect a certain response from him. Don’t expect him to respond in a way that will make you feel better and don’t expect him to take responsibility for his part in your negative interactions. Based on what you have described, your brother may not be capable of responding appropriately or meeting your needs for a healthy relationship.
If you are not capable of reengaging in a relationship with him unless he takes responsibility or changes his ways, it might be better for you to not reengage. You would be making this decision to protect yourself or because you need a relationship with which he may not be capable.
Do not choose to ignore him if the reason to do so would be to punish him or as some form of retaliation. If you feel your only recourse is to ignore him, it might be worth considering writing to him and letting him know you are not ready to reengage in the relationship, and that you will reach out if you ever change your mind. Sometimes it is better to be direct and honest about cutting ties than to ignore someone.
How to Navigate A New Relationship
The last option you identified was to reengage as if the last two years never happened. There is certainly nothing wrong with choosing this scenario. Family members do not have to resolve past issues in order to maintain a healthy relationship. If you can truly let the past go, you don’t expect your relationship to be any different than what it has been in the past, and you are able to manage your relationship without sacrificing your own safety or personal convictions, then reengaging with caution is a viable option. If you choose this option, here are some tips to help you navigate the relationship:
- Manage your expectations. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Do not expect your brother to behave any different than he has in the past. If you are prepared for this, then you won’t be surprised if he attempts to engage in conflictual and accusing behavior.
- Be clear about what type of relationship you are willing to have. Do you need a deep and honest connection or are you willing to have a superficial, and amicable relationship that might require you to ignore his negative behavior to avoid an argument? Maybe you need to treat him like a neighbor or a distance relative, letting the little things go to keep the peace.
- Be clear about your boundaries. Be ready to say no or to challenge him if he becomes inappropriate. Decide now how you will respond to him if he treats you the same way he has in the past. Make sure you are not extending yourself beyond your own comfort level.
- Manage trust. While you are getting comfortable with reengaging, be careful about any demands or requests he makes of you – such as requesting money or wanting to move in with you. Wait for your trust in him to build before extending promises or commitments that cannot be undone.
Whatever choice you make, be prepared for how your brother will respond so that you can manage your own emotional reaction. If you choose to confront him about the past, or if you tell him that you are not ready to reengage, then know he may not respond very kindly. Be prepared to let such negativity go and remind yourself that his behavior is reinforcement for why you made the decision to not reengage.
If you can reengage with no strings attached, take the relationship slow and put your needs first so that you are ready to handle his ups and downs should they continue as they have in the past. Think about how you will respond if conflicts start to brew and decide now how you will respond if your brother ends up cutting ties again.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.