My brother is the real-life Grinch. He mopes through life and takes pleasure in putting others down to try and make them feel stupid and small. Especially me.
So the idea of having an honest conversation with Jim about our relationship was unfathomable.
But here we were, face-to-face, and I somehow broached the topic.
It was our cousin Tommy’s wedding in 2016. I sat next to Jim at a big round banquet table, alone, while everyone else congregated on the dance floor or at the bar. Now was my chance. I turned to him and said, “I want to talk to you about something. Can we have a conversation?”
I told him I didn't like the way our relationship was progressing and I wanted to change things moving forward. I told him I’d always looked up to him. At the end, I told him I loved him. I said it through tears. It was very hard to say those words but I wanted him to know. In the end my brother responded genuinely.
“I’ll try to be less of an asshole.”
I responded, “And I’ll try not to take things so personally.” Then I asked if we could hug and leaned over and gave him a hug.
I thought it was going to be a turning point in our relationship, but I was wrong.
Three years later he spoiled my wedding experience. And two years after that I wouldn’t hear from him when my son was born.
Familial relationships can be hard to navigate, especially if they’re toxic. There are three ways to react when you feel attacked by a family member: Snap, Ignore, or be Vulnerable. The only way for change to happen is for both parties to be vulnerable at the same time. And that may or may not ever happen.
SNAP, IGNORE, OR BE VULNERABLE
In our middle school days, Jim and I were always in the Snap phase. Whenever one of us would say something nasty, the other would snap back with something nastier. “God, Charlie, you’re so dumb.” I’d sling back, “Yea, well you’re gay.”
I reached a point in my 20s where I didn’t want to fight anymore. It all started with therapy. I walked into that first session not even thinking about my relationship with my brother because I thought it was totally normal, and walked out understanding it was totally toxic. Even though I was aware of the problem, I didn’t know how to fix the dysfunctional dynamics with my bully brother.
There was only one way to transition out of the Snap phase. Instead of engaging in our usual insecure ping pong insults, I simply ignored him. This was what Mom told me to do ever since we were kids. She never encouraged us to have an actual conversation and address our conflicts. “Just ignore him. He can’t keep going if you don't say anything back.”
This worked. Temporarily. I refused to stoop to his level. I’d leave the room when he said something mean. Or I’d laugh and feign indifference while rage coursed through my veins.
We were attending another cousin’s wedding in 2012 when he really pissed me off. I’d been writing a personal blog for a year, mostly as a way for family and friends to keep tabs on me since my cross-country move from Jersey to Cali. I received encouraging support from everyone back home, but my brother never spoke of it - until now. He announced to our cousins that my older sister Alexis should be the one writing a blog because, “she’s actually funny.”
I bit my tongue and said nothing. And the callous comments stopped.
Ignoring him, then, was a big improvement over making my own unapologetic announcement that Jim was a fucking dick and could go to Hell.
While the Ignore Phase allows you to avoid spiteful and petty fights, it doesn’t take the weight off your toxic relationship. I was overly anxious without Jim even being in the same state. I dreaded family gatherings. I played out hypothetical scenarios in my head and tried to plan what I would say based on all the things he might possibly say.
Sometimes when things feel easy it’s actually because we don’t allow ourselves to feel them at all.
One day I was venting to my friend about Jim and she suggested I just talk to him about it. In my head this was a crazy idea. But the more I listened the more I realized it was the mature, responsible thing to do. By facing this head on and addressing the problem, I could do my part instead of just living with anxiety forever. So even though I balked at the mere mention of having a conversation with my brother about my feelings, I was compelled to do it.
By transitioning to the Vulnerable Phase and confronting my brother at Tommy’s wedding, I led with love instead of anger for the first time. Opening that door allowed Jim to ever-so-slightly loosen his grip on anger, too. He didn’t snap and he didn’t ignore me. He got a little defensive and pushed back on some of it, but that was fair. It was a two-way street and I had to take ownership, too. So I apologized for all the years of trying to press his buttons.
Confronting him and being vulnerable was scary. It felt like getting on stage to perform for thousands of people. I was terrified, nervous, and couldn't stop thinking about it in the months leading up to it, but after it was over I was relieved and proud of myself.
Even though I was glad I made the effort, things shot right back to normal. After Jim went back to Ohio and I went back to North Carolina, it was as if we never had the conversation. He wouldn’t return a simple text message. And two years later when I got engaged and asked him if he could take the lead on a grocery list for my family’s villa, he was appalled that I asked him to take on such a responsibility.
I told him not to worry about it and didn’t ask for anything else in regard to the wedding. I just hoped he’d be nice and pleasurable for the actual week-long event.
Boy was I wrong.
Jim arrived at my villa in Puerto Rico with his new girlfriend, Vanessa. It was my first time seeing him in three years and he was aggravated. He made a huge scene when he realized he was staying in a villa with our family instead of my friends and insisted I told him otherwise.
Jim was a Grinch all week. He complained about food at the events he went to, and didn’t even show up to the events he RSVP’ed yes to. On my actual wedding day, I thought, Maybe this one time in my entire life he’ll say something nice to me. But only after I told him he looked nice did he reply, “You look okay.”
By the end of the week I felt drained. Our wedding was supposed to be my husband and me surrounded by our loved ones, but my brother was a dark cloud. As my husband and I left Puerto Rico, I decided I had put in enough effort with my brother. I was done.
It felt different than it had in the past. For so long I desperately wanted to have a better relationship with him. But I finally realized I couldn’t force this on my own. It takes two.
It was sad. It sucked. I did my best to show him I was ready to take our relationship to a more loving place. But Jim wasn’t ready.
Vulnerability set me free. Like putting in contacts for the first time, it was suddenly clear that the people who loved and nurtured me were the people who deserved my energy. There was simply no more space for my brother. When you put down your defenses, you learn that even if it doesn’t lead to a recovered relationship, it leads to a resolution.
THE FINAL PHASE
For some relationships, letting down your guard is enough to create a breakthrough. That was certainly my hope. You have to try. You have to transition out of the Snap and Ignore phases and be Vulnerable. Maybe it will be a turning point, or maybe you will gain clarity and move on. Either way, you can stop living your life full of fear, anxiety, and anger, and live one with acceptance, freedom, and openness.
Jim and Vanessa were recently engaged. Another wedding is on the horizon. Maybe my brother’s heart will grow three times its current size and he’ll carve the Roast Beast for all us Who’s down in Whoville. Maybe.
But regardless of the changes my brother does or doesn’t make, there’s no longer any burden on me. The anxiety and dread of seeing Jim has not fully dissipated, but it’s lessened. When he says something hurtful, it feels less of an attack against me and more a display of his own insecurities.
I don’t need to Snap, Ignore, or be Vulnerable with my brother next time I see him. I can just be.
Much thanks to Michael Dean’s Writing Studio for feedback on multiple drafts of this essay.