I have two older brothers who are happily married and I have six nephews and nieces. I have a third brother who is also older but only two years older than I am. He is 26. He and I have always been extremely close. There is something going on right now with him and his girlfriend that is really bothering me and I don’t know if I should say anything to him or his girlfriend about this. My mother and I have talked about this – just between us – and she has the same worries as I have so I’m writing to ask for advice for her too.
Our family is very close and we all spend time together almost every weekend in our old family lodge in the mountains. Everyone loves my brother’s girlfriend, especially my little nieces and nephews, and we all think of her as a member of our family. My brother and she have been together for more than two years and she is three years older than he is. What she doesn’t know is that my brother thinks of her as someone he is happy to hang out with now but that he doesn’t really see her as someone he ever wants to marry. I think she would be devastated if she knew this. My family is very open with each other and very respectful of each other’s privacy, lifestyles and choices.
My mother and I have talked about this and she, too, adores this girlfriend and feels protective of her. My mom is always there for each of us if we need her or want to talk about anything but she has never interfered with any of our lives or choices and only gives us her opinions if we ask for them. She and I both feel that the girlfriend is clueless about my brother’s “position” and we’re very worried about her getting badly hurt. My mother and I don’t know whether to say or do anything about this situation. They have become very close. I would say she is closer to my mom than either of my two sisters-in-law has ever been. I know this is hurting my mother so much.
Torn Brother (and Worried Mom)
Dear Torn and Worried,
This is really a tough one. The dynamics in your family sound wonderful. The mutual respect and wonderful closeness you have for each other is a rare and precious treasure to protect above all else. I would say that this family anchor must be the basis for whatever you and your mother decide to do and to say.
Before tackling your communication challenge, I want to point out that it’s extremely likely that on some level the girlfriend knows exactly where she stands with your brother even if neither of them has spoken about this specifically at all. She, herself, may have chosen never to raise this topic so she can avoid facing it. She and your brother are not children and, as protective as you and your mother feel of her, she is a consenting adult, making her own life decisions without being forced. If you knew that your brother had a drug problem or another secret girlfriend, you would have a very different communication dilemma to face.
I can’t tell you or your mother whether to say anything to your brother or to his girlfriend. That is a decision each of you must make for yourselves. What I can tell you are the elements that I see as most important to consider and include if you decide you want to approach either of them to speak about this.
Let’s start with your brother. It’s important to remove judgment and anger from whatever you say to him. You’ve described a protective feeling for the girlfriend that can easily translate into a judgmental attack on your brother’s actions and decisions. It sounds like early marriage is the traditional choice in your family. Your brother may feel differently about this. He certainly is making other choices at the moment.
People in our country are getting married for the first time at much later ages than in prior history.
“The median age for a man's first marriage was 27.7 years in 2007, up from 26.1 in 1990. The median age for a woman's first marriage was 26.0 years in 2007, up from 23.9 in 1990.”
Whatever you say to him, it’s very important that you and your mother refrain from saying anything that can come across like,
It will be much better if you can make the premise of your communications focused on expressing your feelings about the situation:
“I want to describe the reactions and feelings I’m having …”
“I just want to let you know that I’m worried about …”
“It is hard for me to feel like ‘Her-Name’ has become a part of our family and at the same time know that you don’t want to marry her.”
It will also be beneficial to include loving, open-ended, (non-judgmental) inquiry such as:
“It would help tremendously to know more about how you see this.”
“What is it like for you knowing how much we love ‘Her-Name’ and feeling like you don’t want to marry her?”
“What are your feelings about ‘Her-Name’ getting hurt because you don’t want to marry her?”
If you or your mother decide to speak to the girlfriend to express your feelings and concerns, it's very important to let your brother know that you have decided to communicate your feelings to his girlfriend.
It may be that you can privately and individually express your feelings in a very simple and loving way to the girlfriend to reduce how torn and worried you both are without making an issue out of the problem you and your mother see so clearly. You can say something like:
“Her-Name, I wanted to tell you how much I love you and how wonderful it is to have you share so much of our family time with us. Whatever the future holds for you and Brother/Son #3, I will always care about you and want to have the kind of closeness we have now. I care about your feelings very much and want your life to be all that you want it to be.”
Of course, if you say anything like this, it could open the door for her to ask if you have made this comment because you have an opinion about whether she and he will be married in the future. You can express your feelings then if you want to answer her honestly or you can say that you're very respectful of your brother’s (son’s) personal life and think this is a private subject between the two of them. If you do want to have a fuller conversation with her you can ask her if she wants to talk about what she's experiencing and feeling about all of this.
Listening and validating will be the main elements for a conversation with her. Expressing your concern and care is the goal. Avoid giving advice to her about any of this. These are decisions for your brother (son) and his girlfriend to make and theirs alone.
The fact that you and your mom can talk about this with each other may be the best outcome altogether. It may be that this is a situation that can take its course without your or your mother's participation; sometimes it's better to refrain from communicating. There's always an appropriate way to say everything. Often when we hold things in that are bothering us, it can be damaging to ourselves and to our relationships. So, deciding whether to speak about this is the first big decision. The communication part will be much easier than the decision actually.
SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success has many relevant sections for your current communication challenges. Chapter Three, “There’s a Good Way to Say Everything” will be especially helpful to you and your mother in deciding if, how and what to say about your family situation.
Happy end of summer!
Until next time,