'This tedious boasting is almost certainly the result of deep insecurity'

Dear Virginia,

Every so often we’re invited for lunch by my brother-in-law. He and my husband got on well as kids, but he’s starting to make us feel very uncomfortable because he always tells us how much he earns, how much his house and swimming pool are worth and so on. His wife is just as bad – obsessed by material things. My husband is a teacher and I work for a charity, so we’re not impressed by the number of holidays they take. Is there any way we can explain that we don’t like feeling like church mice every time we go round?

Yours sincerely, Christine

Virginia says

You have put your finger on your problem yourself by saying that you “don’t like feeling like church mice every time you go round”. In other words, you have to take some of the blame for the discomfort you experience on being bragged at by your brother-in-law. Many people, for example, wouldn’t feel lowly and poverty-stricken faced with a couple like this. They would feel bored, perhaps. They might feel insulted. They might feel pity. They might find it hilarious. But they wouldn’t feel diminished in any way.

I imagine that part of this reaction lies deep in the relationship between the two brothers. Perhaps your husband was always the blue-eyed boy and his mother’s favourite – and this boasting is the way his brother has of getting his own back? Perhaps your brother-in-law always felt your husband was more attractive than him, or perhaps he was an older brother who felt usurped by the arrival of a younger brother? Perhaps it’s his wife who has introduced this arrogant streak into his behaviour, being someone who finds material wealth very sexually attractive? Whatever, this tedious boasting is almost certainly the result of deep insecurity. And since I’d guess that your brother-in-law hasn’t made his millions in one of the caring professions, I imagine he feels extremely uncomfortable faced with a couple of do-gooders – as he probably regards you. In other words, it’s he who feels, emotionally, like a poverty-stricken church mouse whenever he sees you, apparently glowing with the satisfaction you get from being so fulfilled in your selfless and noble professions.

You could of course, boast back, by reeling off the numbers of desperate people you’ve helped, but why increase the rift? Why not make a resolution, with your husband, that next time you visit you’ll make a list of every boast. If you can’t remember them, nip off to the loo and write them down so you don’t lose count. Then, you can tot up your scores on the way home and have a good laugh about it. In that way, you’ll be welcoming his boasts, and feel positively disappointed if, for some reason or another, he fails to deliver the goods.

It may be, of course, that he’s has no other way of communicating with anyone except by listing his economic achievements and showing off his wealth. Another reason to feel sorry for him. There are some people whose brains are just wired that way and, crashing bores as they are, it’s kinder to them and to you to feel pity for them than reduced by them. He’s a tragic old stick, who hasn’t got his priorities right and is trying desperately to keep his end up. I suspect that the less put down you feel, the easier it will be to have a more genuine relationship with him in the end. 


Readers say...

Play them at their own game

You could try paying them back in their own currency. Brag a while about the people you helped into employment, got benefits for, made happy by getting them through illnesses, etc (according to the charity work you do). How many priceless smiles your husband got from children he supported to achieve something, or how often former pupils mention him in their graduation speeches. How many pupils found a talent they never thought they had before he helped dig it out.

One can be amazing and happy without being rich, or have a rewarding work-life balance even without getting paid. They might get the subtle message; if they don’t, it’s them missing out, not you.


by email

They’re not judging you

I understand and have been in your situation. But you don’t need to feel like church mice. Your in-laws are not necessarily judging you or looking down on you. And is there really a need for you to say anything?

It can be tricky when good friends or relatives end up in very different financial positions, and some sensitivity is needed. But that goes for both sides. The in-laws are naturally excited by some of their material gains. Should they never mention them in front of you? When holidays are mentioned, there is plenty you can talk about with genuine interest – what did they see, and is that country really the way it comes across on film or in print? And when it comes to the swimming pool, well, I’m assuming you are welcome to use it if you get together.

On money, you can surely say, “wow that’s twice what a teacher/nurse/hypothetical worker earns in six months/a year”, without causing offence? As when hosting relatives on Christmas Day, from whom you’d really like a rest, you can at least think how virtuous you are.

Tina Rowe

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Put a stop to it

I suggest that next time the ghastly brother-in-law goes on about his latest acquisition, you say something like, “Gosh, how wonderful, you must be really rich to afford that. I don’t know how we manage on our miserable pittance.” After a few responses like that, the boasts should dry up. Mind you, so might the lunch invitations, which would be another advantage.  

Simon Garratt

by email

Next week's dilemma

I’ve been depressed for the last few months and my doctor has suggested that I try counselling, particularly as I had a very painful past, with my mother dying when I was 10 and, soon after, my father marrying a woman who hated me. I’ve managed to hold things together and get through university with a good degree and now have a job, but recently my life has felt very bleak and I can’t really see the point of it. But my boyfriend says that I shouldn’t dig up the past – I should put it behind me and move on. What do you think?

Yours sincerely,


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