Virginia Ironside's dilemmas: What should I do about my intolerable brother-in-law?

"He is obviously a very damaged, sad little man, and anyone who has a close relationship with his wife seems to him to be incredibly threatening."


Dear Virginia,

My twin sister and I have always been close, but since my husband died, my brother-in-law is very possessive of her. He asks me why I have to visit so often (I only visit twice a year). When I arrive, he doesn’t say hello, just leaves by the back door. When I’m with my sister, he listens and contradicts me so we can’t have our usual close talks. I now have to stay in a B&B I am so upset by him. When my mother was alive, she often rang in tears because he’d been rude to her. It seems he can’t bear anyone being close to his wife. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Betty

Virginia says...

Your brother-in-law is, I’m afraid, a deeply tragic man. You may think that by saying this I am being too sympathetic to him, but I honestly think that by regarding him as the victim of misery and deep-seated insecurity, you’ll be able, eventually, to have a better relationship with him.

I’m afraid that most unpleasantness is, deep down, inspired by fear – but of course, the fact that your brother-in-law is terribly insecure and unhappy doesn’t make his behaviour less vile.

He is obviously a very damaged, sad little man, and anyone who has a close relationship with his wife seems to him to be incredibly threatening. Rational explanations – “How could he think that? I’m no threat! I’m not going to take her away, I’m only her sister!” – will make no impression on him at all. He probably knows this himself. But his underlying feelings of rejection and rage are too overwhelming for him to see the logic of  the situation.

I have no doubt that, when he was small, he was rejected by his mother, or perhaps he was the least favoured child. Whatever he experienced, it has had a fundamental impact on him, and when he encounters any emotional situation with resonances that remind him of that time, he goes into terrified two-year-old mode. He doesn’t want to be like this. He can’t help it.

Instead of reacting like a victim to his behaviour – which, no doubt, makes him feel even worse, because he must be ashamed of his childish sulks – try approaching him like a sympathetic aunt in the presence of a wounded animal. Before you go in the door, prepare yourself psychically for the role. Just the way you carry yourself, tall and confident, the way you look him in the eyes, filled with friendliness and love rather than fear, will disarm him.

It may not stop the behaviour, but it will have an effect. If he leaves the room while you’re talking to your sister, ask him to stay. And when he does go, pop in on him on your way to the loo, for instance, and ask him about himself and how he is. Attend to him. Don’t make jokes with your sister that only you two can understand. Explain everything.

Even if all you get are grunts in response, talk to him as much as you can.

Rather than see him as the powerful oppressor, remember that it is he who is far more frightened of you than you are of him. You are the one with the power. Use this power to be kind and reassuring.

And remember, you don’t have to feel the sympathy. Just act it. He’s not to know. Underneath, you would like to see him rot in hell and I don’t blame you.

But see your kindly behaviour simply as a strategy – to make your visits more pleasant not only for you and your sister but, in the end, for him as well.

Readers say...

Take no notice

Just ignore your brother-in-law. Don’t let his behaviour get to you. He obviously is jealous and possessive and the more you pander to his bullying ways, the worse he will get. I would visit your sister whenever you like – after all, you’re not staying in her house. And why not ask your sister to come and visit you now and again? If she wants to bring her husband, that’s up to her, but he probably won’t want to come. Men like him just want everything their own way, but he can hardly object to your seeing your own sister a couple of times a year.

Erica, by email

He’s a bully and a coward

Your brother-in-law didn’t dare to treat you like this when your husband was alive. Like all bullies, he’s a coward. If you have an amenable male friend, preferably a large one, take him with you next time you visit. There’s no need to define your relationship; a simple introduction (“this is Ben”) will suffice. My guess is that you won’t have to do this more than once. Your brother-in-law will assume that Ben is somewhere in the background and treat you with more respect. Now and again, you might drop his name into the conversation: “Ben was just saying the other day…” Good luck.

Julie Hynds


Protect your sister

I wonder how your sister feels about this situation. You need to find a way to have an open discussion with her, in private, about her marriage. Be aware that her husband’s disrespect towards you might also extend to her when you’re not around. Considering that your mother also used to find him difficult, it seems highly unlikely that his unacceptable behaviour is confined to you.

Possessiveness is often just one aspect of controlling behaviour in a relationship, and can verge on abuse. Ask your sister if she is finding his behaviour a problem, either physically or emotionally. If she is, then she will need your help. You will have to tread carefully, though. It is part of the pattern of controlling relationships that when someone is being manipulated by their partner, they are often unwilling to admit it, even to themselves.

Genevieve, by email

Next week's dilemma

Last year, I finished a long relationship with a boyfriend who was ill. He never did what the doctor told him or tried to help himself, except sporadically, and eventually I called it a day. Recently, I met a lovely guy and we fell in love, but he’s depressed. After a while, he became so dependent on me – I was buying all his food and he kept popping over unexpectedly, needing help – that I felt overwhelmed. I couldn’t work or keep up with other friends. So I ended that, too. But now, I can’t sleep at night, missing him and worrying about him. I feel selfish and cruel because he might have got better. Should I ask him back?

Yours sincerely,


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