Dear Carolyn: About 10 years ago, when I was 16, my father left my mother for a much younger woman and moved away with her. This was a shock to the whole family.
My sister, “Beth,” was 12 and my brother, “Ben,” was barely 4. The girlfriend didn’t want to deal with a little kid, so Ben didn’t go with us on visits to Dad. When he was older, he chose not to go, and no one forced the issue. They never really got to know one another.
Recently, Dad broke up with his girlfriend and moved back to our area. He is very contrite and wants to establish stronger ties with us kids. Beth and I are giving him a chance, but Ben wants no part of him, even though Dad is still paying child support for him.
I’m trying to talk Ben into seeing our dad, but he says I’m the only “father” he has ever needed.
The thing is, I’d be very glad to give up that role and just be Ben’s brother. I’ve tried to enlist my mom in this, but she says it’s entirely up to Ben. She has a boyfriend and has long since moved on with her life.
But while my mom can replace an ex-husband, Ben can’t get another father, and I feel like he’s making a huge mistake. Ben is stubborn and Dad is really hurt by his rejection. How can I bring these two together?
— Just Want to Be Big Brother
Just Want to Be Big Brother: First, let me say what I hope your parents have said themselves but I fear they haven't: I'm sorry you were thrown into this position at such a young age; I'm impressed by how you've dealt with it, managing a lot of responsibility with love and grace.
Your role doesn’t extend to reuniting your brother and father, though. They have to work this out (or not) for themselves. Ben’s answer at the moment is clearly “not,” so accept it and affirm that it’s his decision to make.
Certainly you can suggest he keep an open mind, but also recognize Ben’s stubbornness as a sign you need to do less pushing, more listening; people dig in hardest when they feel they aren’t being heard.
“Reflective listening” (Google it) might help: “You’re saying X,” for example, or “I hear you say Y.” This whole situation screams for family therapy, though. Now that you’re 26 and plainly feeling worn by the decade of extra responsibility, do look into it — for you alone to start.
Bringing Ben wouldn’t mean it is/was/ever will be your job to be Ben’s “father.” His relationship with his dad is independent of his with you; even if they reconcile, you don’t get reassigned. You and Ben define and maintain your own relationship — and allow it to evolve — as it suits you best.
So you can just be Ben's brother because that's what you are. When Ben says you're the only "father" he needs, in fact, tell him how much you appreciate his saying that — it is a lot of love and trust — and also say plainly that you're his brother and always will be. Happily. Proudly. Make it a good thing.
Hope this helps, even a little. Check back in sometime?
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