What I learned in Therapy: Compatible terms for relationship

“It is necessary, and even vital, to set standards for your life and the people you allow in it.”

(Mandy Hale)


Jockeying for space

I have three older brothers, one of whom I am close to, one of whom I always wanted to be close to, and then the oldest whom I was never particularly close with.

I had my AHA! moment with my middle brother who is 5 years older than I am. He spent most of his growing up years seeking attention…good, bad, or otherwise. I always wanted my middle brother’s attention because I thought he was brave and exciting, and he did adventurous things. He was everything I was not…loud, brash, outgoing, engaging, and he was immensely popular. He was always out with his friends doing things that I, as a young and introverted and unpopular girl, would never do. Among his friends he had one that he called his “little sister.” I was crushed because he didn’t acknowledge me as his sister, but he classified this neighbor as his family.

In fact, he mostly ignored me unless he was being mean, as older brothers are wont to be. At some point, though, he seemed to catch on that I could be useful to him. If I recall correctly, it was about protecting him in some way from being caught doing something wrong, like staying out late or smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol underage. I realized that doing something for him resulted in him giving me the attention I craved.

Wrapping around your finger

He lived at home until he was around 20, at which point he moved in with his then girlfriend who was around seven years old than him. Within a year they had married, with the ceremony being held the same day as our youngest brother’s graduation. We had to literally race from the graduation ceremony to go directly to the wedding, which was an hour away.

Two years later they had their first child, whom they chose to introduce to the family on my graduation day, at my graduation party. I see now that my brother was attempting to continue to be the center of attention, even though he was no longer living with my family. My parents were not approving of my brother’s relationship from the onset, and sometime during my nephew’s first year of life a family disagreement resulted in my brother and his wife cutting themselves off from our family.

My brother abandoned me to move in with his girlfriend, then re-abandoned me when they stopped communication with our family.

Olive branches, torched

It was probably five years or so before I decided to reach out to my brother by letter. Unfortunately, although he responded in kind to my letter, he didn’t invite me into his life which at that point included a second child we didn’t even know about.

Once his marriage had gone south and he wanted support, he reached back to me to help him re-integrate with our family.

He also needed a place to live while he was separating from his wife, and luckily for him I had a spare room in my townhouse. He lived with me for over a year, and every other weekend his kids stayed with us. I thought that my brother and I were finally becoming close, sharing a home and meals and our lives.

I felt like he had finally recognized me as worthy, although I now see that he needed me and he needed the things I could do for him. It wasn’t that he actively wanted me in his life, he saw how I could be valuable to him.

A place in HIS sun

Shortly after his divorce was final, my brother moved out of my house and into his girlfriend’s house. I was actively planning my wedding, which was about six months away. My brother and his new girlfriend decided about a month before my wedding that they were going to get married two weeks after my husband and I did. Clearly there was no way he was going to not be the center of attention.

Much of the conversations at my wedding reception were about how my brother was getting married in two weeks. Less than a year after their marriage, my brother and his new wife picked up their family and moved twelve hours away, leaving me once again.

Hiding in pixels

Over the next 10 years, they would come to visit their friends in the area, but not our family, or even hers. We communicated through social media or text alone.  Even as our mother wrestled with cancer and cancer treatments our communication remained exclusively in pixels.

After my mother’s passing, my brother decided that he wanted to move back to our area, so he moved in with our father while they searched for a house. I thought we were finding some closeness again, especially since he had time to spend with me while his wife was still living in their old home twelve hours away. When his wife eventually joined him, they bought a house over an hour away from us. 

He abandoned me yet again. I hardly saw him, although we tried to stay in touch on the phone while he was traveling for work.  Back to pixels.

Déjà vu all over again

Unfortunately, about a year later, his wife’s mother died unexpectedly during the summer height of COVID-19.  We had some sort of mutual miscommunication.  I tried to clear it up but my brother declined to respond at all.

Where you end, where I start

After talking it through in therapy, I came to the realization that not only could I live my life without my brother, but that I had done it multiple times already in my life. And I had survived 100% of the times it had happened before.

Then two months after my last attempt at contact with him, my brother emailed me to say how upset he was with the situation. Two months he ignored me, abandoned me without a word, and then he decides he wants to talk to me. Why? Because he’s having a tough time. Although he was still talking with our father and brother, it was me he was wanting to talk with. But he “couldn’t” because of how I had supposedly mistreated his wife.

My brother had contacted me after two silent months because he needed me and what I could do for him. He needed me to help him through the tough situations he was having in his life. He didn’t ask about how I was feeling (dealing with multiple chronic illnesses that could leave me bedridden for weeks or months at a time), he didn’t apologize for not speaking to me for months or for believing that I could be purposefully cruel to his wife…nothing. Just that he needed me to support him through the things he was dealing with. He didn’t say he wanted me in his life—which was something I had said to him in my email—just that he “needed” my support.

Connecting the dots

The pattern started to come together for me: I wanted him to love me. I wanted him to see me as important in his life. I wanted to matter to him. I wanted him to see my value. And I had tried to convince him of these things by being his support, his cheerleader, his bridge, his advisor…anytime he needed me, I was there. The problem became that I only saw myself as worthy of his love by doing things for him.

“I taught him how to treat me.”

I let him come back into my liftime and again without requiring anything of him. I didn’t ask him to respect my boundaries (which I didn’t have at the time) or my time, and I allowed him to abuse my gifts. It wasn’t entirely his fault; I had taught him how to treat me. And even worse, I had taught myself that my value required someone else’s approval of me.

I knew from my work in therapy that I needed to see myself as worthy and valuable merely because I am here on this earth. Because I am living and breathing, no matter what I do with my life or who I am supportive to or what nostalgic food I bake to remind my family of my deceased mother…I am worthy. I have value.


I made sure that I clearly communicated my terms for relationship with my brother and his wife. There would be no guessing and no assuming, on either side. If they need or want me, they have to own up to it and ask…and I would do the same in return. If I am unable to be of assistance, I would be honest and up front about it…and I asked them for the same in return. I told them that I will stand up for myself and not be taken advantage of anymore.

It has been a month since I heard from my brother. I had contact from his wife twice, but she was rude and insulting so I chose not to engage with her.

Giving abundantly, from center

I understand now that I can still be there for the people in my life—within my boundaries and on my terms. I will act from a heart full of love, kindness, and compassion. That is who I am, and that is the value I bring to this world no matter what others think of me. I am the same person and yet I am new. I can now offer my gifts to others in the frame of pure generosity rather than in an attempted trade for validation.

And what others think of me is their problem, not mine. What I think of me is my problem…and my responsibility to define.


If you’re struggling in your relationships, feel free to reach out to Tiffany here. I’d be glad to help any way I can.