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Brothers, Not Friends

It may get worse before it gets better

Key points

  • Competition and conflict between siblings is not unusual.
  • It is important to communicate and try to resolve differences.
  • You have to accept the past and let go of hard feelings.
  • Keeping larger interests of the family in mind may help.
Source: Wikimedia

I knew that I’d have to deploy some conciliation skills when Andy approached me concerning his family. Andy was a corporate raider, taking over and divesting companies at the intersection of tech and logistics. “Hey, it’s better than divesting wives,” he offered in a buddy-boy effort at breaking the ice.

Andy, I thought, was determined not to sugarcoat his personality. His problem was that this larger-than-life, in-your-face personality had for years affronted his by-the-book brother, who found him distasteful. “My brother,” he told me, “resents that I make so much money. But my brother’s a twit.” Obviously, no love was lost between these guys. But in any case, as Andy explained, a looming family crisis now necessitated that the two guys work together to help their ailing father. The question was: How?

Pursuing happiness often requires that we get past some obstacle that threatens to unsteady us. For years, Andy and his brother Greg had held each other off, not doing too much damage. But now, with their father ailing, they had to find a workaround so that all the energy channeled into mutual dislike could be used to help the family.

Now 50, Andy resented Greg as soon as his brother was born. Greg was always the favorite. He got better toys at Christmas (which ingenious Andy figured out how to dismantle), and got to stay up later even though he was two years younger. Greg got sent to tony sleepaway camps, while Andy was sent to Boy Scout camp in the Adirondacks with no indoor plumbing. “But I showed them,” he said. He set out to make piles of money just to prove he could.

Okay. I heard Andy. But how was any of his early trouble Greg’s fault? “You know,” I said, “I think you’re blaming Greg for your parents’ actions. Maybe there’s room for a rapprochement.” But Andy disagreed. He said that Greg always followed their father around, “acting like he was God.” As it turned out, Greg became a doctor, like their father, and (this really irked Andy), his father paid for the whole four years. “Greg came out a clone of my father, and he had no debt. I went to business school after college, and I worked nights to get through.” In effect, Andy saw Greg as an extension of his parents.

But still. People have different personalities. Was showing an affinity for his father, and reaping the rewards, enough to make Greg obnoxious? “People have different ways of finding their calling,” I said. “Your brother chose your father as a role model; is that bad?” But again, Andy didn’t see it that way. He offered as an example what he called Greg’s sanctimony. Greg, apparently, disapproved of Andy’s cowboy capitalism. He said it was all about making money when Andy could be out helping people. More to the point, when Andy needed money to get over a rough spot when an IPO was delayed, Greg wouldn’t help him. “He knew I’d pay him back. But instead, I had to go to a bank and pay interest; Greg thought I should see how real people lived.” It was as if, from Andy’s perspective, Greg disliked Andy just for being Andy.

Perhaps things might have reached a stand-off, except that now Andy’s father had cancer. Currently, he was at home, but he went to the hospital twice a week for chemo, tests, and breathing exercises that were supposed to strengthen his lungs. Andy said, “Okay, I’m mad at my parents and I don’t like Greg, but they’re still my family. I can’t let my father die without patching things up—at least, sort of.” The question was where to begin. He didn’t expect his parents to acknowledge how they’d hurt him, but he thought maybe something was possible with Greg.

“I’ve found myself worrying lately,” Andy said, “like suppose I die or he dies. Then it’ll be too late.” Andy didn’t think he’d ever love Greg, but he wanted some kind of working relationship, more like mutual respect than love. He thought it would be easier to help their parents that way. He didn’t want to be in his father’s position—more or less ready to die—and still be filled with lots of anger and regret.

I commented that crises throw us back on ourselves, and make us aware of what we need to be. In this family crisis, Andy began to see that what he needed as part of this family was to reconcile with his brother, at least insofar as this might help their father. So, we talked about what was possible.

After a while, Andy said that he’d offer to pick up the portion of his father’s medical bills not covered by insurance and would discuss the ongoing treatment protocol with Greg. “Greg has been handling all that stuff because he’s a doctor, but there’s no reason I can’t be involved,” he said. “I can show my brother that we can make a team.” He thought that to the extent he could relieve Greg of some work, that Greg might be grateful. The point was to begin talking—begin cooperating—around matters of mutual concern. Ideally, each would begin to appreciate qualities in the other that they hadn’t even noticed before. Perhaps they’d even begin to rely on each other and feel more comfortable around each other notwithstanding their different personal styles. It was, at least, worth a shot.

When pursuing happiness, we often employ the phrase “at least.” We’re employing gambits, modest measures that may set us back but that, we hope, will finally yield significant results. In Andy’s case, he didn’t feel comfortable just going up to Greg and saying “Hey, let’s just call a truce.” His pride wouldn’t let him, and grand emotional gestures were not in his personal toolbox. But he was nothing if not practical, a master of negotiation and deal-making. He knew how far he could go and had a good sense of how the other guy might respond.

In trying to be happy, we don’t need to test our limits but, rather, just push right up to them. Andy had never done that; that is, he’d never tried to reconcile with Greg and never felt the immediate need. Now he felt it, so he was going to try— in his own way, to be sure, but much more than he ever had before.

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