Tell Me About It

How do I stop my brother-in-law treating my house as his own?

Tell Me About It: ‘We inherited the family home but the brother was part of the deal’

PROBLEM: My husband and I inherited his parents’ home, and we retired early (our children are all independent) and moved a few years ago and it is a beautiful place.

Unfortunately, it is not all bliss; alongside inheriting a fabulous home we got landed with a bumbling idiot who visits us far too often. This might sound harsh, but my husband’s brother comes to stay every month and every minute is painful. He is a bachelor and lives in rented accommodation in the city; this was his family home and he has come here to visit all his adult life.

When he would visit his parents, they would treat him like a prince. He received an equal share of the inheritance in the form of savings; to our knowledge he very quickly wasted the bulk of it. He treats our home as his own. He arrives every month, evidently having not washed since his last visit; he brings his clothes all bundled up in a rancid bag and throws it beside the washing machine for me to wash. I have just ignored it a few times, but I cannot bear to see him return to the city and go to work with filthy clothes. He never brings anything to contribute to the household and he raids the fridge day and night.

He smokes all over the house despite knowing that neither of us smoke and being asked by both of us to smoke outside. I find his personality very irritating; he is a pseudo intellectual who spouts quotes or soundbites from literature that he clearly hasn’t read, and constantly argues political points for the sake of it. I am the one who looks after him.

My husband doesn’t want to discuss the issue, he says it was always a done deal that he would one day become part of the fixtures and fittings, it was what my parents-in-law would have wanted. After a few months I started to make myself scarce during my brother-in-law’s visits by going to stay at my sons’ and daughters’ houses, but I stopped doing this as I decided that I shouldn’t feel driven out of my own home. This chap is due to retire soon and I dread to think of what his long-term plans are – it is unlikely that he will be able to continue to afford his city rent.

My husband does not want to broach the subject with him as he doesn’t want to cause any tension. But our house has a small annexe attached to it, which is in reasonably good order and my husband thinks he will probably want to move in there. I know my husband is a good man, he is kind and appreciative of all his parents did for him and I know he would want to do the best that he could for his brother.

Should I just learn to accept that I have been very lucky and accept the baggage that has come along with this gift?

ADVICE: This is all about having a difficult conversation with your husband. It seems that your husband does not like tension and so puts up with behaviour that he probably would not accept in his children, and you then do not want to put your husband in the awkward situation of having to make a decision and follow through on it. A useful way of looking at this is to question if one of your children was in this position, with a member of their in-laws, what would you suggest doing? My guess is you would be suggesting boundaries, responsibilities and clearly defined separation of living spaces.

Obviously, your husband feels responsible for his brother but this seems like a left-over situation from his parents and everyone in the family has colluded in the myth that this man is a child who can act like a teenager all his life – even you do this by washing his clothes.

The one piece that is unknown here is whether your brother-in-law suffers from some underlying condition that makes him unable to look after himself but it seems that he has managed to hold down a job and live successfully up to now so perhaps this is not the case. However, it will have to form part of the discussion with your husband, as he may have information that could influence how you deal with the expected landing of your brother-in-law in your house.

When discussing this situation, you will need to listen carefully to all the reasons, ideas and beliefs your husband has for assuming responsibility for his brother. Then you will need to ensure that your husband fully hears you out on the impact this possibility might have on your life and relationship. This is core to your future relationship and is not to be taken likely – you as a couple need to face whatever challenges life throws at you and engaging in difficult discussions is essential so that fairness is ensured.

You will not sort this in one conversation, but will need to talk, reflect and feedback your thoughts to each other many times. It is only when you both come to an understanding that you can start a dialogue with your brother-in-law and a united stance is likely to induce seriousness in the discussion. Making a decision and following it through is the way to achieve your aim so your husband will need lots of space to check out the rights and wrongs of the situation before he can commit himself to facing his brother.

If, in the end, you decide that you will go with the flow, you will still need to demand boundaries and ensure that your husband supports you as this is the minimum that you deserve if your brother-in-law is to get closer to your life.