When Family Fails You

Me sitting on rock at beach


Q. Hi Bonnie, I hope you can help me with this. I’m 31 years old and single.  My dad died a few years ago and my mother hasn’t been well and is in and out of the hospital. I have no other family except for my older brother, and this is freaking me out. My brother and I have a terrible relationship and always have. We never got along, mainly because he always felt the need to put me down. He’s very cynical and very materialistic and never has a kind word for me. I do everything for my mother, but because he’s married he feels his duties are at home with his wife and child and not with his mother. Therefore all the worrying, consoling, errands, driving, visiting, decision-making with regards to my mom is left up to me. Besides this, my brother still puts me down for everything I do (or in his mind don’t do) and everything I am as a person, even my job as a paralegal. He also badmouths me to my mother. Believe it or not, my mother, who knows what he does and doesn’t do, still comes to his defense and is starting to believe his lies. Therefore, she has been taking all her fears and miseries out on me (the only person who is taking care of her) and telling me I do nothing and never come to see her! So now I’m doing all the work, and getting all the grief. I’m at my breaking point knowing that my mom may die in the near future and the only family I’ll have left is my cold-hearted brother. In fact, the thought of that rocks me to my core.


A. Isn’t it amazing how sibling rivalries so often follow us into our adult years? The reason for that is probably that as we grow older, we really don’t change all that much. It often feels like some sort of cosmic joke when two opposite personalities are born into the same family. But spiritually, I believe they are put there for one of two reasons: either to teach us how to work through conflicts, or in some cases, how to cut the ties that bind us to unhappiness. When you have a toxic person in your family, the best thing to do is to stay away and have as little contact as possible. Of course that is difficult right now with your mother being sick, but I would urge you to try it just the same. He is always going to be your older brother, and he’s probably never going to change, so unless you want to perpetuate an abusive situation, you have to distance yourself from it. Contrary to popular belief, blood isn’t always thicker than water; sometimes it’s friends that become our family in life. If you have a handful of good ones, you won’t be lonely or alone. As for the way your mother is treating you, I understand she is sick and probably afraid, but that doesn’t give her a license to abuse you either. You need to lovingly and firmly set down the ground rules and tell her if she continues to put you down and give you grief, you’ll end up spending less time around her instead of more.  Lastly, in between work and caretaking, it’s really crucial that you carve out some time for yourself, and some time to nourish the friendships I mentioned. Good friends will appreciate you for who you are and be there in the tough times, so they are every bit as important to your life as your responsibilities. Be good to yourself and do what makes you happy. Stay strong and never let anyone devalue you, and if they try, remember that’s your cue to either lay down the law—or simply walk away.

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