TL;DR: My 30 years-old brother messes up his life, and those of other family members, by doing nothing. I need my brother to open up and explain his point of view, so that I can understand him.

How do I get my brother to talk with me about these issues?


Background:

I have a younger brother who will turn 30 in a few weeks and who has no clue what to do with his life. This affects the lives of other family members, especially that of our mother with whom he is currently living (again). Mother once mentioned that his behavior will be the reason why she will bite the dust if this continues.

But let's start at the beginning:

Our father died when he was a teenager and was still going to school. At that time I somehow slipped into the father role because I was the only person he listened to. My mother barely had access to him at that time. After he finished school he went to a foreign country for a year and then moved to another country to study there.

He finished his Bachelor's degree two or three years ago. Even though the death of our father deeply affected him, he seemed to be back on track. After finishing his Bachelor's he moved back to our home country (in Western Europe) and moved in with our mother and had no plans as to what to do with his life, which continues up till now. He is literally doing nothing. He never worked in his life (I'm not considering being a paperboy during school as "work"). Our mother is working in two jobs and is breaking her back and he does nothing.

At the moment I'm seeing three problems:

  1. He's not having any money problems. We received a heritage after our grandparents deceased. A five digit figure. He used the money to invest it in the stock market. He's not gambling but really doing his research and is in the market for the long-term and makes quite a bit from time to time. If I were to guess, his current financial situation would allow up to 4 years of living alone.

  2. He had offers in the financial sector (his Bachelor's is related and he considered working in this field) but you won't be able to start directly managing a billion $ hedge fund. He has a problem with the concept that, at the beginning of your career, you usually start at the bottom of the ladder and slowly climb up. He thinks he can start at the very top because "everything is logical". Besides that, he once mentioned he doesn't want to work for someone. But he also does not want to start his own business because then he would have to deal with things he dislikes.

  3. Our mother is not throwing him out. She's afraid that she would lose her son if she throws him out. I've told her a million times to set him a deadline. Either he gets a job and split the costs or he has to move out. It took me over a year to convince her to ask at least for rent. But the amount she asked for is also more symbolic. (I don't know the exact figure but I would be surprised if it would be more than 100 Euros a month).

In the beginning, I defended him to my family members that he would make his way. I don't think that you need to follow the conventional way and get a 9-to-5 job and live your life like anyone else. But he's not living at all at the moment.

What I've tried

  • I've told him that the only problem he has and why other family members attack him, is the fact, that he's not living on his own. He doesn't need much money. He's not going partying, doing any drugs or has any expensive hobbies.

  • I've made several suggestions as to what he could do and how he could turn his strengths and hobbies into a living.

  • I introduced him to people in the sector where he would like to work. But if I ask him a few weeks later, he just tells me that he didn't have the time to follow up or comes with some other phony excuse.

  • About a year ago I wrote him a (snail-mail) letter, where I explained him at length, that he's messing up his life. This gap in his CV is something he cannot explain to any potential employer. Everyone will think he was in prison or has something else to hide.

    Two weeks after I sent him this letter I asked him if he had anything to say about it. His reply was that he didn't have any time to read it yet (even though he couldn't tell me what he was busy with). Four weeks later he told me that he still needs to think about it. He wanted to make up his mind if he would like to travel a bit or get a Master's degree or apply for an internship or a job.

  • I offered him help if he needed some. I also suggested to go to a psychologist if there's something that holds him back that he doesn't want to talk with family members about.

But nothing has happened ever since.

What I want to do:

I want to know how I can involve my brother in a dialog where he opens up and tells me his point of view so that I can understand him. I want to have something I can work with. The only thing I know is that he's not happy with the situation either.

I just want to understand his behavior and would like to know from him how he imagines his future and what is currently holding him back. So that I can work from there on forward.

Every time I bring up the topic, he totally blocks and gets mute and we have several weeks of silence between us. From my point of view I don't have the feeling that I'm pressuring him (considering that this has been going on for two years) and I also don't consider myself judgmental (I don't care what he is doing as long as he's happy and not affecting others with his behavior).

How can I involve my brother in a dialog where he opens up and tells me his point of view so that I can understand him?

[Update]

Thank you all for being very helpful and patient. I have reached my goal and currently I am having some kind of dialog with my brother. If I could I would point out which advice was most helpful from you but it was a mixture of factors which came together. But pushing me to reflect my own behavior was definitely a huge part of solving my question.

