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Bit of background on my relationship with my brother: ever since my teenage years, I could not bear him. I know it is common for siblings to have arguments and misunderstandings, and that's been the case with both of my siblings. However, this particular brother has long since lost my respect and love, due to a number of attitudes, character flaws, mistreatment and other issues that are irrelevant to this question. The point is: I feel no sympathy for this brother and look forward to moving out so I never have to see his face again, but I don't think he's aware of my feelings towards him (note that me moving out might take a few years, whereas he wants this tattoo in a few weeks). While it's understandable he'd still love me and want to be a part of my life, he just assumes I reciprocate - somehow missing my obvious neglect of reciprocity for years. Just to be clear, I've had arguments and misunderstandings - even physical fights - with my other, younger brother, but we still love each other. My problem is this particular brother, and not my family relationships.

A few weeks ago, he caught me by surprise with a request - I'm sorry, a demand - that I design up a tattoo for him. He's made tattoos before, but recently he's converted into a branch of Christianity. I'm no artist, but I know a thing or two about typography, so he came straight to me to tell me, and I quote, that "you are going to make me a tattoo with this religious message and symbol. Please find a nice font and symbol, this tattoo is very important to me. I've always known I wanted this tattoo, and God told me it had to be you". At that point I didn't know whether to laugh it off or hide in concern.

I don't wish to seem religiously intolerant, but I'm not religious myself. While I respect his religion, his God clearly doesn't know me well enough in that I'd never desire to have any association between myself and this brother, especially a permanent one with emotional attachment from his side. He gave me a limited amount of time to find him assets for this tattoo without ever asking if I wanted to do it. Note that he only wants me to find a font/symbol for his tattoo, he's still going to a professional to get it made. (Also note that he knows I would know better than picking Comic Sans - I want to avert conflict, not instigate it.)

While the obvious "just say no" answer might be right at the tip of your fingers, there are a couple complicating factors: he doesn't take "no" for an answer, becoming enraged when he doesn't get it his way (sometimes bordering physical assault, though thankfully I never had to experienced that), and the religious nature of this request makes it basically impossible to say no without either denying his religion or "personally insulting his faith". Yes, he is manipulative and aggressive - I do have my reasons to want distance from him. He's a couple years older than me and much bigger, so I'd much rather not push his buttons. But I am decided not to give him this tattoo design, especially since I'm sure he'll use it to attempt some sort of emotional blackmail or perceived bonding between us in the future.

TL;DR: My brother wants me to make a religious tattoo for him, and his God said I would. I refuse to make it, but saying no to him could make him rather aggressive.

As for the question, though you might have already guessed:
How do I assertively say no to my brother's request of religious nature without starting a fight?

My goals:

  • Not making the design: making it would be infinitely easier for the conflict, but in the long run something I'd eternally regret, so not an option;
  • Not getting him angry or in a religious rant: I really don't want to trigger him. This includes questioning the validity of his choice based on whether or not he agrees with Leviticus 19:28;
  • Bonus points if he doesn't try to coerce my parents into peer-pressuring me (though that's probably going to happen);
  • Extra bonus points if somehow he accepts it in a understanding fashion (the least tension between us the better).

EDIT: As per request via comment: I'm 24, my brother is 26. We live together with our parents in the United States.

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    Do you have any tattoos yourself? If not, you could take the position that you don't like tattoos and don't want to be involved in designing his tattoo because of your feelings on the subject. (Whether it's true or not - it makes the conversation about tattoos, not about religion.) – Steve-O Jun 18 '18 at 13:08
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    Why does he not let the professionals help him find the perfect font/symbol with him? The preparation part (everything before actually shooting ink into the skin) is a long and very important procedure. Is it really because his god told him to 'ask' you, or could it be other reasons (financial, emotional)? – Kaspar Scherrer Jun 18 '18 at 13:09
  • How much do your parents know about the rift between you two? Do they know that you feel this way about him? – scohe001 Jun 18 '18 at 15:58
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    Have you tried talking to his pastor? – RBarryYoung Jun 19 '18 at 21:52
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – Tinkeringbell Jun 20 '18 at 17:50

10 Answers 10

38

Religion does not need to be a part of this, and neither does the fact that you dislike him. Tattoos are (for all intents and purposes) permanent and any mistake will be there forever, so it should be best left to someone who knows what they're doing.

