How Do I Talk to My Brother About the Way He Treats His Girlfriend?

If they break up, I'm not sure who I would choose

by Liz Moorhead, Editor, Ask APW

woman standing alone in the sun

Q:I absolutely love my younger brother’s partner. They are pre-engaged, but she’s felt like a part of the family for years, and is a wonderful and generous person.

But I have a real problem with how my brother treats her. Behavior that I used to brush off as youthful immaturity on my brother’s part (like irrational jealousy and flaking on very basic boyfriend duties, hurting her feelings) has not gone away and is troubling to witness. I’ve come to think of her as one of my best friends, as close to a sister as I’ll ever get. She seems content with the status quo of their relationship, but I can’t help but think that if it were anyone but my own brother she was dating, I’d be encouraging her to break the relationship off in search of a guy who’d treat her better.

It’s so hard because part of what has kept my (and probably my family’s) mouth shut up to this point is selfishness: 1) We don’t want to lose her, and 2) she makes my brother better. She encourages him to be more family-oriented, and she does a lot of emotional labor that helps him stay connected to us. And if they were to break up, I’m terrified and heartbroken at the prospect of having to choose between my brother and my almost-sister (because I don’t think he’s mature enough to handle a breakup properly). I’m unsure of how to broach the subject of suggesting they go to counseling without it sounding like I’m judging them, or it just turning into a fight with my brother over my “butting in.” Any advice??


A: Dear Anonymous,

Don’t say anything to her.

Talk to your brother.

It gets tiring, doesn’t it? To be a woman and to be on guard for all the ways that men can be terrible to you. To warn other women to watch their backs, to encourage them to do different things to avoid being victimized, to tell them to hold high standards and to expect men to rise to them. Screw that. He’s your brother, your family—tell him all the ways he’s falling down and how he needs to step up.

Maybe my words are strong, but yours don’t have to be. You obviously care about this lady, and he’s your brother, so I’m guessing you care about him too. Have a heart-to-heart. It’s not about judging them (though I’m giving him some side-eye from over here). Every relationship can use some outsider input from time to time (that’s why I have a job).

These tricky conversations are best handled by asking some questions and listening before launching into your, “I think”s. Opinions: Everyone has them, nobody wants to hear them. So just ask him what’s going on; open up the lines of communication. “Does it ever bother your girlfriend when you…” might be enough to get his wheels turning without even offering your nuggets of wisdom.

Yeah, he might ignore you. Or maybe you already tried this and it went nowhere. But that’s where I’d start—at the source of the problem. And if he still doesn’t right the ship, then yeah, you’ve gotta let that girl know what’s up.


Liz Moorhead

Liz is an illustrator and writer who paints custom stationery and types up impassioned opinions about weddings, etiquette, feminism and motherhood (usually while shaking a fist and mumbling expletives around mouthfuls of cheese fries). Her spare time is spent sipping bourbon with her husband and playing Don’t Throw That in the Toilet with her sons.

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  • sofar

    I agree.Talk to the brother. Due to his lack of maturity, though, he may not be receptive.

    If that’s the case … maybe talk to the girlfriend? Maybe along the lines of, “I know how my brother can be sometimes. Obviously we both love him, but feel free to let me know if there’s anything that’s really pissing you off.” If she trusts you and tells you she’s been thinking of breaking it off, assure her you’ll always be in her life. I know tons of people who are still close with their ex’s moms and sisters (who know all too well their son/brother didn’t deserve them).

    When I was with my ex (who didn’t treat me well), it meant a lot when one of us cousins came up to me and go, “I love him, he’s my cousin, but damn can he be a dick. We all love you, but nobody would blame you if you didn’t want to put up with his shit.” I had been thinking of breaking up but felt such intense guilt about disappointing his family (whom I loved). Hearing that helped me get the ball rolling.

    • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

      I’m on this page. She’ll make her own decision, but if she stays with him, she’ll know she has someone who loves her *and* her dude who also completely acknowledges that said dude can be a jerk.

    • TheOtherLiz

      Yes, well said, BUT I do like the big picture thing Liz is doing in her advice: so often the response to women getting treated badly is to talk to the WOMEN about it. You know, everything from rape prevention techniques, to “you should leave your abusive partner.” I don’t think even LW realized the implications of contemplating talking to the woman instead of the man in this situation. That it’s the woman’s responsibility to react to the news that someone you’re close to has concerns about your boyfriend’s behavior. It’s an interesting thing to point out.

      • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

        I don’t see why LW can’t do both. Call brother out on his bullshit, because it’s his responsibility to change, and also let the GF know that she has a sympathetic ear if she ever needs to talk.

  • louise danger

    Instead of the sort of judgey-sounding “Does it bother your girlfriend when you…?” language Liz suggested – which implies not only that you have a probably-negative opinion about something to do with his relationship, and specifically with something he’s doing in his relationship, why not ask your brother if he realizes how awesome his girlfriend is? “Broseph, you seem so [happy/energetic/on top of things/etc] now that YourGirl is around, I’m so happy for you! She’s so amazing!”

    This likely will spur an (enthusiastic?) agreement from him – yeah, she really is, i’m so lucky, etc – which can open the door for you asking if he’s done anything special for her lately/if he has plans for her birthday-or-pending-occasion-of-choice, and when/if the answer is no, you can then chime in with the sisterly advice and concerns – that if he doesn’t want HisGirl to leave, he needs to start treating her better and taking initiative for himself. Which is perfectly sister-appropriate advice to give a brother, IMHO.

    My brothers and I have a really weird and occasionally antagonistic relationship, so just leaping into a heart-to-heart as Liz suggested would not work for us, but broaching the subject from a broader point of view at the start would allow us to get there with minimal hurt feelings or mistaken motives.

    • louise, I had my comment typed and ready to post an hour ago, got called away, and just now posted and then saw that we had very different reactions to the “does it bother your gf…?” prompt. I guess I’d put it on a scale — the straight-up direct conversation suggested by a few of the comments above, the “does it bother” version, and then yours, which is even more indirect. I think you and I are coming from a similar place in that a super direct conversation could be destructive to the sibling relationship, depending on what their normal type of communication is. I like that the OP has a range of options now for how to handle this conversation, depending on her relationship with her brother.

      • Michela

        Totally agree. LW knows her brother, so now she’ll have a range of approaches she can take depending on what she believes will work best.

  • Amy March

    I think I come down on the side of don’t talk to girlfriend. Is she being abused or controlled? It doesn’t really sound like it, and unfortunate as it is, she’s a grownup and it’s up to her if she wants to be in this relationship or not. Particularly since you aren’t a disinterested outsider who only wants what is best for her- that isn’t a knock, but you just aren’t! You have a lot of irons in this fire. This woman has other friends surely? Her own family? This is a complicated situation and you’re the last person suited to do any of this. I mean, I agree with Liz, honestly what is even the point of having siblings if not to have someone who has zero problem telling you “hey stop being such a jerk” but as for intervening with her? I just don’t think so.

    • H

      I agree, but with a caution to keep an eye out to make sure she’s not being abused/controlled. “Irrational jealousy” doesn’t necessarily mean abuse, but it is a red flag. If your brother is abusing this woman, I do think you have the responsibility to do something. Even if that means rocking the family boat or upsetting your brother.

    • Annie

      Yes, my hesitancy here is that the LW admitted the girlfriend’s contentedness. Perhaps she’s genuinely content? / Has different priorities in a relationship? I agree that irrational jealousy [assuming in relatively harmless amounts], immaturity, and flakiness would be deal breakers for me, but maybe the brother’s specific good qualities outweigh his specific bad qualities for this specific woman.