  • 1
    What is your goal here? What is the preferred outcome? Do you want help getting through to your brother? Do you want your mom and brother to stop involving you in their fights? We can probably offer some help, but we need to know what we should focus our answers on, otherwise this is way too broad. – Tinkeringbell Dec 12 '17 at 8:11
  • 3
    One more barrage of questions.You mention your mother works 2 jobs, and your brother does nothing. He makes money in the stock market, and you say he's good at it. But would that money be enough to cover him living by himself? What is your view on 'starting at the bottom of the ladder' when it comes to jobs? If he's got a bachelor's degree, what kind of jobs are open for him/ where would he have to start according to himself vs. you? Can I try to summarize your background somewhat? – Tinkeringbell Dec 12 '17 at 12:10
  • 1
    I guess that he could live up to 4 years on his own with his current financial situation. Not sure if he's making enough to cover all expenses in the long run but if he would be forced to do so he would find a way. He had offers in the financial sector (his bachelor is related&he considered to work in this field) but you won't be able to start directly managing a billion $ hedge fund. Starting at the bottom means for me that you can't rush into a company and tell everyone how to do their jobs if you have no reputation at all. Usually you start with having a boss & you have to play by the rules – AdviceSeeker Dec 12 '17 at 12:58
  • 4
    "The only thing I know is that he's not happy with the situation either." Can you explain how you know this? What part of his situation has he expressed unhappiness with? Maybe I am missing something, but even in the original revision it sounded like he was only annoyed that he was being asked to come up with a plan. – Em C Dec 12 '17 at 15:47
  • 1
    How old's your mother, and does she live with anyone else? How much $ does he really cost her, a little more water & electricity, and his food? She may need someone to help her keep living at home soon, does he help with chores & keep her company? You said she "once mentioned that his behavior will be the reason why she will bite the dust if this continues" but did she say that while you were trying for about a year to convince her (nagging her?) to kick her youngest son out, so she'd be left living alone? Have you considered that you might be part of the problem? – Xen2050 Dec 12 '17 at 22:04
up vote 13 down vote accepted

I have a series of questions that I think are more "answer to your questions" than "comments on your question":

  1. You said you have tried talking to him but he just goes off the grid and distances himself from you for weeks. These talks, were they in person? Over the phone? Letters? Emails?

    • Reason: Meet in person with him. Don't meet him with the sole intent of talking to him about his behavior. Meet with him to have fun with him. Maybe grab some coffee or go to the movies or go to a bar (not a club, a bar) or something where you can sit down and chat.
  2. Do you think he has any mental health issues?

    • Reason: You said he was still heartbroken about his father passing away when he was in college. Even if his father passed when he was 19 (the oldest teenager there could be), that is still 4-5 years after that he was still upset about it. Do you think there is a possibility of something affecting him on a psychological level?

You did mention that you suggested psychiatric treatment as a remedy to a possible psychological trauma. Not everyone receives that very well. If you do think he might need it, you need to have a real, lengthy conversation about that particular topic. The initial reaction to "Here is a card for a psychiatrist, consider it" would be "I don't need that!". Because these seem more so like a result of suppressed feelings that he does not want to acknowledge.

A few things I would definitely suggest in regards to your approach:

  1. You said you automatically took up the "father figure" of the family because he listened only to you. I feel like this might have caused some complex in your brother.
  2. That means, your "talks" with him and your "mails" to him are all going to be received as: "Oh my big brother has spoken, I need to listen to him #Sarcasm".
  3. Try going for a different approach: the "I am your friend and I don't really care what you do, I am trying to learn about you" kind. Your preferred outcome here is for him to open up to you. Work ONLY towards that.
  4. Him opening up to you does not have to seem like you trying to help him. Those two are not really the same thing. You want something from him, you want something else of him. You have an excellent attitude about how you want him to open up to you. That is exactly what you need to do. But to do that, delete the part of the brain that compels you to help him.
  5. Stop talking to him/giving him ideas about what he could do. He probably has a small tiny smidgen of an idea of what he wants out of his own life. Whatever you say, he still has that idea in his head. Don't suggest anything without knowing what that is.
  6. You said he has been trading stocks. How excited/ambitious is he about doing that? Because, if he is actually excited about that and WANTS to do that, he might be very successful at it and there is no need to worry about him as much. Maybe just work on kindling his excitement about that?

Conversation ideas:

The main question you had needs to be addressed here too. So here are a few approaches that I've used with my older brother that worked well.

  1. Have a conversation with him about how you don't really care about what he wants to do with his life as long as he is happy. You're not trying to tell him he is not happy. You are just making it clear you want to talk to him rather than advice him.
  2. Apologize for acting like you're the boss of his life and his future. I know you don't NEED to apologize and you didn't do anything wrong, but there is a possibility that he took offense to your suggestions. Apologies don't cost you anything.
  3. Go back to talking about how he once mentioned to you that he doesn't know if he wants to do his master's or get an internship.... Because that seemed like the best opportunity you've ever had about him opening up to you. That was about 11 months ago. And I feel like you missed a chance of talking to him. Go back to that, but DON'T mention that particular incident. Just say: "I remember you telling me you wanted to do your Master's or travel more or something, where do you want to travel to?".
  4. Being lost is not a bad thing. I'd rather be lost than intentionally be in the wrong path. Consider that while talking to him. Not everyone really thinks solely about "getting on track". Some people need more time than others to know what they want out of life.
  5. Definitely don't bring up the repercussions of what his "absence in a career" could do to him in the long run. He probably already knows it or probably does not want to hear it.

