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The Vine: March 1, 2017

Submitted by on March 1, 2017 – 8:41 AM16 Comments

Over two years ago, I left my husband.

Months of asking him to go to marriage counseling were to no avail. And I realized just how much I'd changed over the course of our relationship (and not just as a result of marriage and children): I felt controlled and manipulated in my actions and responses, I focused on having appropriate affect in different social situations when I felt nothing, I focused on having appropriate affect in response to him. The only time I was mostly my actual self was with our children and with my friends.

So, I left him. Coldly, I called in the troops to help me pack up my and my children's belongings, and get my kids to my parents' home where I had made arrangements to move in (after confiding certain things with my mother). And he was heartbroken, of course. On my way out, I offered my terms: 50% custody of our children. He's a good father whom I knew would only improve if he didn't have me to rely upon to do the heavy lifting.

Surprisingly, my solicitation for advice is not about my ex, but about my brother. We were raised Catholic, but he went EXTREME in his beliefs. He found a branch of Catholics who believe, among other things, that the Pope is not Catholic enough (even pre-Francis). After my separation, my bro decided to intervene on my…scratch that, it wasn't on my behalf but on god's behalf, to save my marriage. He went behind my back to my ex to try to get us back together, never having tried to lobby me on the issue. Once this happened, I told him in no uncertain terms that it was neither appropriate nor welcome.

Fast forward a year later to Christmastime. He started visiting my sons when they were at my ex's with no discussion with me. I was persona non grata. Add to this, my ex told me my brother tried to lead my children in prayer during every visit. So when our planned visit finally happened, I respectfully (and I swear to god that I don't believe in anymore that I tried to put it in the most respectful terms possible) told him that it was my and my ex's job to lead our children spiritually, and that I disagreed with his beliefs and felt it unwise to have him lead our kids in prayer.

He lost it. Called me names, accused me of so many things. Yelled at me for a good half hour. Finally, I stopped trying to argue and I planted myself a foot in front of him. I stood with my jaw out, not saying a word. He grew so infuriated, he grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me across the living room. And, um, I kinda kicked and punched as I came back. Not my proudest moment.

Another year later, and my mother is struggling with this deep chasm between her children. And it pained me to see her so upset. So, I wrote a short letter stating that despite our obvious disagreements, I want a relationship with him. This was a month ago and I've had no response from him. What do I do next?

Sincerely,
Good luck unpacking all this baggage

Dear Luck,

As far as Brother specifically, you do nothing. Despite his inappropriate interference in your children's lives and spiritual upbringing — and he knew it was inappropriate; that's why he went around you to visit them at your ex's place — and his putting hands on you, you've tried for the sake of your mother's peace of mind to be the bigger person and reach out to him. He hasn't responded yet, and that's probably a good thing, because 1) he's a no-zealot-like-the-convert asshat, and 2) it buys you some time to think about your boundaries with your ex and your children, and work with Ex to set them.

Because I don't see Ex in your letter, really, exceeeeept that you led with that part of the story. My sense of your decision to bury the lede somewhat here is that maybe you wanted me to see that your leaving your husband was a "good shooting," and maybe unconsciously to draw parallels between the controlling behavior you couldn't tolerate in Ex and the same kind of shit Brother is trying to pull along a different axis. I do think you should have left (you weren't happy) and I do think that Ex and Brother share certain problematic "vintage" head-of-household qualities; I think you shouldn't have to apologize for taking a physical shot at Brother when he hurled you across the room. But I also think it's interesting that, while you say Ex reported the prayer "leadership" to you, you don't mention his reaction to it, and you don't say that he tried to kibosh it, or disagreed with it, or how you found out Brother tried to "counsel" him on getting back together with you — did Ex tell you that? or did the kids rat the grownups to you?

Either way, since you made sure to note that Ex is a good dad, it's time to sit down with him for a conversation about Brother on that level and say something along the lines of, look, I know Brother must have put you in an awkward position at the least by coming over here to counsel you on a marriage I chose to end, then kept showing up without my knowledge to pray with the kids, and I'm sorry you had to deal with that — but the kids' religious instruction, or absence of same, is our business, not Brother's, and if you choose to permit that, I at least need to know about it. (NB: I don't know the formal terms of your custody arrangement, and if you don't currently have it formalized, that might explain some of the vagueness here — and you should think about retaining a lawyer and getting the situation codified if you can possibly afford it.) But I would really prefer that you didn't permit it, or permit Brother to be in the kids' space at all, because he got physical with me and I don't want our children around that energy.

