Trouble with Irresponsible “Passive-Aggressive” Brother

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Reader’s Question

My older brother has been extremely depressed for the past 8 years. It all started around the time he got in trouble with the law and all his friends as well as his girlfriend left him. For the majority of that time, he did not talk to anybody in our family except for me.

It might be worth noting that my dad was extremely passive-aggressive, as well as physically and verbally abusive when we were kids. My mom constantly never really stood up for herself.

My brother is also extremely passive-aggressive. In the past he blamed his ex-friends, members of my family, and others for why he was unhappy. In the last year it seems like he has made strides. He shows a desire to move forward in his life (he graduated college) and shows an effort to respond to people when talked to, most of the time. However, he does not communicate his needs and wants to anyone. He rarely talks unless talked to or to ask for something.

My brother rarely does something he’s asked unless he feels like it. He constantly leaves his belongings, dirty clothes, and trash everywhere. He does not uphold his responsibilities around the house, even when asked. When I confront him about things, he either closes his eyes and acts like I’m yelling at him or ignores me. My mom still plays the enabler role and allows him to passively walk all over her. I have a feeling that she feels guilty, so she lets him get away with things.

From my perspective, my brother also seems very clingy. He wants to be included when I go out but at home he will have no problem with ignoring me or my mom and is very passive and will respond to conversation only when spoken to.

I have personally experienced serious depression in the recent past. I have mentioned to him that therapy really helped me and asked him if he had ever considered it. I know I can’t make decisions for him and in the end it has to be him to make it. I myself am trying to move forward in my life, and I fear that if I don’t distance myself from him my own happiness and focus is at stake. I also feel strongly that it’s gotten to the point where I am no longer helping him by being around, as I have expressed how I feel and what I think would help. However, every attempt I make at gaining distance, he follows closely which makes me feel a great deal of guilt for doing so. I am very unsure about how to deal with the situation, and any insight would be greatly appreciated.

Psychologist’s Reply

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Firstly, you use the terms “passive” and “passive aggressive” to describe some behaviors that do not appear in any way passive. You applied the same terms to your father, who you admit was quite openly (and actively as opposed to passively) abusive in his conduct both verbally and physically. I have written many articles on the subject of overt and covert aggressive behaviors as well as the misinterpretation of “passive” behaviors. My books In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] and Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] include a robust discussion about how the flagrantly irresponsible behavior of some persons can be erroneously misinterpreted.

Secondly, you have experience with depression and therefore believe that you see some signs that your brother must be struggling with an underlying depression. While this might be correct, it would be worth considering that when you were in pain, you sought help. This is what most people do, if they’re not also disturbed in character.

It can be quite risky to assume that other people are engaging in problematic behavior for the same reasons that might prompt you to do so. We are not all alike in personality or character. And sometimes, people have deficiencies of character that impair their willingness to be responsible. Life lessons may prompt the issue of change, but character development is often a difficult and lengthy process for those who are responsibility-challenged. And you are correct to note that the “enablers” who typically surround such people only make the situation worse.

In the end, your brother’s problems and challenges are his own. Your responsibility is to set limits, expectations, and boundaries to protect and advance yourself. Certainly you can be supportive. And, from what you say, your brother has at least made some strides. But from all the evidence you present, he still has some work to do.

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