By Esther Mann, LCSW
My husband Steve and his only brother, Mark, are extremely close. When I first started dating Steve and saw how close they were, I was impressed with their relationship. They spoke on the phone several times a day and they made sure to get together in person often.
When I got to know Steve better, he explained to me that their father had been very abusive toward them. Not only verbally, but often getting into a rage and becoming violent. His mother was a passive woman and couldn’t be counted on to protect them. I guess that’s why he and Mark needed each other so much and protected each other, as much as children could. They bonded in a way that most siblings never have to. They looked out for each other and encouraged each other, and they developed a wonderful brotherhood and friendship.
I come from a typical family. As kids, some days my siblings and I got along and some days we didn’t. These days I speak to my sister and two brothers usually about once or twice a week. We don’t live in the same city, so we see one another when we can, but certainly not on a regular basis.
Early on in my marriage, I was actually jealous of Steve’s relationship with Mark. I used to think he loved Mark more than he loved me. Now I look back and think that it was a silly way to look at things. I’ve matured enough to understand that the love he has for his brother is different than the love he has for me and that he loves us both plenty. So I’ve gotten over that hurdle.
Now I have a new hurdle. Actually, it’s been building for quite some time. Now that Mark and his family moved into our neighborhood, things have escalated. When Mark lived with his family in Brooklyn, Steve would want to get together with them usually about twice a month. We’d spend Sundays doing nice families activities, like going to a museum or a park. Sometimes they would just come over to our house and hang out or we would go there. Some of our children are close in age and everyone got along well enough. It was nice and I had no complaints, because I still had every other Sunday to spend alone with my family. As much as I enjoy Mark and his gang, I love to be alone with Steve and our children and even sometimes the occasional treat of being alone with Mark.
A few months ago, Mark moved near us—about a 20-minute walk from our home. For the first few weeks, Steve felt we should invite them for Shabbos lunch since they were still settling in. That was fine. I figured that at some point we would go back to our old routine of being with friends for lunch on Shabbos or, equally enjoyable, being by ourselves.
So far, that has not happened. Steve has been inviting Mark every Shabbos, except for the few times when Mark invited us to go to them. It’s not that I have a bad time over there. It’s always pleasant and I have no problem with Mark’s wife, who is sweet and easy to be around. But it’s just too much already. Though she is nice enough, she is not someone I would choose to be my friend. We’re different types. I miss my good friends, since I work and Shabbos is really the only time that I get to be with them. My children also miss being with their friends on Shabbos, since Mark and his family tend to sit around till all hours on a Shabbos afternoon and there isn’t any time left over for any other socializing.
I’ve talked to Steve numerous times about this. He doesn’t seem to see it as a problem. When I start getting emotional about how I am feeling, Steve starts getting into his pity party about how his brother was always there for him growing up and how Mark protected him against their brutal father. It’s hard to argue against such a sad story.
As husbands and fathers go, Steve is a good man. He is honest, has integrity, and is sensitive. I’m proud to be married to him. I wonder sometimes whether I’m being selfish and whether I should just go with the flow and accept the fact that Steve seems to need this close connection with his brother. They went through so much together and maybe I have no way of even understanding what his childhood was like and what it must feel like for him as an adult.
Should I just let it go, or should I fight for what I truly want?
Glad to hear that there is such an abundance of love and respect in your marriage. You and Steve seem to be kind and generous individuals. You certainly feel a tremendous amount of empathy toward Steve and Mark and what the two of them experienced growing up together. Childhoods like the one you describe often leave individuals damaged so badly that they are incapable of showing healthy love toward others. Because Steve and Mark were so closely connected and so devoted to one another, they were able to survive the storm and pull themselves and one another through to ultimately become loving and caring adults. They truly do have a powerful bond and a beautiful relationship.
It’s easy to understand why Steve and Mark feel most safe in each other’s company. They learned early on that no other person or place could offer them the protection they needed to withstand the brutal blows life was raining down on them. Thank goodness they had one another. Their intense togetherness definitely worked in their favor while they were growing up. However, now that they are both married with children, there needs to be some kind of reevaluation of the strategies that worked so well during their early years but are no longer necessarily needed or useful as adults.
This is not an unusual dilemma. Many of us often hold onto behaviors that were the perfect behavior for a particular time in our lives. However, as the landscape of our lives shifts and subsequently so do our needs, the behaviors that were once so vital to our very survival can become obsolete—and sometimes, downright damaging to present-day needs.
It sounds as though the amount of time that Steve and Mark require together is over the top. It’s great that they are so close, but when that closeness interferes with other family time and friendships, it can create a disturbing imbalance. We all need balance in our lives. Too much of anything, even if it’s a good thing, can be a problem if it crowds out other things that help round out a full and meaningful life—or at least your idea of a full and meaningful life. Obviously, Steve doesn’t seem to feel as though he is lacking in any way as a result of his constant togetherness with his brother and doesn’t seem to notice that anything is amiss.
But something is wrong. Your feelings and those of your children matter. Though it’s nice that you are able to empathize with Steve’s childhood pain and give him a huge pass when it comes to calling the shots about how you all spend your weekends, it sounds as though you are getting the short end of the stick.
Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between a person being extremely needy and a person being downright selfish. Or maybe being needy creates selfish behavior in certain people. Whatever the case, Steve needs to give a little. If you are willing to spend every other Shabbos with Mark and his family, I think you are being extremely generous. Steve needs to focus on what you are willing to give him, rather than what you are supposedly taking away from him. I get the impression that you would have no problem with Steve and Mark getting together once a week for dinner, for instance, or encouraging them to find some other way for the two of them to see one another during the “off” weeks. That would be a reasonable and generous offer on your part.
I don’t want to sound insensitive to Steve. However, at some point in our lives, we all need to move forward from our childhood wounds and figure out how to stop licking them. The pity party has to end. Sounds as though Steve has done really well for himself, despite it all. He is an impressive man and has created a loving bond with a terrific wife. You don’t need to continue to view him as a needy victim, and he doesn’t need to see himself that way either.
I encourage you to take action. Marriage is all about understanding one another’s needs and being able to come up with a mutually acceptable compromise. Because in the past you have backed away from conflict so quickly, Steve may not fully grasp how truly important this issue has become for you. State your case respectfully and kindly, and let’s hope that Steve comes through as the sensitive man you have described.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.