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My brother needs help but I don't want to interfere

Our agony aunt, Mary Fenwick, offers a new perspective on whatever is troubling you

by Psychologies

Q. My brother moved to Canada three years ago. It was only meant to be to experience a year out there, but he fell in love. I miss him terribly; we’re very close, but as long as he is happy, then I am happy. The problem is, he isn’t. He desperately wants to move home, and tells me so often, but his partner doesn’t want to leave. His health and career are suffering, but he’s scared that if he brings up moving home, his partner will choose Canada over their relationship.

He frequently calls me when he’s upset, but I’m not sure what to say to him. My gut says to tell him to come home if that’s what he wants, but I don’t want to get involved in their relationship. How much advice do I give him? Name supplied

A. The short answer is that you can give as much advice as you like, but you can’t fix this. You don’t control your brother’s life, and neither does his partner. Does this seem hard to accept? I want to suggest something that might help.

It sounds as if your brother is in danger of being stuck in the role of the victim, with his partner as the baddie, and you as the potential rescuer. If you sweep in with your cape and all the answers, you risk him feeling more helpless.

I recently took part in a seminar with Professor Judith Glaser, who specialises in the neuroscience of how language can change our brain. She says that too much of anything – including empathy – can be a bad thing. When we connect pain to pain, there is a danger that we just join the other person and both get stuck wallowing in misery. The addition of just a couple of words can help to engage the problem-solving part of the brain. After we say something like, ‘I feel your pain’, we add, ‘How can I support you?’. On a brain scan, this lights up the frontal cortex; the conscious thinking part which makes us different from other mammals.

This could mean saying, ‘You sound unhappy. What can I do right now that would help?’. He might answer, ‘Just listen to me’, then at least you know that he doesn’t want your advice. Please set time limits and, if listening is draining you, then find someone who can support you in turn.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

Photograph: iStock

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