Posted by fxckfeelings on June 5, 2014Share This Post
The need to talk out a problem is one of those unfortunate instincts, like walking off an ache or steering out of the skid, that’s intended for survival but is more frequently sabotage. If somebody doesn’t want to talk out a conflict, either because they can’t own up to it or just don’t want to, you should resist the urge to press for negotiations and take a moment to ask yourself whether talking would actually help, or just stir up trouble. Most of the time, it’s better to shut up and make the best of flawed relationships, because usually, if somebody refuses to talk it out, they’re not being difficult, they’re doing you a favor.
I’ve been very supportive with my brother when he was first getting sober, which is why I was so surprised and hurt when he recently attacked the way I manage the family business, which he usually has very little to do with. He implied I’d been keeping him in the dark and cheating him out of his share. I kept my cool and decided to just let it lie and wait for him to come to me calmly, and now it’s a month later and he’s acting like nothing happened. Looking back, I know he’s done this before–attacked me verbally, then forgot about it entirely, including apologizing—but I don’t see how we can be friends if we don’t have a talk about this and try to clear the air. My goal is to try to get through to him this time, because I can’t tolerate this level of nastiness.
Since you know your brother’s habit of venting and vanishing all too well, perhaps it’s time to see your brother’s behavior as less temperamental, and more like a version of Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s not a nice habit, but it certainly isn’t personal.
After all, you and others have tried and failed to get him to see that he has nasty spells hurt people and drive them away. For you, it means you can never fully trust him or let down your guard. For him, it means he’s always going to be damaging relationships and there’s nothing that friends or shrinks can do about it. If he could keep his venom to himself, he would, but the venting is beyond his control.
So, regardless of your wishes, you can’t be your brother’s friend, protect him from himself, or fully protect yourself. Trying to get through to him will only do what it’s done before; frustrate you and possibly stir up more nastiness. That’s why it’s time to accept the fact that brothers often can’t be your friends. That doesn’t mean you can’t still value him, you just have to treat him carefully and with limited expectations.
When the next outburst strikes, keep doing what you did this time, and don’t talk to him directly when he’s making accusations. Avoid long or emotional conversations, use email, and make your responses polite, friendly, and formulaic, breaking out “thanks for sharing” if need be. If you think there’s a real issue, or a false issue that he won’t let go of, offer him a brief summary of your views, with a “glad you asked.”
Don’t defend yourself from allegations of improper conduct, other than to say you’re confident it’s not, avoiding prolonged explanation, because he’s free to think otherwise. I assume you’re confident his nasty moods don’t include lawyer-visiting impulses.
You’re entitled to feel hurt and angry, regardless of your knowing, rationally, that he’s just blurting out angry bullshit, as he always has. Just don’t share your feelings with him, because the air won’t clear, it will only get browner.
You can’t have a trusting relationship with your brother, ever, but you can have a well-managed relationship that keeps his bad spells from doing more damage. Respect your own strength and restraint, as well as your skills in dealing with him, and remind yourself that, while he does this crap to everyone, the one he does the most damage to is himself.
“I can’t help wanting to defend myself when my brother makes ridiculous accusations, but I know he acts like a jerk from time to time and is more of a jerk if he’s called on it. I will treat him positively but not get too close, no matter how much I would like to have a brother I could count on.”
I’ve been friends with my roommate for many years before we shared a lease, but even so, I wasn’t prepared for what a slob and space cadet she could be, leaving dishes everywhere, forgetting to lock the door, not paying bills until the last minute, etc. After a month or so, she agreed to sit down and listen to my complaints, which, thankfully, she took to heart. After a couple months of careful, considerate behavior, however, she gradually reverted to her old, crappy ways. I then told her we needed to have a serious talk about how this can’t go on, but she thinks it’d be better for her to just find a new place, which is bullshit. She obviously can change her behavior, she just doesn’t want to, and I don’t see why she thinks it’d be better to break the lease than to figure out a way to make this work. There’s so much I love about her that we shouldn’t ruin our friendship over the few things that drive me crazy. My goal is to get her to communicate with me so we can come to a solution and stay under one roof.
Your close friend, the slob, is right to think she’s not going to change her habits. Clearly, she has lots of reason to change, because she values your friendship and moving is a pain. On the other hand, she has tried and it hasn’t worked. She might seem like she’s being stubborn and vengeful, but if she can’t put your friendship ahead of her slobship, then she’s just being realistic about her limitations.
Sometimes careless behavior is manageable and sometimes not. You wish she could change because you like living together, but thinking she could do it is an indirect insult to yourself, because you’re implying that she would clean up her act if she valued you more as a friend. Remember the ways she has been a good friend, then stop insulting yourself and accept her inability to change her behavior in spite of wanting to.
The test of a friendship is not whether someone can change their behavior for you, particularly behavior they haven’t been able to change for anyone else. It’s whether you can accept the parts of them you don’t like that aren’t going to change. Given that she can’t change, talking out your problem is bound to make it worse.
For example, you could insist that she could improve if she wanted to, which implies that she’s a bad and uncaring friend. She’d probably respond by talking about something you do that makes her unhappy and makes her lack of self-control worse. You’ll either wind up as before, with a false agreement that will fall apart, or with even more hostility. You can see why she’d rather move than choose more conversation.
Instead, accept your friend’s decision as a step towards saving your friendship. She knows you can’t live together, but she wants to be friends as long as she doesn’t have to change herself to please you. You wouldn’t have tried living together if you weren’t good friends. Your friendship can be stronger, however, if you respect your mutual efforts to make rooming work, even if they weren’t successful, and the fact that you both care as much as ever, even if she’s as messy as she ever was or will be.
“I can’t look at dirty dishes in the sink without feeling my roommate wants me to be her maid, but I know she can’t change her domestic habits and I can’t change my reactions. Not living together is the best way to preserve our friendship.”
More advice from Dr. Lastname