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.
Margolies, L. (2012). Power Plays Between Brothers & Families. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 3, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/power-plays-between-brothers-families/00014682
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.