Or whatever you choose to say, but if part of you kind of let the shit go as far as Ex letting Brother dominate him because you didn't want to antagonize Ex further as the dumpee, I totally get it and I wouldn't look forward to this conversation either — but it wants having. Schedule a neutral-ground coffee with Ex, get him up to date on where things stand between you and Brother, and then maybe let him talk for a while about his take on Brother and the prayers and wherever he's at with it. Then roll out a "what I hear you saying is X" statement or two, and then be like, Brother is not in charge of the kids' relationship with God, should S/He exist, and what the kids will really absorb here is his utter lack of respect for me, so let's set some ground rules.

If Brother keeps giving you the silent treatment, well, way to absorb Jesus' teachings, dingleberry, but you did your part to mollify your mother — and it's not you who went all Mel Gibson and opened this divide in the first place, so you've done what you can do there. If and when he answers, agree to disagree on some things for the sake of family harmony — including whether he's the best guy for the job of shepherding your kids' spiritual journeys, which he's not to do anymore, period.

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16 Comments »

  • attica says:

    I don't have anything to add to Sars's good advice, but I feel like I want to underscore just how gendered (i.e. sexist) all of this is. You left Ex because you felt unable to be yourself, as if your true self was Not Allowed in your marriage, as if you don't exist beyond what you *do* around the house. Instead of having your (his blood relation's) back regarding your breakup, Brother goes to Ex to work out your marriage. your opinion is not even solicited, as though you don't exist (again). Brother's opinion seems to be that the RCC isn't quite patriarchal enough for him. Brother becomes violent at the moment when you, a woman, defy him right to his face. Aaaand it's up to Mom and you to heal the breach, responsible for all that emotional labor.

    It's not you, is my point. Ex needs to start doing some heavy lifting here in terms of boundarying Brother back in his place.

    Good luck!

  • Lisa M. says:

    Agree with everything Sars says. If you feel strongly enough about Brother not being near the kids (b/c: physical violence), then you might take out a restraining order against him, in their names.

  • cayenne says:

    I'm not always the best person to advise how to deal with severe batshittery when it presents itself, but my default response is NOT to reinvite it into my life once it's out, sibling or not. If Brother hasn't replied to the letter, don't follow up. You can describe to your mother what happened, your actions during and subsequent to the event, and explain that violence is not needed in your life or your kids': "sorry, Mom, I'm sure you understand that the kids come first with me, not Brother's precious caveman fee-fees" or some such. Leave the religious element out of the picture and focus on the physical danger.

    I'd suggest you document the violent action with a lawyer and/or the police and get a restraining order to prevent Brother from having contact with you or your kids. Considering that he a) clearly has outdated ideals of male authority combined with poor impulse control, b) went behind your back to influence your kids in a manner he knows you'd find inappropriate, and c) got violent with you when you objected to that and stood your ground, there's nothing to suggest that the kids are safe, either. And Ex should be advised of this so that if he tries to host Brother again with the kids around, he doesn't inadvertently become an accessory to violating the restraining order.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Holy Wow. I've given up profanity for Lent or this would be expressed in far more colorful terms.

    Attica is so right on the patriarchy call-out: you left because you literally were not yourself when you were with your husband, and that wasn't fair or good for either of you. But naturally being a woman you aren't supposed to feel that. Because going through life with a smile plastered on and modeling "assume pleasant affect" around your children is a fantastic parenting and relationship model!

    I came to a screeching halt when I read that the Pope wasn't Catholic enough. Uh, huh. Were we in the Reign of the Harlots or during the Borgia grip on power, perhaps this would be an argument that at least shouldn't be laughed out of the room. But this is 2017 and trying to double down on misery, rigidity and iron fist rule has gotten us into many of our present messes.

    You can't make your brother see reason or loosen his stranglehold on a delusion of being safe if I can get everybody ELSE to line up behind me thing, but you sure as heck can make sure you, your ex, your kids and your parents understand the parameters. Anybody who throws somebody else across a room to prove how right they are isn't someone who should be around kids, period.