I hope this helps you. I struggled with this exact situation with my brother being "rebellious". He didn't really affect anyone with his behavior because he'd already moved out, but he wouldn't help the family financially and was deep in drugs. I didn't really talk to him about any of that. I just made him feel like "I am cool" and he wanted to talk to me. We talked for hours every day and we've been really close since. I've "indirectly" helped him out in his life a lot and he is in a much better place now.

I don't want to be recognized as a martyr, I just want to help him think out loud and guide him along the way without him knowing I am doing it! :)

How can I involve my brother in a dialog where he opens up and tells me his point of view so that I can understand him?

To get people to open up to you, you need to listen more than you speak, and you need to empathize with them, or at the very least, be non-judgemental (if you have been judgemental in the past, you need to be totally non-judgemental.) You ask open-ended questions (no yes/no questions) and listen to/process the answers before moving on. Don't go in with a goal that is likely to make them defensive unless it's accompanied by a lot of love and support.

You can do this, but your attitude so far is probably the reason he clams up. The title of your question would make me unlikely to talk to you about it:

My brother messes up his life (and those of other family members) by doing nothing. How to have a talk with him about this?

Other observations:

...his behavior will be the reason why she will bite the dust...He never worked in his life (I'm not considering being a paperboy during school as "work"). Our mother is working in two jobs and is breaking her back and he does nothing....He has a problem with the concept that...About a year ago I wrote him a (snail-mail) letter, where I explained him at length, that he's messing up his life....

You also write:

From my point of view I don't have the feeling that I'm pressuring him (considering that this has been going on for two years) and I also don't consider myself judgmental...

You need to think about your behavior here (remember the adage that "Actions speak louder than words,") and, if you really want to have a talk where your brother feels free to express his true feelings and reasoning, you need to suspend judgement while you have the conversation. Listen, ask, listen, ask more focused questions (not leading ones), and listen some more.

I think you can do this if you really put your mind to it. @Crazy Cucumber has good specific examples of non-threatening openers.

Have you considered the possibility of an anxiety disorder which makes it harder for him to get an actual job? (It seems like you have.) Just a thought to keep in mind as you have a discussion.

Good luck with this.

  • 4
    Spot on. I got such a letter a couple years ago about how I'm messing up my life with certain choices... guess who I stopped talking to about that! It can take a long time to regain his trust, especially if he feels that OP has ulterior motives. – Em C Dec 12 '17 at 16:56
  • @EmC - Thanks for the comment, especially the part about the time it takes to regain trust. The OP should know that this might/will be an issue. – anongoodnurse Dec 12 '17 at 17:01

My advice, such as it is, is to stop thinking of him as your little brother. At thirty years of age, discounting any mental deficiencies, he's a fully grown adult, responsible for his own decisions. As is your mother, by the way.

Not everyone is cut out for 9-to-5 work, or even running their own business. He may well turn out to be an "artsy" type who cares little for what you think is desirable :-)

In any case, as you stated, he seems to be doing fine on the investment front, so maybe that four years of financial buffer space is a good thing so he can work out what he actually wants to do.

Having done the hard yards for decades before finally deciding I'd rather get paid less to actually enjoy my work, I would suggest to anyone that asked that they should do what they love doing, and screw the money. Life's too short to do otherwise.


What would worry me more than your brothers apparent inability to commit to work life would be your own words, which seem to be inconsistent (my own family held rather similar attitudes to what you appear to have). You state:

From my point of view I don't have the feeling that I'm pressuring him (considering that this has been going on for two years) and I also don't consider myself judgmental (I don't care what he is doing as long as he's happy and not affecting others with his behavior).

And yet this appears to have been a cause of yours for quite some time:

Every time I bring up the topic, he totally blocks and gets mute and we have several weeks of silence between us.

I've told her a million times to set him a deadline.

It took me over a year to convince her to ask at least for rent.

I have to be brutal here, you seem to have done about as much as you can for an adult, anything beyond that will almost certainly alienate you from your brother further.

You are responsible for your own life (and your children while they are children). Beyond that, you should be nothing more than concerned. And being concerned should be little more than notifying people of your concern, offering to help a small number of times, being available to help as often as needed, and then backing off.

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