      And definitely, yes, the complexity of being her boyfriend’s sister makes for an awkward at best, combative as worst conversation if she went that route. I know I’d be much more pissed to hear, “You should consider breaking up with my brother” than “You should consider breaking up with your boyfriend [a person I only know through our friendship.” The latter is something I can view as an objective perspective that can be talked through; the former is a bomb thrown on very intimate ties, in all directions.

    • Katharine Parker

      Agreed. Encouraging a friend to break up with their partner–when the friend has not expressed any dissatisfaction with the relationship–is a minefield when it isn’t your brother’s partner. It can be really difficult as an outsider to understand why anyone stays in a relationship that isn’t what you would choose, and the complexity of a sibling relationship doesn’t always make it easy to see why your brother might be a decent boyfriend, or at least a boyfriend his partner is happy with. There is a big difference between saying, “dude, you’re being a butthead,” to your brother when he flakes and telling his partner that she deserves better.

  • Megan

    Just to add to the practicality of the conversation try using “I notice” as a good starting point. Use non-judgmental facts without too many adjectives. Describing someone in a negative way with your “I notice” statement can really shut things down. (Like… “I notice that when Jebreca gets a text message you react strongly.” Or “I notice when Jesixandra is telling a story you tend to jump in to correct her.”) and leave spaces for conversation and dialogue.

    Then you can slip in some opinions with “I wonder” (like “I wonder if you trust her to have relationships outside of your own.” or “I wonder if you feel left out when the family’s attention is focused solely on her.”) and suggestions with “I wish” (Oy, I couldn’t think of any good wish statements… Something along the lines of “I wish you weren’t such a dick to her…” lol)

  • emilyg25

    You’re a big sister! You know how to boss lil bro around! If this was me, I’d tell him, “Yo, you’re being an asshole. Get your shit together. She doesn’t deserve you right now.” (That’s how I heart-to-heart with my brother.)

  • honeycomehome

    Liz is right. Talk to your brother. But don’t be nice about it. Don’t say “I noticed…” or “Have you ever thought…?” Part of the reason men get away with this kind of behavior is because all the women around them (sisters, mothers, girlfriends) don’t want to hurt their feelings. But why should you worry about his feelings? Next time he flakes on her, or next time he hurts her feelings, you should say, “Brother, that’s hurtful and inconsiderate behavior. Girlfriend deserves better, and right now she deserves an apology.” Will he be defensive and roll his eyes? PROBABLY. But he needs to hear it, and your goal should not be to fix your brother’s girlfriend’s relationship. Your goal should be to help your brother be a better person, regardless of if she sticks around or if he dates someone else in the future.

    • rg223

      Yeah, I too am thinking more direct language might be appropriate here. Because I could very easily see the conversation going like this:

      LW: “Does it bother your girlfriend when you do X?”
      Brother: “Nope! She just gets me!” [carries on in obliviousness]

      Especially if the issue truly is immaturity – it might not have even occurred to Brother that he is actually being a jerk, and (gently) calling that out more specifically would help him more than offend him.

      • Michela

        That’s a good point. Maybe it would work well to shift the language slightly and say, “I’ve noticed GF gets quiet and withdrawn when you do xyz. I do that, too, when I’m hurt by a partner. Have you noticed that? Has she ever mentioned that?” It’s harder to say “nope! she just gets me!” when LW admits to being hurt by the same behavior.

    • sofar

      Agreed. It makes me so happy when my husband’s sister gets in his messy car and goes, “OMG you are SUCH a slob! Sofar, does he mess up the house? *turns back to brother* Seriously, you are a grown man. If I hear you’re messing up the house, you are dead.”

      And it makes me SO happy when his mom notices he’s annoying me and intervenes.

      Sure, I always tell him if something’s bothering me, but it makes me feel good to know his family calls him on his shit, too.

    • Liz

      I think it can depend. If the goal is to help him be better, and her manner shuts him down to the content of what she’s saying, it defeats the purpose.

