Carolyn Hax: Brother’s an unsparing judge — and heckler — of boyfriends

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: Recently, after he has had a few drinks, my brother starts making comments about my boyfriend. They are innocent enough — things like, “Steve’s a nerd,” while giggling — but clearly judgmental and completely unprovoked. No one has even mentioned Steve. He’s even asked if Steve’s kids are also nerds. He once commented on Steve’s height (much shorter than my brother) while Steve was standing a few feet away. I don’t think Steve heard.

I’m aware that Steve is a nerd. So what? I like him and he treats me well, but my brother seems to be more concerned with the fact that Steve isn’t “cool.” No one I’ve ever dated has been good enough in his eyes. Either way, we are well past the age that we should be commenting on each other’s partners.

The last time he made a comment, I said, “Wowww …” and walked away. That kind of worked — he stopped himself the next time he started to say something.

I’m not even sure why this is bothering me — I’m certainly not going to give up a great guy because my brother is a judgmental glass bowl. I guess it’s just getting old and I also feel like I’m being judged for who I date. Plus, my brother and I hang out a lot and I’d like us all to be able to hang out together, despite his glass-bowlishness. What is best way to shut this down?

Anonymous: Your brother sounds like a very fragile glass bowl, unnerved and threatened by your boyfriend; why else would he need to tear Steve down? That no one you’ve dated “has been good enough in his eyes” is another tip-off that he doesn’t like boyfriendly change to his secure environment.

So, Bro is to be pitied. You’re kind of on to this already, I think, since “Wowww …”/[walk away] is the pitch-perfect response. Leave Bro to work though his own hang-ups without you.

But in addition to not budging on a zero-tolerance-for-Steve-bashing position, you need to let Steve know that you know your brother is being a glass bowl — and that he does it to everyone. Acknowledging Steve and giving him a say are part of having his back.

And, please also consider clarifying your terms out loud with the sib: “You’re my brother and I love you, and you’re welcome to stop being a glass bowl to and about Steve at any time.” That both draws a line and reassures.

If the bullying escalates, though — or merely resumes, when the “Wowww …” wears off — then it will be time for Bro to feel the consequences of his actions, in the form of exactly what he apparently fears — lost standing in your life. I hope he figures things out before that.

I’m thinking about how things we project onto and react to — or in this case, bully — in others can be the things we dislike within ourselves. My first thought was that brother may be attracted to Steve, consciously or sub-, suggesting an internal battle for brother to vanquish his attraction from without rather than dealing with it from within. No less icky, yet that could recast it.

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