Waving, not drowning

Dear Viv: Should I invite my difficult brother to a family dinner?

In this holiday special, Viv discusses whether or not to invite a difficult brother to a family meal, coping with in-laws without using alcohol, dealing with a sibling fallout and how to eliminate New Year resolution guilt

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By Viv Groskop on

DEAR VIV,

I have a very awkward brother who seems to incite an explosive argument every time the whole family gets together. 

We both live in London but we may as well be on different continents, as we only see each other 4/6 times a year, if that. He never calls, never wants to see the kids, never buys them birthday or Christmas presents.  We all went away to Paris in June, and he was prickly from word go (eye-rolling at all the sight-seeing but making no effort to suggest alternatives). The arguments are mainly between him and the female members  of the family, and usually revolve around how useless he thinks women are. He's always using stories from the news to support his low opinion (don't get me started on his comments post-Weinstein..)

My husband just wants a nice holiday season with no stress - he likes my brother but just wishes we'd all just get on better. We are hosting a family dinner over the holidays and my husband would rather he didn't come, but my mum loyally wants to have him with us. How much slack should I be cutting him - he's 44, and never seems to learn to bite his tongue! (brother not husband).

First of all, Merry Christmas everyone! Second of all, I really want to know what your brother said in defence of Weinstein! That has got to be entertaining at the very least. But bloody hell. What a nightmare. I don’t want to pretend that this situation has an easy solution. It doesn’t. You know that yourself. There are already a lot of contradictions in your letter that make this a tough one. I’m confused about your husband. You say he likes your brother but then you say your husband would rather your brother didn’t come. Which is it? If it’s closer to the first, then leave your husband with your brother. Put him in charge of your brother. Keep your brother away from women. This sounds like the best idea if your husband can manage it.

How much slack should you be cutting your 44-year-old brother? Well, it sounds like you already cut him quite a lot. So it all depends whether you want things to stay as they are or you want things to change. I think you’re not sure. On the one hand, you definitely don’t want things to get worse. On the other hand, I don’t think you want to actively instigate change otherwise you would have consider drastic alternatives, like cutting your brother out or like confronting him about his anti-social behaviour. 

So what to do? I think you need to sit down on your own -- without your husband or anyone else’s input -- and think about what you personally really want. Would you feel better if your brother didn’t come to this dinner? Sod what your mum thinks. What do you want? It’s absolutely your right to say you don’t want him there. You can make an excuse if it makes you feel better -- that you just want to do things differently this year, or you feel like a change, or you feel like having your mum to yourself. Best of all, as I’ve suggested before in other answers, be non-negotiable. Say: “This is what I’ve decided. It’s not open for discussion. It is happening like this. If you don’t like it, tough.”

That is one option. Think about what you want and if you find that you don’t want him there, cut him out and do it cleanly and mercilessly. You could think of it as an experiment: you’re doing this to see what happens. Nothing is irreversible and you’re not saying you’ll never have him round again. The other option is to invite him and try to be more relaxed. That is going to involve change of some kind. If you behave in the way you have always behaved, you will most likely attract the same outcome. So there are other ways to experiment here too. You could consider saying to your brother, “You’re welcome at ours but there are ground rules. If you break the ground rules, you either leave or you give me £100 or pay for all the wine.” Make it so that it’s something fun but make it non-negotiable. Or say to your husband: “I really need your help. You entertain him. You take him to the pub for at least two hours of his visit.” Do whatever you need to do to make that visit more fun and more bearable for you. That is what is missing here: what’s in this for you? Find that thing and focus on it and magnify it. It will make the visit better for you and that in turn will make things better for everyone. What is the most selfish thing you can do? Definitely do that. Perhaps I would slap him round the face with a plant pot Harvey Weinstein had masturbated into but possibly that option is not open to you.

DEAR VIV,

I always feel the need to drink alcohol to the extreme to cope around my husband's family. I'd like to get through the festive period without getting wasted in order to make it through the day painlessly and avoid embarrassing myself - do you have any tips?