    • Gina

      OMYGOSH THIS. The whole reason to have siblings is so that you can say “oh my god you are being a DICK. Cut it out.”

      I realize not everyone may have this relationship with their siblings, but be straight up. Brothers need that. I’ve told my brother when he wasn’t treating his girlfriend right, and I’ve had to tell him directly because he was that oblivious.

      • Eenie

        I have two brothers and this would absolutely work with one and would greatly offend the other.

        • Liz

          Yeah, exactly. My brother would respond best to a, “Yo, dummy.” But it sounds like LW might not have the same kinda brother.

          • Michela

            My brother would respond well to a “yo, dummy” too, but my sister would storm out and not speak to me for weeks. She’s been navigating lots of tough life issues lately- hating her new job, becoming pre-engaged, considering a cross-country move, etc.- and sometimes my mind is boggled by the choices she’s making in response to those issues. What I’ve found works well is to say, “when I went through something similar, this is what worked well for me. The reason it worked well is xyz, and I think we’re similar in that way, so maybe xyz would work well for you, too”. I’ve also noticed that when we talk the next time she will often say, “I was thinking about what you said last time, and I think I’m going to try that.” It’s definitely a softer approach, but it’s worked better for her more temperamental personality.

            Obviously not a cure all for douche bags, but maybe that’s a good way to begin the conversation. If that doesn’t work, by all means, call him out!

          • rachiepoo

            I had a related conversation a few years ago where I needed to talk to my sibling about her dysfunctional relationship, but she would NOT have responded well to “yo, dummy.” My sister and her boyfriend had been together since high school and had never gotten past some of their destructive teenage ways of communication. I was pretty worried that they should not be together but that they would get married anyway. They were probably equally at fault, which I’m sure made it easier to broach the subject with my sister compared to the LW’s situation.

            My approach was to talk to my sister alone and say, “I love you, I want you to be happy, and from what I’ve seen and experienced of relationships, people are way happier if they (xyz). I’ve noticed that you and boyfriend end up accidentally arguing because of (xyz). I worry that if you don’t figure out how to communicate better, you’re going to make each other really unhappy. I really hope that you can learn to (xyz).”

            The communication issue I brought up wasn’t my only concern about their relationship, but it was a major one, and it was based on behaviors (which could be changed) rather than specifically bashing her boyfriend or their relationship. It wasn’t a fun conversation; we both cried; she didn’t want to talk about it with me but did hear me out. I don’t know if that conversation changed their relationship at all, but it certainly made me feel better — I had expressed my concern, so I didn’t have to feel that I was standing by and doing nothing while my beloved sister made a painful mistake. I think the only reason this worked out okay was that I was very careful to aim my criticism at specific behaviors, without saying bad things about them or whether they should be together.

            Eventually they did improve their communication, they both grew up in ways that made them better partners, and I was super happy for them when they got married! And also neither of them had to know my worst fears about their relationship at its low points, so we can all have happy relationships with each other. So I say, talk to your brother about your concerns, or even talk to his girlfriend, but focus on specific behaviors, and don’t imply that you don’t think they should be together. Imagine your words ringing in their ears at their most insecure relationship moments, in the hypothetical future when they’re trying to make their marriage work — and make sure your words will be constructive even then.

  • I had some family criticism of my relationship that felt like it came out of the blue — it seemed (to me) that they hadn’t had enough serious conversations about relationships in general before jumping into the criticism. From that perspective, I love, love, LOVE Liz’s suggestion for an opening question: “Does it bother your gf when you…?” I think it’s less judgmental: rather than saying “your relationship works in X way and that way is bad” it’s more like “huh, I’m just gathering information about how your relationship works.”

  • Fiona

    My mom did this recently with my brother and it filled me with so much glee. She flat out (me too!) disapproved with the way he was acting with his person and told him he should pull it together. She continued to be kind to both of them in public and didn’t bring it up again. I think it worked though because things definitely turned around!

