Ask Polly: How Do I Deal With My Nasty Brother?

He needs to put on his big-boy pants.
He needs to put on his big-boy pants. Photo: Corbis

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Dear Polly,

With the holidays once again approaching, I thought it may be a good time to get your advice about family obligations. I have several siblings and we currently all live within half an hour of each other and my parents. My brother has long been the golden child within our family, and has gotten married and provided my parents with their only grandchild. They love being grandparents, and live for the next photo or chance to see their grandson. My sister-in-law is great, and we all enjoy having her as part of the family. She honestly fits in so well (from our perspective, at least). Of course, like any family, there are dramas and issues, but nothing extreme or what I would consider major problems. My brother is the only one of us who is married right now.

When the holidays come around, my brother says that it’s too far to travel to see both our family and his in-laws (it would be about half an hour each way). I want to be respectful of their time and priorities, but I see friends travel much farther to be part of both sides’ celebrations. My parents have offered to host our holiday celebrations on other days, but that was rejected because my brother has too many other activities around the holidays. When it is our year to have their presence, they often stay for less than two hours due to a variety of reasons (like their child’s sleep schedule or other obligations they may have). I honestly cannot remember a holiday where we’ve had significant time visiting with them. Sometimes we’ll attend my brother’s in-law celebrations just to be able to spend time with them.

They also keep their distance the rest of the year. Our best chance at spending time with our nephew is by offering to babysit for them. But it’s particularly hard on my parents around the holidays, when their biggest wish is to spend time with all their children and their grandchild. My parents have an (unrealistic, of course) vision of a Norman Rockwell–type of Christmas, with everyone bonding around a fireplace and tree lights twinkling. Sure, we’ll never have that, but couldn’t we have a modern, imperfect version?

I try to put myself in my brother’s shoes, and I do understand to a certain degree. They want to be their own nuclear family, with their own activities and without obligations to anyone else. But I also see how brokenhearted my parents are when we get blown off (what seems like) every single year. And, let’s be honest: Who knows how much longer my parents will be with us? Would it be that difficult for my brother to make an effort while they are still here?  If it were just me, I would say f**k them and their selfishness and move on (I’m excellent at disengaging, but that’s a letter for another day). But it’s hard to see my parents’ disappointment and sadness.

Am I being unreasonable? My other siblings feel the same way that I do, but we’re all afraid to say anything because we don’t want to jeopardize the small opportunities my parents have now. I look toward other people’s families and it seems — from the outside — that many are able to find ways to appease both sides, even when the distance is greater or it’s far more complicated. Is there a compromise? Or do we just accept being the obligation they can’t wait to get over with?


Dear Disappointed,

I’m a real battle-ax about this issue. I live 3,000 miles away from my mother and sister. My brother lives near me in California. My sister and her family do not like to fly to California. My mother flies out once a year. I fly my entire family back to North Carolina each summer and every other Christmas. It is exorbitantly expensive to do this. My brother flies out every other summer and every other Christmas.

I want my sister to put her family on a plane and fly to California every other year. I want my mom to commit to visiting us twice a year, spring break and Thanksgiving, or October and every other Christmas when we’re not there. I want my brother to go to the beach in North Carolina every single year, so everyone is together no matter what for that week. I want a lot of things. Still, everyone does their best. We see each other in spite of various personality flaws, major costs, and serious inconveniences.

So when I read that your brother lives a half-hour away from your parents, I want to get on a plane to his house, wherever it is, and knock on the front door and when he opens it, say, “You are being a dick. And when your parents die, you’re going to struggle mightily with what an asshole you were to them in their last remaining years on earth.”

It kills me when new families form their own little worlds and then back up each other’s worse impulses. “I don’t like my mother’s tone when she talks about our kid.” “Yeah, me neither, let’s just make an appearance at your parents’ house and then spend the rest of the time with my parents, who don’t rub you the wrong way because they didn’t spend half of their lives trying (and apparently failing) to turn you into a considerate human being.” It kills me when people get selfish and don’t try to make sure that their spouses see their own parents. Do whatever you want all year, just visit your goddamn parents at Christmas. How hard is it, really? If your parents are not drunks or child molesters or ax murderers, do what you need to do to see them. YOUR WHOLE FAMILY IS THERE, IN ONE PLACE, AND YOU CAN’T DRIVE 30 MINUTES? Put your kid in the car and drive. Spend the afternoon and evening with your family.

Obviously, as I said, I am very battle-ax-y about this. Sometimes people say no to me (family AND friends) because I can be such a self-righteous hardass about these things. Yes, OF COURSE your family makes you crazy. I get it. THAT IS HOW IT FEELS TO BE WITH FAMILY. Everyone suffers a little. And once you realize that, it’s fine! People try their best and fail. People clash and stew. People argue and sometimes they storm off. You are not the only one feeling overwhelmed! Look around you! WE ALL DO IT. CHEERS, MOTHERFUCKERS!

I know that some families are super-healthy and happy. Sure, spend a little more time with your in-laws, if they’re so evolved. Savor those Christmas dinners that are just like New Age encounter sessions, with everyone feeling completely understood and expressing love and warmth for everyone else.

But imperfect, shutdown motherfuckers deserve some of your time, too. And you give them two hours, that’s it? NO.

What makes me mad is that, if your brother feels oppressed by his parents and siblings, I would guess that your family is just dysfunctional enough that everyone else feels oppressed by each other, too. AND YET EVERYONE ELSE IS SHOWING UP.

The moral? SHOW UP.

