I used to live near my brother and his family, and we had a great relationship and saw each other pretty frequently. I moved to another city a few years ago and, ever since I moved, it’s like he doesn’t know I exist any more. He never, ever gets in touch, and barely will respond if I contact him (one-line e-mails, etc.). I found out that he actually visited my city a couple of times and never told me he was here. We never had a fight or falling out, and I just don’t know how or why this happened. The only time I see him now is at big family holidays with my parents. Any advice to salvage this relationship?
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Dear Sister in the City,
I’m so sorry. I can imagine it must have been terrible to get the news that your brother was visiting your area without being in touch. It puts you in an awful position when you see each other at family events. It’s not as if those times are set up to facilitate difficult conversations. It sucks to feel like you can’t be open-hearted and natural around your family.
You’ve reached out over email and he’s responding with one-liners. Have you tried to just reach out and set up a phone call with him? That way you can set up a time where you’ll both have mental space, and phone calls can be a good venue for difficult conversations rather than in person. I recommend directness here. Ask your questions. Say how you feel.
As I write this, I realize how hard it sounds. You don’t ever want to have to ask family why they’re disappearing. It’s not something you expect to have to do with your family. But maybe through reaching out, you can usher in a new era of straightforwardness and honesty in your family?
I’ve set off truth bombs in the past, when I felt squeezed into a weird spot with family or close friends. I definitely lost some “lite” friends over my directness. But the real friends came back, even a couple years later. Our relationships are so much stronger now that they’re based on more openness. I must add that women are often leaned-upon and conditioned to do more emotional labor than men. Men can really get frozen into rote behavior because they’re socialized away from self-reflection and awareness of others’ needs. He might be doing that thing that some people do — clamming up when people move away. He might be jealous of you for moving to “the big city.” It might be a big dark ball of emotions he doesn’t know how to express.
If your brother puts up higher walls over your direct questions, I hope you can realize that this is his problem. I hope he doesn’t foist further emotional work on you. I hope you can find a way to “just say no” to this crazy-making dynamic. People can go through periods of weirdness and then re-emerge into clarity. It’s a rare soul who can be aware of what they’re going through and be able to communicate clearly about it, too. I saw a few people in my family go through transformations: Grouchy dudes turned into the sweetest grandpas; flighty scaredy cats turned into solid, dependable pillars. Family is all about that long-game.
Love to you and yours,
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Over the span of her career, Jolie Holland has knotted together a century of American song in jazz, blues, folk, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll. A founding member of the Be Good Tanyas, Holland has released a half-dozen critically lauded albums of her own material over the last 12 years. She recently rejoined forces with Samantha Parton — her former Be Good Tanyas bandmate — for a new duo project simply called Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton . Holland currently resides in Los Angeles.