  • Anony Mouse

    Sooo this is awkward, but this letter resembles my life – except, I’m the girlfriend. Some of the behaviors are different – he’s not jealous, for example – but I am super close to his younger sister and we sometimes commiserate about some of these behaviors he’s had since a kid that can hurt our relationship. It doesn’t dominate our time together by any means, but it clearly frustrates her when things come up.

    But, I’m still very content with our relationship. We’ve worked out a lot of stuff (on both sides!), continue to make progress on others, and have a few issues that we’ve accepted can’t be “fixed” and instead need workarounds. He has genuine interest in being the best partner possible and has done the work to demonstrate it. With that mindset, we can handle anything that comes our way, and that is very, very important to me. I worry that his sister has trouble seeing those changes, since he has been a certain way for a long time.

    I’m not implying that this is the case with LW’s brother – despite my defense, I think Liz’s advice is solid. I am just hoping LW sees this as a reminder that sometimes things aren’t as they seem. From a statistical nerd standpoint, any changes may not be noticeable since she has such a larger data set, but by looking a shorter time period, that trend may be much more obvious.

    • NotMotherTheresa

      I’m in the same boat as well! I’m not that close with my husband’s sister, but I love his mom, and we’ve certainly talked about behaviors of his that damage our relationship.
      My husband’s not perfect. At all. He absolutely does things that would be deal breakers for a lot of women (not serious, abusive things, just immature, overgrown 16 year old things–the amount of emotional labor that goes into helping manage his life is ridiculous). But…we’re actually really happy together. At the end of the day, despite his faults, we have really compatible values and life goals. He too has a genuine interest in being the best partner possible, as such, he’s made incredible progress over the months and years. His main problem is that from an emotional standpoint, there wasn’t much growth between the ages of 16 and 25, so even though he’s doing better now, he’s about ten years behind where a well-adjusted person his age “should” be.

      • thebeadedkusudama

        I can totally relate to what you said about no emotional maturation between 16 and 25. My own brother and my parents are caught up in an unfortunate dynamic where they seem content to just let him carry on like a 17 year old indefinitely. He’s 32. He’s never had a relationship and as much as I love him, I honestly don’t think he’s emotionally mature enough to handle one. It drives me batshit crazy to see how little anyone expects of him, including himself. I am glad to hear that your partner is working on those things!
        I’m pregnant now and my husband and I have had a lot of discussion about how we will raise this baby differently if it’s a boy, because he sees the issues with my brother’s behaviour too.

  • Scaredsis

    I’m in a very similar situation except my instead of it being my brothers girlfriend, it’s his wife. He is awful to her and to their children especially his stepson. He and I don’t have a close relationship and it breaks my heart when she tells me all of the terrible things he does and says. It keep me up at night terrified about how he is destroying all their lives. He needs serious help and I don’t know where to begin.

    • Katelyn

      Whoa… that’s not just “youthful immaturity” – that sounds like an abusive situation. Completely different ballgame. Talking to your brother might only escalate that situation if he finds out his wife is telling you these things. I would tread very, very carefully and make sure his wife stays safe. If he is abusing his stepson, a call to child protective services may be in order.

    • emilyg25

      Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. They can help walk you through the best approach.

  • Mrrpaderp

    Totally agree that LW should address it with her brother first. I’d try more casual talks before having a big sit-down with him about this. Address his behavior in the moment. When GF mentions a male friend and he gets That Look, call him out. When he commands her to get him a beer, tell him to get it himself. When he doesn’t thank her for taking his plate to the kitchen, tell him to say thank you. The same goes if he’s complaining to you about some perceived slight – tell him he’s in the wrong. That kind of feedback is really critical for anyone. A lot of people don’t have that one, really good friend who will call you out on your shit when you’re wrong. It’s so much easier to be an echo chamber. LW is well-positioned to be that one really good friend to her brother.

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