Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters in this vignette are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events in therapy to represent real-life family dilemmas.
This story shows how the troubled relationship between two brothers was a therapeutic opportunity to change maladaptive family patterns.
Drew, 19, and Steve, 20, were close brothers raised in a volatile family. When Drew started getting into trouble in college, their mom arranged for the brothers to live together in an apartment, hoping that Steve could watch out for Drew. This solution backfired; the boys acted out family-related power plays. Physical confrontation escalated along with family-related conflict and hostility. At this point, the mom sought help.
Mom and Dad’s Perspective
Kate was an immigrant from Italy who, more than anything, wanted a better life for her children. She worked tirelessly to earn money for their education.
Consistent with the old-school style of authoritarian parenting with which she was raised, Kate demanded devotion and obedience. She was very involved with her sons and, though caring, she was also high-strung, anxious and unrelenting when they didn’t perform - yelling, threatening and lecturing - reminding them of her very real sacrifice and suffering on their behalf.
Drew perpetually disappointed and upset Kate. He failed to live up to her expectations and often lied to appease her. She worried about his ability to be independent, responsible, and protect himself. Steve, on the other hand, was seen as the ideal son: high-achieving, responsible, and aggressive. She constantly compared the two of them.
Both Kate and Don, the boys’ father, had frequent, explosive outbursts and acknowledged that, at times, they were physically abusive to their boys. Don had a short temper and unpleasant disposition, often angry, entitled and humiliating toward Kate and Drew. He was only minimally involved with the boys and didn’t attend therapy.
Brothers: Steve and Drew
With family, Drew typically was argumentative and defiant, defensively reacting to criticism and attacks for failing to measure up. Otherwise, Drew was friendly, good-natured and sensitive. He had a palpable longing to be loved, and a chameleon quality designed to get it. Drew’s sense of worth was tied up in how he appeared, always needing others’ approval, and often feeling insecure, anxious and bad about himself.
Drew had come out as gay in high school. In college, he tried to emotionally break away from his mom and flaunt his separate identity. Seeking admiration and celebrity, he began to dress in a flamboyant and revealing style, posing online in sexually provocative photos, and behaving in ways that put him at risk to be victimized, which he was.
In college, Drew became involved in mutually obsessive relationships in which he was dominated and controlled. In these relationships, he was unable to hold his own or break away, leading to the downward spiraling of his grades, family relationships, and friends.
Growing up, Steve acted as man of the house, protecting Drew and their mom from their dad, who picked on Drew. Steve also actively defended his brother from bullies at school. Steve proudly considered himself “the alpha male,” coming across as loud, aggressive, and stilted as if lecturing. He had an intensity, dominance and perseverance reminiscent of his mom. Steve behaved in a paternalistic and arrogant way toward his brother, acting as co-parent and agent of their mom. As they got older, this dominance and loyalty to their mom led to increasing fights between the two willful brothers.
Power Plays between Brothers
This cycle intensified after they moved in together, escalating into physical brawls, as Drew felt ganged up on and put down. Seeing himself as in charge, Steve used his authority and physical strength to try to force Drew to behave as he deemed appropriate, including around the house. Drew rebelled and fought back. Though weaker and less physically powerful than his brother, Drew wouldn’t back down, but inwardly became increasingly panicked.
Therapy initially involved Drew and his mom, but evolved into sessions with the brothers alone.
Children internalize blueprints from the family. Experiences in the family become imprinted in the brain, serving as templates for future relationships. In this family, aggression and threats were used to force obedience. The mom also used emotional force in the form of guilt and shaming.
Drew and Steve learned that the only roles available in relationships were perpetrator and victim, dominance and submission. In this dynamic, power is abused, and force is used to control other people in order to manage one’s own anxiety and helplessness. Both boys internalized this blueprint. They submitted and accommodated to what was expected in an instinctive effort to keep their mom from getting upset. Doing so also protected themselves from physical and psychological threat.
Children’s Responses to Rigid Parental Expectations
On the outside, Steve became the man his mom wanted - obsessively driven and protective, with a reflexive survival instinct to dominate and attack. Underneath, however, Steve felt anxious, empty and lonely. He was also unsettled by the awareness that he was easily triggered into a detached anger and ability to get out of control.
Unlike his brother, Drew couldn’t develop the image or behaviors expected of him, and felt inadequate and ashamed. He learned to lie, and alternated between accommodating and rebelling. Insisting that no one could stop him from being himself or make him into someone else, Drew developed an “identity” based on needing to prove he could defy his family’s values and attempts to control him. In doing so, however, ironically he took on the familiar role from which he was escaping, in which he was the object of others’ fantasies - desperate to secure love and affirmation, but betraying himself.