Clearly, there are limits. Some families are so terrible that they deserve not to be visited. That does not seem to be the case here. Your family is flawed but everyone is trying their best. Your brother needs to put on his big-boy pants, and he needs to show up and stick around for more than two hours. If bedtime is precious, then he can show up early. Show up and help with the cooking. Just SHOW UP.

Now, I do understand your not wanting to tell him this. You could push him away. I’ve often spoken up about family issues without considering how sensitive we ALL are about each other’s words. In the past few years, I’ve learned to step back and hold my tongue. I try to accept that everyone is committed to getting together, but we all have our limits and our financial and scheduling constraints. My mother, in particular, gets a free pass to do whatever the fuck she wants. She’s 73 years old and she can move to Bali if she wants to, and then I’ll have to fly there to see her.

I’m sure there are factors in play with your brother that you don’t understand. Your best bet may be to have your parents call him and ask for what they want. But they need to be kind about it. I don’t think it’s wise to frame it in terms of SEEING THEIR GRANDSON. Even though they obviously love kids, there’s something a little cold about that. What they should say is: “We miss YOU, our son.” And: “We love [wife’s name] and we wish you two would consider staying with us overnight this year.” Or: “Can you come in the morning and spend the day with us, just hanging around the house with everyone?”

Your parents may need to ask some open-ended questions. What’s not working for you? What would work better? Could we start earlier? Could we meet somewhere? What if we all vacationed over Thanksgiving each year, would that suit everyone? They should try to demonstrate some flexibility, while also asking for what they want. They may ONLY want their Norman Rockwell Christmas, which … well, that’s unrealistic almost to the point of being delusional, but whatever. If that’s what they’re the most romantic about, they should make that clear. They should gently lay out the heartbreak of not having this one thing that they want more than anything else.

Or, they should review their agenda and dig to the bottom of what the real issue is. Maybe what they TRULY want is to see his family more in general, all year round. Maybe they’d like to ask for a full-day visit once a month. Why not? Babysitting is not the same as visiting. “We would love to be a resource, yes, but mostly what we want is to see all of you. Can you commit to that? Can you consider what you can do, think about it, and let us know? BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU AND WE MISS YOU AND WE’RE GETTING OLD, IN CASE YOU HAVEN’T NOTICED.”

If they can’t have that conversation, then maybe you need to speak for them. But tread lightly. Maybe take your brother out to lunch and talk to him, but ask a lot of questions and find out what the issues are. It’s going to be tough to pull that one off smoothly. Accept that you might fail. Try very hard not to push him away, for your own sake. Make sure you’re not tempted to do that, subtly, with your words. Make sure your heart is in the right place, for everyone else’s sake. It’s tough to play the fixer, though. People tend to resent it.

Mostly, I feel sad for you and your family, that you have to grapple with this every year. Remember, you’re not alone! So many of us have to negotiate with recalcitrant fuckers like your brother. There’s so much frustration and anger involved. How could there not be? When family is involved, anger and sadness and frustration are just part of the woodwork. This is true for your brother as well, of course. As easy as it is for us to demonize him without knowing the whole story, I’m sure there are lots of reasons why he’s chosen to avoid his family. I’m sure those reasons are murky and with a kid in the picture, it’s natural enough that he’d turn his back on the vulnerability and anger in the mix and just take the easier route of avoidance. Who knows how it feels to be the golden child? Do your parents expect him to be perfect? Do they expect EVERYONE to be perfect? Are you trying to be perfect by writing me this letter and becoming the champion of their shiny Norman Rockwell vision? Let’s give your brother the benefit of the doubt for a minute and try on this for size: He feels like a big disappointment to them, he hates that feeling, and he’d like to avoid putting his son into the same unbearable role.

So this is the tough balance we have to strike with our families. We have have to work hard to show up for them, but we also have to forgive those who do a bad job of showing up. We have to push ourselves to be good citizens — good friends, good parents, good kids, good Santa Clauses — but we also have to accept the myriad of factors that prevent others from rising to the occasion. The holidays always serve up disappointment in one form or another: Parents get weird as they get older. Little kids whine and pick fights with each other. Siblings pick fights with each other, and then they grow up and find subtle and not-so-subtle ways to tell each other to go fuck themselves.

When it comes to dealing with family — and with friends who ARE basically family to us, with all of the amazing benefits and murky frustrations that entails — the path is rocky for everyone. Isn’t it ironic how difficult it is to be open and vulnerable and intimate with people you’ve loved your whole life?

Even when the whole family gets together, most of them would prefer to be baking cookies or cleaning up or doing something, ANYTHING, rather than looking right into someone else’s eyes, someone who has disappointed us or angered us and also brought us enormous joy over the past two or three or eight decades. A room full of family is a room full of people avoiding eye contact. Looking straight into someone’s eyes means looking right at yourself, and seeing how many times you have disappointed or angered or even brought joy to someone who matters to you.

Showing up takes a lot of work for EVERYONE involved. I’m glad I got to answer your letter today, when I’m feeling a little wound up about how wishy-washy and avoidant people can get over the holidays. And I’m just sitting around at home this Christmas, playing cards and drinking eggnog, as nature intended. It’s good for me to remind myself to step back and accept that everyone is different, and you can’t expect people to want the same exact things that you want.

It’s too bad about your brother. But if he doesn’t come around, make the best of what you have, and try very hard to feel grateful for all of it. THAT, and not some shiny Norman Rockwell vision, is what the holidays are all about.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday. Got a question? Email

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Ask Polly: How Do I Deal With My Nasty Brother?