The Humanist Dilemma: Everywhere I Move with My Partner, His Brother Comes Along

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Significant Other’s Brother’s Keeper: I’ve been with my partner for nearly five years, living together for four of them. His brother has lived with us for close to three of those four years. When his brother first moved in with us, I asked that he set a room up in the garage so that I could keep the study I had always wanted. After arguing, he took the study room. Although I lost ground on that, my partner and I were struggling a little financially—I didn’t have a job due to mental health concerns—so the extra rent helped.

Next, my partner’s mum suggested we all move in together for economic reasons. She, my partner, and I paid most of the rent on a very nice house. His brother had jobs here and there but nothing stuck.

Which brings us to January of this year, when his mum decided to move in with her partner. My partner and I moved to a more modest place—and his brother came with us. He’s had a few odd jobs but is primarily surviving on welfare. He’s been giving us some rent, but not as much as we wish. I still don’t have my study or guest room. My partner and I argue over it from time to time, and now he says he doesn’t want to talk about it. Ok, I think to myself, I understand he’s your brother, but I’m your family now and I want to move on and create a life with you. Without him.

What do I do? I do love them both to pieces but my patience is running out.

—Only Want to Live with One Brother

Dear One Brother,

Your situation has a number of sticky challenges (and I’m not just referring to the brother). First of all, it sounds like you and your partner are not married, which is neither here nor there in itself, but it does make me wonder if perhaps you two didn’t discussed weighty life and commitment issues before you began cohabiting. In some cultures, the family unit created by marriage takes priority over other ties—but if there’s no marriage, there may be no such understanding by him or his family. And so while you claim that you should be prioritized as family above his brother, your partner may not see it that way.

Next, most of the time you’ve been living together, his brother has been with you. Every time you’ve moved, you’ve tolerated the brother coming along, even capitulating in allowing him to take the space you wanted for yourself. There’s an established precedent of the brother’s wants prevailing over your own.

And now your partner has made it clear he doesn’t want to talk about this—a discussion that’s at least three years overdue.

As I see it, you have three choices:

1. You can insist on a discussion, whether your partner wants it or not, in which you articulate your dissatisfaction, propose what you would like to happen, see how your partner responds, and decide whether or not you two (or three) can go on together. (Couples counseling might be a good idea for the two of you.)

2. You can (as a result of discussion #1, or without it) announce that you will no longer tolerate living with the brother, and be prepared to split up with both siblings. (Which should be preceded by a visit to a lawyer to learn your rights and responsibilities regarding your current abode and any shared property.)

3. You can just keep muddling along whenever your partner, his brother, and any other relatives feel like entering and exiting your communal domicile.

It seems you’ve reached the point where #3 is no longer acceptable. I advocate giving #1 a shot while bracing yourself if #2 emerges as the outcome.

There’s no indication your partner agrees that you outrank his brother. Some individuals and families are more committed than others to taking care of their relatives, and that can be a good thing—especially if the family designation extends to significant others. But in this case, it doesn’t seem as if you’re even an equal, let alone a priority.

Furthermore, not everyone is comfortable with tight-knit families, especially if they involve carrying weaker members, including those who are chronically incapable of taking care of themselves. If that’s how you feel, you may not belong with this man and his inextricable clan. And if you did manage to get him to favor you and send his brother packing, your partner might be miserable and the entire family would likely resent you.

None of this makes either of you right or wrong, just perhaps incompatible. You need to take care of yourself. If you can’t get what you long for or content yourself with the status quo, it’s time to move on without your partner’s entourage—or your partner.