I found a whole blog post that covers the things people need to know before getting lettering tattoos. This is ripped straight from the article and really details why you should get a professional.

I’ve seen countless lettering tattoos where I could tell that the person made it themselves, just because of the lack of creative critical eye. Yes it’s easy to fall in love with a swirly font, yet you may not have the necessary perspective to make a creative decision that you won’t regret in a few months. What artists have is a level of skills and expertise that allows them to create artwork that you will love forever.

As I said before, religion does not even need to be a part of this, as I would not design a lettering tattoo for someone even if it was non-religious.

31

With respect, I don't think you can have your cake and eat it too in this situation. If you really aren't going to do this tattoo I suspect you're going to have confrontation on some level. My younger brother was like this for a time and it was nigh impossible to avoid a dispute if you weren't giving him his way.

As such I and others can offer ways to maneuver so that your brother can't justify his anger at you, but that only works if he bothers to try such a justification. If he's like my brother, he'll get angry now and backfill his argument on the fly. In my case it was common to have me and all witnesses, every family member, and a stack of irrefutable evidence on my side and he'd start raging about my tone or the words I used.

In my experience the way to handle this is to simply refuse with a minimum viable excuse "I don't feel comfortable doing this" and then refuse to answer questions about why you aren't comfortable. Don't engage any refutations either, if he claims you just hate his religion you simply reiterate that you're not going to argue about this and leave/disengage. The reason I found this effective is that if you offer no argument and don't say anything specific, he's got nothing to argue against. He can be angry that he's not getting what he wants, but thats gonna happen 100% of the time if you don't do it. So simply deny him any ammunition and endure whatever amount of flak comes from there, he'll look more the fool for blasting you over simple refusal than if he has time to build a case.

I don't mean to be callous but I think if your brother is going to become violent or dangerous he's going to do so independent of any arguments you muster.

If you need to actually prepare to physically protect yourself or at least have witnesses to your reasonable interaction, I'd let your parents know about your discomfort, perhaps offer them an explanation if they desire it. I dare say your brother will involve them on his own if he thinks he can get them to pressure you into it. My brother leveraged the fact that I respected my parents by threatening to drag them into things, and I'd hate to see you suffer that as well, so instead simply tell them your intent and let them make decisions on their own terms.

Sorry if it's not any better but I don't think you can dodge this altogether.

17

You say that one of your fears is that he may "try to coerce [your] parents into peer-pressuring [you]." If your brother is anything like mine, when he goes to your parents about this, the story he'll be giving will be strongly slanted/embellished in his favor and painting you as a bad guy. Because of this, I'd suggest talking to your parents first.

I'm not saying you should involve them, but they should be made aware of the situation in a way that's favorable for you just in case your brother decides to escalate. As such, I'd come to them and lay down the unarguable facts. Your brother approached you telling you that he needs to you help him with his tattoo. Your brother cited that this is religious. You don't feel comfortable helping with the tattoo. Let them know you don't want them to be involved, but just in case, you wanted to let them know what you're planning to tell your brother (and maybe they'll have some suggestions for you!).

Once you've covered your bases with your parents, then I'd have the conversation with the brother. In addition to the wonderful suggestions in other answers for reasons not to design the tattoo, I'd also try to give some alternate suggestions. This could be done by finding a freelance graphic designer in your area and giving their contact to your brother or even talking to some local tattoo artists about what he's trying and relating their suggestions.

By putting in some effort and showing him that you're not just saying no, but actually putting in some work and trying to be helpful, he'll likely be more inclined to accept your decision. And in the worst case, you've already talked to your parents and so you have the cavalry behind you.

13

The subject of why you should not design this tattoo have been covered already.

But I do not think the main problem is that tattoo. I think the problem with your brother is that he will use about anything to get people to do stuff for him. And you don't want to play along with that.

And if you don't play along with him, he can always ramp it up to conflict, something you would rather avoid. And he will do probably do so as long as it will give him what he wants.

Word(s) from God.

One of the annoying things with people receiving a 'Word from the Lord' is that it ends all discussion and options. Either they have, and you shall submit, or they are liars, and you should not submit. And that that last option is (almost) unmentionable.

If important, God will let met know too.