Oh God. This is the million dollar Christmas question, isn’t it? How to survive family members without being a total alcoholic. Right? I have been at every end of this solution so at least I feel I have some kind of experience I can bring to this. I’ve been in family scenarios where I have sat there and thought smugly to myself: “I’ve cracked this. The answer all along was Aperol Spritz.” And then there have been other moments where I’ve thought: “I’ll just make myself a seventh Virgin Mary. Then everything will be fine. Maybe this time I’ll put in five ice cubes instead of four! Crazy days!” And I have had times when I have had to lock myself in the toilet because I am very, very drunk and crying a lot. So let me just say that I have experimented on your behalf and it has not always been pretty.

What are my tips, you ask. My main tip, after many years of trying and failing to answer the question “Is getting wasted at Christmas a very good or a very bad idea?” (real answer: depends on the demands of the Christmas).... my main tip is to choose a strategy, make the strategy as detailed as possible and stick to it. It must be a strategy that makes you feel happy and excited. If you choose a strategy that makes you feel miserable, then you won’t stick to it and you will rebel. So here are some good strategies to choose. Strategy One: Agree with yourself that you will drink no alcohol whatsoever but you will make the most exciting non-alcoholic cocktails known to man. Bring all your own drinks with you. Strategy Two: Agree with yourself that you will drink alcohol but be specific about the exact nature of the alcohol and when you will drink it. So you will drink two glasses of champagne, one at 12.42pm and the other at 2.01pm. At 2.16pm you will drink a weak gin and tonic. And so on. Plan your consumption and bring your own drinks. Strategy Three: Agree with yourself that you are going to get totally and utterly wasted and to hell with the consequences. This is a dangerous strategy but at least it’s an honest one.

I’m sure there are other strategies but these are the main ones. I’m not going to tell you not to drink as that’s inviting disaster. You know that the best thing would be not to drink. If you can find a way to manage that and make it entertaining for yourself, then that really is the very best way. But it is devilishly hard to make it entertaining. The most important thing -- and, come on, you know it, we all know it -- is recognising that we all have a tendency to outsource our agency in these situations. “Oh, I’m having a miserable time so I’m just going to drink all these drinks that I don’t really want, served to me by a person I don’t really like.” Sod that self-deluding bullshit. If you want to get drunk, get drunk and do it on your own terms. If you want to stay sober, stay sober. It might not feel like you have a choice here (because if you really did have a choice you would not be spending the day with these people) but you can make choices: choose your alcoholic drinks, choose your non-alcoholic drinks, make them listen to The Archers, read a book, take headphones, take Cluedo, eat your way through an entire box of Quality Street, say you’re only free to visit for two hours because you have terrible period pain. Basically: this is the moment to reclaim things for yourself by being creative. You can do it. Please report back on your strategy. Others are counting on you.

You can hear the answers to these and the following questions on Viv’s podcast, Waving, Not Drowning, above

Dear Viv, 

Several months ago I had a fairly serious falling out with my brother. It was over a trivial thing but it was symptomatic of deeper problems in our relationship that I don't think will ever heal. I'm fine with us never really getting on and I have no desire to fix the relationship. Over the holidays we're having a big meal with our parents and other siblings. It'll be the first time we've met since we had the falling out. I am angry with him, and if he mentions the fallout – which he is likely to – I am unlikely to keep my cool. I don't want to either spoil my mum's Christmas or cry tears of frustration and anger that he can then think I'm weak because of. How can I keep my cool and get through the meal?

Dear Viv, 

How can I make my new year’s resolutions stick this year? I feel like every year I decide to take up yoga, be better with money, work less and see my friends more, etc - but I look back on the year in December and always realise nothing has changed. I’m still stressed, broke, and a few pounds overweight. I feel like I’m coasting along ignoring the bigger picture, until suddenly I look back and realise I’m another year older. I want more control, but this constant cycle makes me feel powerless.

Got a question for Viv? Email her at DearViv@thepoolltd.com. The Dear Viv podcast airs fortnightly on The Pool at 5pm on Tuesdays. All letters will be edited for length. Unfortunately, Viv cannot reply to your emails personally. 

You can subscribe to The Pool's podcasts on iTunes

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