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My brother has returned to his abusive wife and I’m worn out

Ask Roe: I thought that after years of heartache he was finally going to break free

Dear Roe,

My brother’s wife had an affair last year, and he was devastated. She has always treated him badly and has been emotionally abusive, and he suffers from low self-esteem now. He leaned heavily on me, and I have been supportive, which he is very appreciative of. Her new relationship didn’t work out and she is now back and he has decided to give it another go. I’m gutted as I thought that after all these years of heartache he was finally going to break free. I feel used and I’m fed up of the emotional merry-go-round. I want to stand back from the situation now as it will happen again, as it has over the years, and I find it very distressing myself. Please help me keep my relationship with my brother but stop being an emotional crutch. I’m worn out.

This sounds very difficult, for your brother of course, but also you. It’s not easy to be the main source of emotional support for someone who is struggling or in an abusive relationship – there is a reason that therapists go through years of training, have firm boundaries and get paid for the work they do. Supporting someone through difficult situations, particularly long-term situations, can be emotionally exhausting. Many of us do it for the people we love, of course, because we care deeply about them and want to support them – but it’s not selfish or a betrayal to admit that it can be difficult.

You have put a lot of emotional energy into supporting your brother, worrying about him, listening to him and advising him, and you are understandably emotionally burnt out. However, it will be important to separate your feelings of exhaustion and your need for boundaries from your brother’s intentions. He has not deliberately “used” you. He hasn’t consciously decided to stretch your capacity for empathy and care. He possibly isn’t even consciously going back to an abusive relationship – he may not fully, truly understand that what is happening to him is abuse. If he has low self-esteem and has internalised his wife’s treatment of him, he may not know that he deserves better, that he can have better.

In life, the truth is multitudinous, so you can recognise that your brother is in a terrible situation and be empathetic – and also recognise that you are a person with limits

Abusive relationships have a way of warping victims’ realities and their image of themselves, making them believe that this is the only form of love they can have, and making abuse seem so familiar that, ironically, the unknown feels far scarier. There are many, many reasons conspiring to prevent abuse victims from leaving their relationships, and it takes many victims multiple attempts to leave before actually doing so – if they do. I think it will help you to hold on to this fact. You can be tired, exhausted and frustrated – and you can still recognise that your brother is not doing this in order to annoy you. He is a victim of abuse. He is not the one doing wrong here. You can be angry for him without being angry with him.

In life, the truth is multitudinous, so you can recognise that your brother is in a terrible situation and be empathetic – and also recognise that you are a person with limits. Your empathy can and must have boundaries, in order for you to sustain yourself. You are not a bad person if you cannot be a pseudo-therapist 24-7 – because you literally are not a therapist, and no therapist is a therapist 24-7.

Now, guess what your brother needs? That's right, a therapist. He needs a dedicated safe space where he can speak about his relationship, hopefully get to the root of why he has stayed in this relationship so long, and help extracting himself from this situation. You can help him research therapists, give him an alibi for his appointments if he needs one, and if he resists, make sure that he knows there is an open offer to help him get professional support should he decide to. You could also look at specialist resources such asSafeIreland.ie, which has information on all kinds of abuse as well as a comprehensive list of helplines across the country. Looking at resources like this will help you understand what your brother is going through, and also give you advice on how best to support him.

You can be sure that your brother knows that you are an ally to turn to in times of crisis or if he decides to leave his wife; for example, by letting him store some things at your house in case he needs to stay, or letting him know that he can text you a safe-word any time he needs you to go to his house or call him. Something that is important to remember is to not place endless explicit pressure on your bother to leave his wife; many abuse victims can get caught in a cycle of shame if they know their family and friends think they should leave their partner, which can cause the victim to stop sharing their experiences, heightening their isolation.

You can redirect conversations back to his own agency, asking him what he intends to do or asking if he has spoken to his therapist about it, and what do they think

But once you have made it clear to your brother that you are ready to support him when he really needs it, you are allowed to talk about other things – in fact, it may be helpful to do so. Try not to let his relationship become the sole focus on your interactions and of his identity. Place an emphasis on how much you love him and enjoy having him in your life, making sure to spend time together doing things you both enjoy. If he has become isolated, try help him expand his social circle or social life by taking up a hobby together or introducing him to some new people. Abusive relationships can feel small, stifling, but also the only option. Experiencing a life and joy beyond them can be helpful in building up the victim’s self-esteem. Meeting other people in healthy relationships can also provide vital perspective.

If he keeps speaking about his relationship and you have really hit your limit on being his sounding-board for his relationship, you can set boundaries on conversations about his relationship without being cruel or callous. You can redirect conversations back to his own agency, asking him what he intends to do or asking if he has spoken to his therapist about it, and what do they think. Express how you would feel in his situation. Then, on days where you reach your limit on hearing him speak about his relationship, reiterate that you love and support him, want him to be happy and are always available to talk about next steps, but that you feel the conversation is stuck in a cycle and you should park it for that day – just that day. Stress that last part, and prove that you’re still there for him by talking about something you both enjoy, again reminding him that he exists beyond his relationship.

You should also consider getting a therapist yourself – as you have experienced, watching a loved one go through something awful is its own form of stress and distress, and you deserve an outlet and person who can help you come up with strategies for creating boundaries, too. Good luck.

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