Something that works very well with people who say they have received a 'message' from God that involves them wanting something from you, is: 'God did not tell me the same, yet. If it is that important, surely He will tell me the same thing as you.' It really does not matter if you do believe in God, for if God is God, why should he be limited by your unbelief?

So now the ball is with God.

Tattoo's and christians.

For the large part of christianity's history there has been a taboo and opposition to tattoo's. These days things are a bit lax in this front, as so much other things that the church fathers of old would have some stern words about. You can always point your brother to those (wikipedia is a bit mild on this) passages.

But I do not think your brother will be swayed by either argument. He wants his tattoo designed by you. If conflict is what it takes, so be it.

  • I'm from Europe and haven't been around religious folk a lot, but don't they mean providence in these instances? Like, God didn't actually talk to them, but made OP have an interest in typography so they could help brother out with a tattoo? – LVDV Jun 19 '18 at 10:26
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    @LVDV No, its not divine circumstance. It's about abusing power, in this case invoking God, to get what you want. – Flummox - don't be evil SE Jun 19 '18 at 10:29
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    @Flummox religiously-motivated tattoos have a long history. Pilgrims to Jerusalem often received a tattoo to mark the occasion. Copts are habitually tattoed. Whether a Christian should in a particular circumstance is more nuanced. LVDV does make a good point about Providence (or what is known as the Permissive will of God), but the key is that Providence would ultimately have to align with OP's willingness; i.e. not only would God inspire an interest in typography but enable that skill to be leveraged. – eques Jun 21 '18 at 14:13
9

While your brother is a pain in the backside, and has made an unreasonable demand of you, you clearly have some concern for your future relationship and you don't want to make things worse.

I applaud you for this. Remember that 'a soft word turns away anger' (and yes, that is scriptural). So my advice is that you aim to be both honest and conciliatory, saying something like this:

' Hey bro, I'm flattered that you thought of me to do your design for you. Getting a tattoo is really huge! The trouble is that it is so huge that I don't think that I can take responsibility for something that you will have on your skin forever. I reckon that you really need to find someone more qualified than me do do this.

' By the way, I am no theologian but I saw on the internet that in ancient times God didn't want his people to have tattoos. Are you sure about doing this? You might want to have a chat with you pastor about it. Just sayin' - its your thing, not mine.

' So bro, sorry, but I can't chose a font for you. I'm not refusing because I want to be difficult, it is just that I think it is best that I don't do this. Can you be cool with that?

You have the opportunity to be the 'grown-up' peace-maker here. And over time your brother should come to learn that Christian behavior is based on 'loving God and loving you neighbour' and so will do a load of growing up himself.

Perhaps this conversation will help to make thing easier between you in the future. I do hope so.

Peace and blessing to you both.

9

Many answers here focus on arguing about the religion or the tattoo, but they seemingly miss the point of your brothers aggressive behavior when a demand of his gets denied.

  • Whether he's demanding you to design a tattoo or a poster for his wall, is not relevant.
  • Whether he's asking for a religious design also doesn't matter here.
  • It is the demand that is the problem. And, most importantly, the subsequent aggressive behavior (and implicit threat thereof) when his demand is denied.

Semantically, a "demand" strongly implies that refusal will lead to escalation or similarly negative consequences.
If this is how your brother intends it, avoiding a conflict when refusing is simply impossible (at the very best, you can sidestep or ignore it, but you can't prevent it from happening). Especially given your description of his behavior:

he doesn't take "no" for an answer, becoming enraged when he doesn't get it his way (sometimes bordering physical assault)

That sounds like willful intent to punish those who refuse him; which is not something you can deflect using soft skills between you and him. Soft skills focus on explaining something that the other person doesn't understand, but in your case your brother is more than likely completely aware of his behavior and actively chooses to continue behaving this way because it benefits him.

You can't wake up someone who only pretends to be asleep.

How do I assertively say no to my brother's request of religious nature without starting a fight?

As mentioned before, while you can avoid instigating a fight, you cannot avoid your brother intentionally starting a fight (when he chooses to).

The best thing you can do here is to go public. Talk to your parents. Involve others. Make the conflict known.
This dramatically lowers what your brother stands to gain from his behavior. While he may pick a fight with you because he knows you'll yield and he gets his way anyway; doing so with others involved will generally yield to more negative responses from them as well.