  • Baggage says:

    Brief update:
    I informed my ex of what was happening and that, until my brother and I get things straightened out, brother is not allowed contact with our kids. And, while I'm apparently the cause for everything that's gone wrong in his life in the two and a half years since I left him, and he still is apparently never going to give up on getting me back, he is respecting my stance with brother.
    Brother called my mother last week and, while I'm not privy to the details of the conversation, my mom came out of it declaring I was the aggressor here.

    Reaction to my own update:
    I'm furious that the only response from my brother thus far has been to contact my mom and not do anything to contact me AND that it was all about how I was in the wrong AND that my mother is in the same camp.

    She was there and saw the whole thing. And it made me question what actually happened (it was over a year ago). And I forced myself to the conclusion that we may all be right: my brother felt that I was aggressive by stepping into his face, my mother is correct in seeing me step up to him as a sign of aggression (and, I'm sure she needs to see him in a more positive light if she wants to continue a relationship with him), and I am right in seeing that the physical transgression occurred when he grabbed me and threw me.

    I'm not going to lie, I wouldn't even worry about my brother were it not for my mother.

  • Baggage says:

    Attica, you're not wrong. And my experience since I left my ex has only strengthened my feminism and made me more aware of insane gender through-lines.

    Lisa, I'm not terribly concerned about further physical violence. I've never seen any further evidence of it from him. My only concern is that he'll be the next white, male, Christian terrorist and I don't even know what to do about that.

  • Georgia says:

    @Baggage: Don't question your version of events. Stepping into your brother's face could be seen as a sign of aggression, though it sounds as though you literally just stood there, not that you made any threats or threatening gestures. And if your brother did see it that way, the appropriate, mature response would be, "Sis, you're invading my personal space. Please back up a bit," not throwing you across the room.

  • cayenne says:

    @Baggage, "forcing yourself to the conclusion" that by getting in his face, you may have gone a bit beyond what is considered normal for a woman when provoked is reinforcement of toxic gender norms. And gaslighting yourself, to boot. You don't need that.

    If his behaviour was offensive enough for you to get up, talk forcefully, and demand respect for your wishes with respect to your kids, he could have walked away if he found your actions excessive. Instead, he assaulted you. IN NO WAY is that response proportionate, and it's illegal, to boot. I'm sorry your mother doesn't see it that way.

  • Lisa M. says:

    @Baggage: I'm glad you're not worried about further violence.

    I'm with everyone else saying Don't question your version of events. Your mom is the one who raised your brother, so she is likely to have the same outdated norms. Some people are unable to change. Example: My mom and my husband's mom were both brought up in poor circumstances, by families who though n****r was the right way to refer to a black person. My mom has stayed rooted in prejudice and fear of "other", while my hub's mom has transformed herself into a much more actualized person. It is amazing to me (the difference).

    Your mom may be unable to view things the way you do, but that doesn't mean that she is right. Enforce the boundary between your brother and your family, and if he is the next white terrorist, that is not your fault.

    Good luck with this. It sounds awful.

  • attica says:

    Sure! You're the aggressive one, because one step forward closer to Brother flies in the face of the 'place' in which women belong– demure, compliant, deferring. He is NOT the aggressive one, because throwing women across a room is what he-men are SUPPOSED to do! Res Ipsa Loquitur! [/rage stroke]

    It's the upending of gender norms that is viewed as alarming, not the put-it-back-where-it-belongs response.

    Here we have a real-life example of Power never being willingly relinquished: a woman taking the teensiest bit of power, and at the very moment she does, the man who believes power should only be his resorts to violence.

    It's the same patriarchy your mom has been soaking in her whole life, so it's little wonder she's taking Brother's side. I'm sorry you're going through this, Baggage. But don't let it rewrite reality for you.

  • ferretrick says:

    "She was there and saw the whole thing. And it made me question what actually happened (it was over a year ago). And I forced myself to the conclusion that we may all be right: my brother felt that I was aggressive by stepping into his face, my mother is correct in seeing me step up to him as a sign of aggression (and, I'm sure she needs to see him in a more positive light if she wants to continue a relationship with him), and I am right in seeing that the physical transgression occurred when he grabbed me and threw me."

