I am close to my younger brother and we speak at least once a week. These exchanges usually include his referring to money problems. He and his wife are in their 40s, on good salaries, have two young children and a mortgage. At the end of each month, cash is unavailable and they have been caught out by repayments and large bills. I have happily bailed them out on a couple of occasions, but worry about their long-term stability.
It seems to me that they need to review their finances, cut back a little on outgoings and put away a small amount each month. I’ve tried to gently suggest this but, understandably, my brother wants sympathy rather than financial advice. If we get on to this subject, he tends to say, “You’ve had it easier than me.” This is true in some ways, and reopens a general feeling that our parents believe me to be a sensible success and my brother a bit careless, despite his steady family life and well-paid job.
I sometimes imagine paying a financial adviser to help them. However, I suspect such services are more about investing savings in stocks and shares. My brother’s family are not actually in debt, apart from a fairly average mortgage. Should I just butt out and mind my own business? I could simply make sympathetic comments when my brother vents about their financial hardships.
I found your letter really interesting. On the surface it seems fairly simple, but what roots lie underneath this?
In families, people end up playing roles – sometimes because they’ve been given them by a parent (“you’re the responsible one”, etc), or as children they find themselves filling gaps in the family dynamic and then, even when they grow up, it can be hard to break away from these roles. This is how and why you get people who act one way at work or with friends, but revert to type when they are back with family members, often leaving new partners slightly aghast when they see it for the first time.
I consulted Dr Sarah Helps, a psychologist and psychotherapist (aft.org.uk), whose first question was to wonder “about responsibility in this family and how it is that you, as an older sibling, have the idea that you have to look after your younger sibling?” Because this goes far beyond the small-child role of an older sibling occasionally helping out a younger one, doesn’t it? Your brother is a grownup with a family and a job. But him complaining about his situation triggers something in you.
What would happen if you said, ‘We always end up talking about money, what do you think that’s about?’
Dr Helps also asked a really pertinent question: “What would you [and your brother] be talking about if you weren’t talking about money?” Sometimes – not always, of course – talking about a subject like this is a way of finding a closeness between family members where perhaps there hasn’t been a more obvious “in”.
Dr Helps also talked about positioning theory, which is where one person positions someone in a particular way and that person can choose to accept it or not. For example, if you ask someone for advice, they could either position themselves alongside you by saying, “I wondered about that, too” or they could put themselves in a position of authority and start giving that advice. Is the positioning always the same between you and your brother, and, if so, what might that say about you both?
“So how,” asked Dr Helps, “to do things differently? What would happen if you said, ‘We always end up talking about money, what do you think that’s about?’” I think you need to think about what you are compensating for and what you possibly feel guilty about. In situations like this where patterns recur, it’s often guilt that stops us saying what we really want (and often what that other person needs to hear).
You might also need to think whether you are overinvolving yourself in your brother’s life and why that might be. This isn’t meant harshly, but some people need to respond to their own “pain” by answering it in other people, often to their own detriment.
What would happen if you didn’t respond to the money woes and instead just said: “Oh dear”? Does he even want solutions? You say he wants sympathy. What’s wrong with just saying, “That sounds tough” or, at a push, asking him what he might do and moving on to something else.
• Send your problem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
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