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."

Share

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

Harrogate

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,

Tom

What would you advise Tom to do?  Write to dilemmas@independent.co.uk. Anyone whose advice is quoted or whose dilemma is published will receive a box of Belgian Chocolates from funkyhampers.com

(twitter.com/funkyhampers)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Engineer-(Support, ITIL, Software Vendor)

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Engineer-(Support, S...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Service Delivery and Support Manager

£55000 - £75000 per annum + excellent benefits: Harrington Starr: Service Deli...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Turkey and Qatar must step up the fight against Isis

Benedict Greening
 

Should America pay Isis ransom money to free hostages like James Foley?

Kim Sengupta
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home