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Abusive Relationships/How do I maintain Healthy Boundaries with manipulative brother-in-law, when husband cannot.


My husband & I have been married for nearly 11 years, together for about 14 years.  We have a happy marriage, 4 young children, and have very good relationships with my side of the family.  The only time we have ever had conflict in our relationship, is when it involves his younger brother.  

My husband has unhealthy boundary issues created and unresolved from childhood.  Basically, the entire family coddles the youngest son.  He is very manipulative, tells lies, has no accountability, & acts out with both direct aggression & covert aggression when he feels challenged or does not get his way.

He lived with my husband & I for a year & a half in the beginning of our relationship.  It was a total disaster.  He completely drove a wedge between me & my then fiance.  He was so used to controlling my husband - it seemed that he expected me to automatically fall in line & allow him to treat me in the same manner.  From the start I made it clear that I was not going to be manipulated by any of his tactics: manipulation, lying, guilt tripping, shamming, or playing the victim.  His behavior switched from the loving new "brother" to an aggressive, sneaky, aloof enemy; by his choice.  It was the most bizarre and confusing period of my life.

He successfully manipulated my husband for several years which created a relationship dynamic where my husband would, in order to keep him happy, make decisions with him that he and I should be making together.  For example, I put my foot down & told my husband his brother had to move out & I would be willing to allow him 3 months rent free to make that happen. After he spoke with his brother, the 3 months became 4 & upon leaving he chewed out my husband secretly, demanded an apology because, as he put it, "We would be paying our mortgage whether he lived in the house or not." My husband did not even tell me this occurred until several months later.  Even after he was out of our home the behavior continued.  My husband & I flew my mother-in-law to be in for the wedding to spend a week bonding with me before the wedding.  The day I expected to pick her up from the airport, he informed me that his brother would be picking her up and she would be staying with him at his new place. In case your wondering, no I did not spend time with his mother at all before or after my wedding.  

Those things trifle as they may sound are just a couple the many, many things that constantly happened.  He successfully manipulated my husband into having this relationship dynamic where my husband continually put his brother's feelings before mine.  My husband insisted there was nothing abnormal about their codependent behavior, after several years of my patiently pointing things out about their dysfunctional behavior my husband began to grow out of this dysfunctional relationship with his brother I think only because his brother seemed to have backed off because he was going through a divorce.

After keeping our distance for nearly 5 years, we started trying to build a relationship with him again.  At the time we had a 2 year old son & our 2nd son was on the way.  I had forgiven all that had taken place & trusted that we had all matured somewhat.  I was completely committed to having a good relationship with the brother-in-law.  Within 1 year of us reuniting, the piece we had made was shattered &  when it became clear that my husband was going to continue to side with his brother, even when it comes to his own children, I asked for a divorce.

The horrible event that occurred affects our family to this day, nearly 7 years later.  My eldest son had just turned 3, only weeks before.  My brother-in-law’s 5 year old daughter had spent the night at our home for the third time; we really had not spent much time with her since he shared custody with her mother.  We had only been around her on a dozen or so occasions.   On this particular day, I had asked them to play quietly while I put my newborn down for a nap.  Not more than 5 minutes later I was startled by my 3 year old son banging on his bedroom door screaming “Let me out, let me out!!!”  I immediately ran to his aid opening the door; he barged passed me screaming “I hate that, I hate that!”  His fists were clenched & he ran off stomping down the hall.  Ordinarily, his door is propped open by a little child’s size 2 seat chair.  I began questioning her as to why the door was closed & why he was so upset & she would not respond.  I then went to him to see why he was so angry & upset.  He told me that she was saying kiss me, she had pulled down his shorts & underwear, & licked his penis.  I then realized his shorts were unzipped & his underwear were all twisted. It was the beginning of a long nightmare!

My husband insisted that he would talk to his brother about what had happened & he was sure they would handle the situation.  After about a month of no action whatsoever, I contacted a child psychologist who then suggested I report the incident to the authorities & child services.  I did file a report with both agencies.  My husband was unwilling to give me his brother’s contact info, so I gave him an ultimatum:  either your get your brother to call the investigator or I will drive by your brother’s place & get his address myself for the investigator.   My husband got his brother to agree to call them but he avoided doing so for 2 months.  He insisted he was concerned, agreed that he would get her into counseling, told us everything we wanted to hear, so I agreed to close the investigation.
Some 6 months later, he showed up with the child at our home on Christmas Eve.  Thankfully my children were napping; unfortunately a few of my nieces & nephews were over as well.  This time she began behaving inappropriately with my niece who was one year younger than her.  She licked my niece & was attempting to instruct her on using her tongue when she kissed.  My husband & brother-in-law actually witnessed this event.  He immediately took her out of our home & spanked her so hard we could hear it from inside our home.  He called on his way home to apologize.  My husband called him Jan 7th to see if he had an appointment with a councilor yet & he blew up on my husband , cussed him out, & told him to worry about your own damn kid.  At that point there was not further communication.

