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Carolyn Hax: Caught between manipulative father and brother

Dear Carolyn: My brother is estranged from the rest of the family. I am the only one he will 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, which puts me in an extremely uncomfortable position.

After several conversations, my mom is basically laying off, but my dad is not having it. He frequently questions me about my brother, and when I say my brother doesn’t want me to talk about it, he 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 to go to therapy to talk about it with someone who can help, but they aren’t biting. It has really poisoned my relationship with my dad.

Is there any way to make him respect these boundaries and quit trying to get me to tell him about my brother’s life? Am I wrong to try to abide by my brother’s wishes?

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, and I think respecting his boundaries is part of that. 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. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Stuck in the Middle

A: It’s your dad who is making these interactions “so awful,” isn’t it? Because he refuses to take your no for an answer?

Yet look at your phrasing: You identify your effort to respect your brother’s boundaries as the “it” in “it’s making my interactions . . . so awful.” 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 such as “ridiculous,” guilting you, and in all cases showing complete disregard for your statement of principle and your brother’s. 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 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. Can you see it? His ordering you to keep his secrets — or lose him to estrangement just as your parents did — is a page from your father’s script.

Any parent can identify with your father’s desperation to get his son back. Estrangement is devastating. And any child can identify with your brother’s drive to be his own man.

It’s the way they’re acting on their feelings that’s so deeply problematic. And that’s why my advice to you is to take a step back from all of this, out of the middle, out of the peacemaking or brother-protecting or father-excusing role, out of the position of stating and restating your position to a father who won’t hear it simply because it’s not what he wants to hear.

Step back and see that your distress isn’t about this one boundary you’re trying to maintain. Instead, it’s about a household where the lines between one’s own interests and another’s have been badly blurred.

If you haven’t explored this in counseling yourself, I suggest you do. If you have, then I suggest a refresher on boundaries in “Life Skills for Adult Children,” by Janet G. Woititz and Alan Garner.