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Agony uncle: is my brother exploiting his partner?

Agony uncle

Dear Agony Uncle,

How can I come to terms with what I consider extremely exploitative behaviour by my 70-year-old brother? About five years ago his wife died. Following a short period of mourning, a young Filipina he met told him that her sister was looking to get married and wanted to come to Australia.

Within months my brother visited the Philippines and met his future wife (younger than his youngest daughter). He wrote to me saying that he loved her and wanted to marry her. My reaction was one of shock and I felt he was actually entering into a relationship akin to that of a domestic slave. The young woman (J) is from an extremely poor family…

On entering the relationship J spoke no English. My suggestion to my brother was that if he truly loved her he should sponsor her and give her time to consider her situation plus find some independence through work.

Despite estrangement with his daughter and some other family members, my brother married J immediately. Now, several years on, he has assisted her financially (investing in a dry-cleaning business for her and encouraging her to study). However, J is effectively his carer.

My brother wants my affection but we see the world so differently and I am not able to come to terms with his behaviour.


Dear Kate,

Understandably, you seem to be counterpoising your brother’s relationship with J to a more ‘normal’ one: if only he had married someone closer to his age and background then you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed, by his behaviour, right? But all relationships, whether between high school sweethearts or arranged across continents, can be exploitative and turn into one-way care-giving streets. I write this to remind us all that, while I can see why you find it difficult to accept, there is no marriage free of power imbalances and constant negotiation. So try and drain this situation of superficial elements – age, circumstance and background – and see the human relationship beneath.

Once you do, perhaps you might notice that the main voice missing from your account is that of J. I find myself thinking: what is she like? What are her ambitions? She sounds independent, brave and intelligent. Yes, there is a universe of difference between a middle class (I assume) white man and a ‘poor’ Filipina, but this must not lead us to eclipse J’s agency or think of her as a passive victim. In her book Buying a Bride, the scholar Marcia A Zug argues that it can be rational and empowering for a woman to do what J has done: pursue a better material future. But it’s emotionally difficult too: I would imagine she has real feelings for your brother – care is a form of love – and must be painfully aware of the social stigma placed on them. How many people can she speak to? Wouldn’t it be nice to develop a friendship and find out more about her life and family? You don’t want to make her feel guilty for thinking that she is responsible for souring the relationship between her husband and his sister.

I’m happy that your brother has been able to move on from his late wife. I detect a hint of disapproval in the ‘shortness’ of his mourning period: but remember there is no correct way to process a loss, and the mourning period never really ends, even if it looks as if it has. It seems like he has taken on the spirit of your advice by giving J money for a small business and encouraging study. So, he’s still open to your thoughts as well as your affection. He deserves both, as you do from him. Not to end this on a cliché, but: life’s too short. You don’t want to wait until it’s too late for you to realize that you don’t need to approve of everything your family does, but you do need to try to understand them.

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