Over the next 6 months my husband had become very hostile & angry treating me like I had done something wrong.   I had finally had enough; I told him that I wanted a divorce.  Once again, he professed that he had finally “got it” and was able to see the dysfunction in his family relationships & communication problems.  He swore he would never allow his brother’s feeling to come before his children’s or mine again.  Other than issues with his brother, we have a great relationship so I stayed committed to our marriage & family life.

About 2 years later he ran into his brother at work & they sparked a small talk conversation, his brother was telling him how great his life was going…getting married, etc…  My husband asked him to call him so they could “talk” in a more appropriate setting.  He received a message from his brother saying that he had to “forgive those who had HURT him.”  My husband took it as his brother’s way of trying to “reach out.”  So he called him back, that phone call ended with his brother telling him that “Nothing happened between the kids & his daughter did not do anything wrong to your son.”  By the end of the call he was screaming & cursing at my husband.  My husband has not heard from him since, except for a Christmas card this past Christmas & third party messages from friends or an older brother he sees a few times a year.

Here we are nearly 7 years later, their older brother has made a resolution to bringing the “family” back together in 2013.  Which I find interesting since he conveniently no longer invites our family for Christmas dinner or Labor Day BBQ.  Note that neither I or my husband ever came to him (older brother-in-law & his wife) with this problem, my younger brother-in-law was having conversations with them about what happened with the children, even though he had never even had a conversation with me about it.  

I say that my family is still affected by this event because my son still has a negative reaction all these years later.  On 2 occasions recently, our niece, the child who licked my son’s penis, now almost 12, has showed up at our home unaccompanied.  My son was very uncomfortable & said he does not want her at our house.  She informed us that she no longer has a relationship with her father & has not spoken with him in 3 years.

Bad as I feel for the child, I am not willing to force my child into a relationship with her.  My husband & I agreed that she should not come over until either of her parents are willing to work with us to take the appropriate steps to make my son feel comfortable around her.  My husband informed her mother who claimed she had no idea of what had occurred.  He let her know that she could work with us to bring the child back into our family but we did not hear from her after that conversation.  Our niece then showed up again this past Christmas eve, my husband was completely willing to leave it as it was; meaning not insisting on her parent participation.  I could see how uncomfortable my son continues to be, he expressed his discomfort to me, so I was not okay with my husband going back on our agreement.

I made an appointment with a child psychologist for my husband & I, so that we could get direction in how to handle the situation.  My husband then heard from a psychologist, the exact same message I have been giving him for over 6 years now.  Once again, my husband insists that he understands his role & responsibilities to his children & myself.

Now my husband is meeting with his younger brother, with his older brother as a mediator to work toward healing the relationship.  I am torn.  I am doing my best to believe that my husband will not revert to his past dysfunctional behavior with his brother.  For 14+ years I have been patient, I have sat back waiting for him to open his eyes about the type of person his brother is.  My husband is a strong, capable, caring man but for some reason beyond my comprehension, he allows  his brother to distort his behavior & feelings to suit some twisted bond that makes him feel responsible for his little brothers happiness.  

I would appreciate any advise for how to handle this situation.

As far as your son's concerned, I definitely recommend a little bit of counseling to lay the ghost to rest.
What's been happening here is that your husband is not strong enough to go against his family- even though he thinks he wants to be on your side.
It takes a particularly type of hard person to successfully break from tridition and family, and many people have problem achieving that.
On your end, the issue is that you keep giving him a second chance, then a third, then a fourth, until 14 years later you're still wondering if the same game is going to be played.
The pattern I see here is, his brother does something, husband sides with him, you throw a fit, husband then sides with you, then brother gets angry and defensive and goes away for a few months/years...then one day, they run into each others, and the same drama is played out again.
The only path for you is to break this circle of behaviors, either stop making a fuss when things go badly, or stick to your gun and don't give him any more chances...because you know what he'll be saying behind your back after awhile?
"Oh yeah, sorry about's just my wife...she's being...a woman...give her a few months and she'll calm down..."

And believe me, you will hate it when your feelings are belittled like that.
So if you must make a statement, make sure it's one with a lasting impact so it's taken seriously- since the "carot" has not worked so far.

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Johnny St. Tai


Human relation is a complex machine. Whether you're feeling hurt and abused, or have fear regarding that you might've hurt someone unknowingly, let us try to understand the problem. By understanding the problem, we can face it, and resolve it. I do not deal in miracle, I deal in reality.


I have been a counsellor for 10 years. I've done both professional and volunteer work in this field. I came from a vicious family, have walked through abuse, murder attempts, addiction, and much more.

Richmond Chimo Crisis Center.

Interpersonal/Social Relation Specialist, UBC Socialwork, 2005.

Past/Present Clients
Over 500.

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