My brother called me last week and laid into me, presenting me with a list of The Many Ways I Have Done Him Wrong. After the third or fourth item, which went back to something almost a year ago, I cut him off. I asked him if he could please just talk to me about issues that are recent, but he said "No, because this is a big trigger for me."
I told him I couldn't listen anymore, it was just too much, and I would get back to him.
A few days later, after much pondering, I sent him an email. I used a "Communication Wheel" that my sister shared with me last year. It seems like a good and healthy model that promotes relationship building, not tearing each other down.
In my email, I responded to the issues he had shared on the phone and shared just one of my own. He responded in a way that was generally agreeable and I hoped that we might be close to moving on. Then he sent his own list. Using his own, much more judgment-oriented model, which allowed for the expression of lots and lots of anger. It included items such as not sending a thank you note for his contribution to Calliope's college fund. Which he made when she was a newborn.
Let me be clear: I greatly appreciated the contribution. I thought I had caught up on all my thank you notes before I went back to work. When she was four months old. I guess I missed his. Oops.
The fact that he's still stewing about such an oversight boggles my mind. I'm not one to really care about things like receiving thank you notes, beyond wanting confirmation to make sure that a gift was received. But if it's an issue for him, golly, why not raise it, say, three years ago? Instead of stewing about it for all this time?
Other issues reach back pretty far as well, though that one gets the Blue Ribbon At the County Fair for longevity. Most of them I had no idea existed. And wouldn't have been a big deal if raised, individually, when they happened. But to receive a whole pile of them all together, along with heaps of judgment -- his supposedly work-approved communication model apparently allowing for judgments like "selfish," "self absorbed," and "petty" when mine used nothing like that -- plus a "so do you want to have a real relationship with me or do you want to have a superficial one" smack in the middle... I just felt tired. And hurt. And nothing in me wanted anything to do with having any relationship at all. I just wanted to walk away.
I talked to my sister the next day and she entreated me not to walk away. It would make it hard for her, she said, to be caught in the middle. Family is important, she reminded me. (I'm not at all clear why this is so.) She suggested that I write back to him and ask him to rewrite it in the model she had shared with me.
I finally just sent that request. Along with my very best attempt at being empathetic to his first two issues. I apologized for the ways I hurt him. I sent generous gifts, because he stated that that was very important to him (it's not to me, and he felt our gift giving was unequal). I reiterated his feelings (and even his judgments). But I only had it in me to do that for is first two issues. After that, I had nothing left. I couldn't bear to parse his words and his judgments another minute. It was tearing me to shreds.
So now I wait for his response.
What's so stinking hard about all this is that he has the ability to get into my head. To make me question if I am a good friend. After all, I rarely give gifts. What if all my friends think that I'm as shitty as he does? What if, gasp, my own darling child thinks that? What if everyone sees me as selfish?
It's especially hard because, as you loyal readers know, I'm well into my third trimester. I'm vulnerable. I'm trying to gather strength for this upcoming birth, and to welcome another child into my life. I met with a birth trauma counselor last week. She and my midwife have both talked to me about looking at my life as evidence of strength, as a way to encourage me in thinking about this upcoming (terrifying) birth. And it helped, a lot. Until I got this email. And suddenly the wind was taken out of my sails. My confidence in myself has plummeted.
I'm slowly talking myself in off the ledge. I don't see a lot of judgment in Calliope's face as she chatters away through the steamy glass door of my shower in the mornings. My friend Mike and his wife and toddler surely wouldn't have come over this weekend to assemble the crib and hang artwork if they thought so little of me, right? I actually texted my two closest friends to ask directly if they thought I was shitty and selfish. They both, of course, responded in the negative.
So I'm somewhat better if nowhere near fully recovered. I choked back tears today as I placed online orders for gifts . I feel no joy in giving these gifts, only that this is the price I must pay for making duty-bound attempts at family loyalty. I've never felt so bad giving a gift before.
And I dread getting his response. If he lashes out or simply refuses to rework his "issue list," I know that logically, I have the option of walking away. And that that is in my own best interest. But I'm scared that he won't just say "no" and leave it at that. That he will lash out once again and hurt me once again. Or god forbid, he will agree and somehow I will end up having to work through a painful list of issues all over again. Honestly, I would much prefer to just be done and to walk away. I don't want to know anymore the many ways I've failed him. I have a responsibility to my current and future child to be present for them. He's way far down the list below them. And currently, his issues are serving as an enormous distraction from them.
It sounds so silly, I know. If you know someone makes you feel bad, walk away. If someone says something that hurts, you have the choice not to listen. But my brother has inherited my narcissistic father's ability to wound, along with a deep working knowledge of my innermost vulnerabilities and a profound ignorance of his own failings.
So... tell me how have you worked to maintain your boundaries, to keep family from hurting you? When they are not so awful all the time as to be outlawed from your life, but not so trustworthy, either?