DEAR CAROLYN: My brother is estranged from the rest of the family. I am the only one he will even talk to, and he does that only occasionally on the condition that I don’t tell my parents anything about his life. My parents want to know how he is doing, and frequently ask me what I have heard from him.
When I say my brother doesn’t want me to talk about it, my dad goes on manipulative rants about how painful this is for him, and how ridiculous I’m being. I’m sure it is painful, and I’ve encouraged my parents both to go to therapy to talk about it with someone who can help, but they aren’t biting. Is there any way to make my dad respect these boundaries?
Our parents aren’t any kind of a danger to him, but my brother feels that his childhood was abusive. I can’t agree, but I’m trying hard to be respectful about his feelings. But it’s making my interactions with my dad so awful that often when he calls I just don’t pick up because I can’t stand another guilt trip or interrogation.
Stuck in the Middle
DEAR STUCK: It’s your dad who is making these interactions “so awful,” isn’t it? Because he refuses to take your no, or your brother’s, for an answer?
Yet you’re taking the blame for your father’s badgering.
So please let’s reopen the topic you closed with your assertion that your childhood wasn’t abusive. Your father is grilling you, subjecting you to “manipulative rants,” negating you with words like “ridiculous,” guilting you. This isn’t hitting, but it’s abuse all the same – emotional abuse. If your father brought these same relentless, raised-voice, self-interested pressure tactics to your childhoods as he’s bringing now to this dispute, then it appears your brother’s claim is founded.
To be fair, your brother himself isn’t blameless. Angry after years spent under Daddy’s emotional control, he declares independence by … slapping emotional controls on you.
Step back and see that your distress isn’t about this one boundary you’re trying to maintain.
If you haven’t explored this in counseling yourself, I suggest you do. If you have, then I suggest a refresher on boundaries in “Lifeskills for Adult Children” by Janet Woititz and Alan Garner.
Either way, I also suggest a prepared line or two so you have the words handy when the pressure tactics start. “I will not talk about it/be in the middle of this,” backed by changing the subject and then, if needed, saying, “Excuse me,” and walking away.
And with your brother, I hope you talk more about what you can ask of each other (listening, support) and can’t (control of speech) – and why it’s so important that you at least make an effort to draw this line where it belongs.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com.