Dear Ann Cannon • I noticed that one of the tools you mentioned for good family relationships was keeping confidences. I’m struggling with this in regard to my brother. He’s only 2 years older than I am, and we literally fought our entire childhood. In our 30s, we became estranged because my mom included a child he had relinquished his parental rights to in her will. I found myself in the peculiar position as executor of having to defend my mother’s wishes. More than a decade later, I finally reconciled with him after our older brother passed away. I invited him to one of my children’s weddings after that, and he decided he loved my adult children. (Duh! They’re awesome.)
About six years ago, my dad passed away. By then, my brother had remarried (fourth marriage) to a much younger, foreign woman. When I traveled to see Dad, my brother told me not to tell his current wife anything about his previous marriages or his son. At the time, I was so stressed out about our dad that I didn’t push back.
Here’s my problem. In a couple of years, we are retiring and moving out of Utah for health reasons. In fact, we’re moving very near where my brother lives. I know he will probably find out because of social media. I’m not sure what kind of relationship he wants or expects, but if I’m required to be his secret-keeper, I’m not interested in any kind of relationship. I can’t be sure I won’t inadvertently say something sometime. Do you think it’s reasonable for him to require that I keep his confidence? I’m all for keeping confidences, but this seems extreme.
Dear Troubled • There’s a lot going on here, for sure. Let me try to unpack my response piece by piece for you.
As a general rule I think family members should honor one another’s confidences. BUT! There are confidences and then there are confidences, right? Certain situations require that information absolutely should be shared — especially if a person’s safety and well-being depend upon it. I also don’t think it’s fair for a family member to put another family member in a difficult, untenable position, which is what your brother has done to you.
So. What should you do?
Frankly, I agree that you can’t slip into his neck of the woods unnoticed. That’s why I think you should contact him before moving and tell him upfront that you’re coming to a theater (or whatever) near him. Inform your brother that while you won’t make it a point to spill the beans to his wife, you also don’t want to buy into the false narrative of his life that he’s created for her and, furthermore, that it’s unfair of him to expect you to do so. Then put the ball in his court. Given this information, does he want to have contact with you? Or not? It’s up to him.
Incidentally, how long has your brother been married to his current wife? At least six years, right? Is there a chance that she may now know more about your brother’s past? Sitting on secrets can be hard work. Talking to him would provide you with information on this front, as well.
Meanwhile, good luck to you as you navigate your future dealings with this brother.