Only you can relieve your own distress

I am worried about my brother.  He is married to a successful business women who has a very demanding career, and who I suspect is an alcoholic.  They have two primary school-aged daughters, that I am also very concerned about.  It has become obvious to me and to others that their relationship has deteriorated significantly over the last year or two, and I would say that my sister-in-law’s drinking plays a major role in their marital problems.

My brother is a very stoic, introverted man who tends not to be very forthright with his feelings or problems, so you can imagine how difficult it would be for him to discuss problems with his marriage or to seek help or support.  I have tried to bring it up with him a few times, indirectly, by asking how everything is going for him now that his wife’s company is expanding and she is under more pressure with work.  Although he always reassures me that everything is fine, I know my brother well enough to see how unhappy he is, and it hurts me to have to watch him suffering with the burden of trying to maintain appearances and hold it all together.  

Every time I see my brother lately he looks more and more withdrawn and tense.  My sister-in-law’s behavior at family get-togethers is becoming appalling.  She is often drunk or has been drinking when she arrives and almost always causes some sort of scene which I’m sure is very distressing and embarrassing to my brother and his daughters.  I feel out of place to intervene and rescue them, but I feel more and more distressed by what I see that I’m finding it impossible to ignore it or to allow it to continue. As a sister and aunt to my nieces, I feel I have a responsibility to care for their well-being.  What would be the most reasonable thing I can do to improve this situation?

Your concern appears to be reasonable, and your intentions are well-meaning.  Your distress is real to you, and you can’t ignore it.  You also have a right to express it.  The important detail here is the “how” you go about dealing with your own distress, because as painful as it is for you to have to witness, you can do nothing to relieve your brother or niece’s distress or unhappiness.  Only they can do that for themselves.  This may seem heartless and cruel, but anything else is delusional.  You cannot save them if they are not willing to be helped, and you cannot convince anybody that they need your help until they acknowledge and accept that they have a problem.

Having said that, I don’t suggest that you turn your back on your brother and let him sort it out for himself.  You have a right to let your brother know how you feel as a sister and an aunt, and to offer your brother a non-judgmental ear that will be them for him whenever he should need it, and leave it at that.  It is important that this offering be laid, humbly at his feet and not forced aggressively into his hands.  Do not give him an extra weight to carry, or attack him with the blame of your own distress.  You are offering him as safe place to seek refuge and support.  You are not offering him solutions, lectures, or favors. Whatever he chooses to do with this offering is not your responsibility, and if he chooses to leave it there for the time being, then respect that.  He will know that it is there and will seek it when he feels able to.

Be as honest and sincere as possible.  Show him your genuine love and concern, don’t tip-toe around sensitive facts, be direct, and most importantly be patient.  Only you can relieve you own distress.

The Spark


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