I'm not calling your brother abusive, I'm also not calling him not abusive. I'm not interested in labeling your brother here (it tends to create long comment threads that distract from the actual question and answer).

But his behavior is at the very least very similar to that of abusers. The main way to avoid abuse is to be out in public. It's easier to get away with abusing someone if it's hidden from others. Counter that.

8

I'd involve my parents immediately. I know this is mentioned in an answer above as an option but I think its a priority. As a father if my son was hearing God talk to him and using this as justification for ordering his sister to design permanent tattoos for his body I'd want to know. I'd be upset if I wasn't told.

It's one thing if someone talks to God in prayer but if they are hearing the voice of the Lord commanding them to do things which are permanent and destructive eg. bully their sister into designing a tattoo, that speaks to a mental health condition.

What worries me is I've read 50% of tattoo recipients later regret their tattoo. The way to not regret a decision is to take full responsibility for it upfront. People who say God told me to do something or who get their siblings to make decisions for them aren't taking any responsibility. So if you design a tattoo for him he will have you to blame. Eg. I got this stupid tattoo and it was all your idea. You'll be damned if you do and it's understandable to not want that.

Tell him you feel he should take responsibility for his own body. Then tell your parents what he's up to.

4

If you really don't want to look up a font for him, the other answers provide you with a couple of good options.

I'm coming at it from a different angle. While you may (severely) dislike him, you could humour him a bit, and look up something. Not everything needs to be a battle of arch enemies. If the result is not to his liking, no problem. Stop right there, and just say no with the reasons provided in the other answers. But, by just doing this little gesture, maybe there is a change something might be mended, or in the very least you have 'one in the bank' to make him help you move out when you do.

4

I have somewhat of an experience talking to moderately to very fanatic people. From the brother's speech, I take that he can't possibly fathom why you would refuse as his God told him very clearly that it must be you, and God surely knows what's up.

As you may expect, it's kind of a no-win situation. There is ways to ease your refusal but, in the end, he'll be the one to choose whether he wants to make a big deal out of it.

Depending on the amount of effort you are willing to deploy, I advise you to try any of these methods:

  • Try to have a talk with someone who is the same religion as he is (or a member of your family), preferably someone you both trust or someone who is known for being understanding of others. Tell him what he wants you to do, how you feel like it's not a good idea and how you will not do it. He may be able to help you approach your brother about your stance on the matter. Best case scenario, he may be able to be present as support for you and your brother when you break out the news. The cons of this method is that it demands a lot of efforts and is highly dependent on the religion and on its members. I could use this approach successfully in the past but it was mostly because I had a good understanding of the religion I was confronted to, which may not work for you.

  • Tell him you don't want to, straight and firmly, without giving any reasons or ways to have an argument, a good "Look, I won't design this for you, ever, and I don't wish we talk about this again." can work wonders.

  • Send him a single circle or some other simple geometric shape and tell him that's the only design you'll come up with. Try to stay very serious and resolved around this and don't leave any grounds for arguments, each time he'll talk to you about it say something like "You asked for a design, I gave a design which I believe is satisfactory. Don't question me about it again."

  • Ignore him altogether, don't initiate contact, don't reply and refuse to meet. If he gets threatening or violent, call the police, file a restraining order and let things play out. You don't have to let him interfere with your life.

Telling people you're not "The Chosen One" is pretty hard and I feel what a pain such a demand may cause. I hope all goes well for you.

3

From everything you've written, it sounds like you have big relationship problems already. You're coming here asking a question "How do I get my car to stop dripping fluid" when the radiator is cracked, and it's surprising that the car is functioning at all.

You show a great deal of open contempt for your brother here, which, whether you feel it's deserved or not, is indicative of how bad your relationship has gotten. (Worthwhile read. Cheesy website and catered to couples, but it's spot on.)

If you just want to not do the tattoo, all you can do is calmly try to pass on it and hope your brother doesn't want to fight you. Remember, you don't have to attend every fight you're invited to. You can also calmly pass on that if he starts trying to attack you. As others have suggested, just keep reiterating "I don't feel comfortable doing it" and just ride out your brother's tantrum.

But if I were in your shoes, I'd either try to move out ASAP, or try to repair the relationship as much as possible. Firm, assertive kindness matters, even if your brother is unreasonable -- maybe especially if he's unreasonable.

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