    Yeah, no. Hell to the fucking no.

    He YELLED and hurled VERBAL ABUSE at you for half an hour when you tried to have a reasonable discussion. That is fucking aggression. Then, when you finally stood up for yourself and said enough, he PHYSICALLY ASSAULTED you. Now, he has turned it around on you to make you the aggressor. And you think that his actions are in any way ok or you bear any fault in this? No. You do not.

    Baggage, please think about and REALLY understand this. Abuse-physical or verbal-is NEVER ok. How your brother treated you is in no way acceptable. YOU DO NOT BARE ANY SHARE OF THE BLAME HERE.

    Oh, and by the way? Real men don't hit women.

    So to answer your actual question-what do you do?

    1) You thank the god you don't believe in that your brother DIDN'T respond to your letter.
    2) You cut him out of your life. You write him another letter and explain that the first letter was a mistake made out of love for your mother. In actuality you did nothing wrong, you do not forgive him, and he is no longer your brother. You will be coldly civil when you absolutely must be together for your mother's sake, but other than that he is not to contact you in any way, shape, or form. cc your mom on this letter too.
    3) You tell him that he is NEVER to come near your children again, and you will obtain a restraining order and/or press charges for the assault if he does.
    4) Tell your ex that while he is an adult and you cannot control whether he maintains a friendship with brother on his own time, he is not to permit your brother to come anywhere near the children when they are with him. If he does, you will take him back to court and sue for full custody on the grounds that he allows someone who physically assaulted their mother to have a relationship with the children and act as a spiritual role model to them.
    5) Tell your mother that you understand this is hard on her and you are sorry for her pain but NONE of this is your fault, and you are deeply, deeply wounded that she sides with her daughter's abuser over her daughter and it has put a permanent scar on your heart. You love her and will continue to love her as you always have, but brother is dead to you and she must respect that if you are to have a relationship. From now on, you will immediately terminate any conversation about brother by hanging up the phone and/or walking away or leaving the house. This is not negotiable.

    Boundaries. Set them.

  • tadpoledrain says:

    Nth-ing what everyone above has said about your brother being an abusive asshole, your mom being wrong to take his side, etc., etc., but commenting to add: Therapy. For you, possibly for the kids depending on what they witnessed and how affected they were by the split between you and their dad. And also for the kids because I don't want to question you when you say he's a good dad, on the one hand, but on the other hand, a man who was borderline emotionally abusive with you and hasn't given up on getting you back two years later miiiiight also not be the most stable caretaker?

  • Baggage says:

    Honestly, I was so upset with my mom's response that I decided to sit on it so I wouldn't say anything that I'd regret. I feel more ready to address it with her now.

    And yeah, my brother can fuck off.

  • The Other Katherine says:

    DUDE. Be done with Brother. Seriously, why would you want a relationship with that? And maybe consider being done with Mother for awhile as well, if she is going to take Brother's side in such an egregious episode. THAT SHE WITNESSED. It's inexcusable behavior on both their parts.

    I don't say this lightly. I have disconnected from my father before for years at a time over controlling, inappropriate, emotionally abusive behavior, and none of it was near the level of what you're describing. And you know what? It helped. In our case, we have a relationship now, albeit not a close one, because my father decided he wanted to see his daughter more than he wanted free rein to act like an asshat. But, if he hadn't, my life would have still been a better place without that shizz.

    What ferretrick said, basically. Time for hard-core boundary enforcement. Wishing you strength. Confide in your friends — it helps, if you have good ones.

  • Lsn says:

    My only concern is that he'll be the next white, male, Christian terrorist and I don't even know what to do about that.

    Contact authorities and express your concerns. Odds are he's on radar anyway, but this might put him on more firmly.

  • RJ says:

    Totally agree with the posters above that the verbal abuse – never mind physical – was absolutely unacceptable.

    Also, speaking as a religious person – I completely agree that faith and/or religion shouldn't be shoved down anyone's throat, and that it's nobody else's job to indoctrinate your kids with their beliefs. That is absolutely something to be addressed between you and their father and no one else.

    I often wonder why we can't all just let each other be. Best wishes to you.