Steve felt terrified and helpless as he witnessed his brother setting himself up to be victimized. His efforts to force him to behave not only failed but inadvertently trained Drew to be submissive in close relationships, and tempted him to break out and do the opposite of what the family wanted.
Steve felt protective of his brother and cared deeply about him. But when they talked, he lectured and made fun of him, modeling himself after his mom. Feeling overpowered and judged, rather than cared about, Drew shut him out and counterattacked, rigidly determined not to submit. This defense provoked Steve into asserting more dominance, perpetuating a battleground and stalemate between them.
Effects of Growing Up in a Stressful Environment
Steve and Drew were driven by a chronic sense of agitation and reactivity as a result of growing up in a highly stressful, chaotic environment. With looming emotional or physical threat, children are catapulted into a constant state of hyperarousal. This state perpetuates ongoing activation of survival instincts such as fight and surrender, persisting into adulthood even when threat no longer exists. Overwhelmed physiologically, and armed with a paradigm of rigid relationships, Steve and Drew were unable to extricate themselves from a battlefield mentality.
Therapy helped Steve and Drew see that they were re-experiencing the pervasive anxiety and power struggles they internalized growing up. As they recognized this, and saw that their fights were fueled by trying to fend off being overpowered or shamed, they no longer felt so divided. Also, when Steve recognized that his approach was reinforcing Drew’s inability to hold his own in other relationships, he was determined to learn more effective ways to relate to him.
Learning to Communicate Differently
Coached to use a softer tone and express caring directly, Steve began to reach his brother emotionally in the sessions. In turn, Drew became less defensive and more cooperative, and began to see that resisting others was not always the way to be true to himself.
Leveling the Playing Field
When the brothers first moved in together, the therapist empowered Drew to temporarily be in charge of household decisions, letting him know that he was on his honor to consider what was fair and take care not to abuse his authority. This strategy was designed to change their power dynamic, and give the brothers experience learning to consider the concept of fairness and respect for one another’s autonomy.
Respecting Autonomy and Learning to Negotiate
When being introduced to the concepts of negotiation and persuasion, Steve was instructed to practice making requests and tolerate the possibility that Drew might say “no.” They learned how to recognize the beginning signs of agitation and step back to calm themselves before engaging in conversation.
One night, dressed in a skimpy outfit, Drew woke Steve asking him for a ride to a party in town. Steve felt his anger beginning to boil. He felt held hostage and was outraged seeing Drew dressed this way. Steve knew that if he let his brother take the train looking so provocative, Drew would be at risk for danger. But he felt jerked around and didn’t want to be seen with his brother dressed that way. Previously, a predictable power struggle would have erupted in which Steve would make fun of and attack Drew, who would protest, “You can’t boss me - I’m my own person.” In the end, one or both would get physically injured, or Drew would run out and in fact get into trouble.
This time, Steve remembered how it usually played out. He calmed himself - attempting to step back from his survival instincts and commander-in-chief mentality. Instead of attacking his brother, Steve asked Drew to make a deal with him: in exchange for the ride, Drew would put sweatpants and a sweatshirt on for the ride. Drew initially started to engage reflexively in a control struggle, but Steve did not take the bait. Aware that they could persuade but not control the other, or use physical or psychological force, they managed to stay in the mindset of negotiating. Neither was happy having to compromise. But they smiled proudly as they told this story from the perspective of brothers on the same team.
Therapy helped Steve and Drew become less polarized and see that they struggled with counterparts of the same dynamic and that they were not so different from each other after all. As the brothers learned to solve differences together without force, they experienced a true sense of empowerment and the possibility of freedom from the inner world of the past that entrapped them.
Negative Effects of Authoritarian Parenting
Power plays can unconsciously protect people from a feeling of separation, loss of control and helplessness. But demanding submission and obedience can backfire. It can teach children dependency and automatic behavior and discourage the development of problem-solving, judgment and autonomous thinking. Requiring children to surrender themselves leads to the development of a false self, precluding authentic relationships and impeding the development of identity and self-reliance. Further, forcing obedience breeds aggression, resentment, and the need to escape through disobedience or becoming submerged.
Parents Letting Go and Tolerating Separation
Ultimately, in this case, Kate was able to loosen her hold over her sons, recognizing that she was unintentionally passing on family dynamics that created aggression, fragility and division instead of strength. As these patterns were made explicit, they could be changed, freeing Steve and Drew from expectations that did not fit them, and creating a space among them to accept and navigate differences.