Miss Information: How can I stop my brother from ordering a bride on the internet?

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Dear Miss Information,

My younger brother is twenty-three-years old and mentally handicapped. He can hold down a job and basically take care of himself, but recently my parents bought him a house and he has been mentioning that he’s lonely. My mother has been able to spy on what he is up to online because he leaves his computer on and logged in to numerous websites. I do not approve of her snooping. For a while, my parents were worried about him trying to get a mail order bride — it was one of the sites he was visiting. Now, he’s apparently on dating websites and sending women messages saying, "Would you do me?" I just want him to find someone and be happy. My parents don’t want him to get swindled. Is there anything I can do to make sure he doesn’t get taken advantage of while trying to find someone online? — Concerned Brother

Dear Concerned Brother,

This being the age of instant online enlightenment, in which tips on everything from surviving a bear attack to attacking a bear can be found with a few taps of a keyboard, I thought finding an answer to this question would be easy.

Yeah, no. There are dating websites and advice geared towards the physically disabled as well as those with various mental disorders — depression, schizophrenia, Tourette’s — but very little for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities. (Readers, feel free to correct me.)

We all know that just because you don’t hear about these peeps going on dates and getting it on doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Is it safe for someone like your brother to date? Sure, a lot of the time. But, as with any other dating population, there are unintended consequences, like this lovely story of a twenty-three-year-old woman accused of opening up a bunch of credit cards in her fifty-five-year-old boyfriend’s name. He’s believed to be somewhere between six and twelve years old, mentally. As a loving big brother, you have reason to be wary.

Does that mean putting him on lockdown, installing firewalls, and conducting weekly audits of his browser history? I’m not the one to make that call. Neither are you. Neither are your parents. There are people who are better equipped: a caseworker, a personal physician, a therapist. Someone with the professional training and background required to make an accurate assessment of his overall readiness. Combine that with observations and input from you and your parents (which a good provider should be willing to listen to) and you’ll have everything you need to turn your brother into a well-oiled dating machine.

As far as common-sense interim steps that don’t involve third-party intervention, the goal should be protecting him from worst-case scenarios while maintaining his independence. Finances are important. Does he know the rules about sharing his PIN? Also up there are health concerns like disease prevention and pregnancy. My friend once taught his high-functioning and newly sexually active stepbrother how to put on a condom using a banana. Awkward? A little. But so far, no accidental pregnancies. Finally, there’s stuff like etiquette and judgment. Think about what you’d say to a non-mentally handicapped friend trolling for mail-order brides. The delivery may be different, but the message is the same.

The role you play is difficult — somewhere between caretaker and wingman. Give him information. Share your experiences. Don’t be afraid to be blunt. He should feel like he can tell you anything, but first you have to start the conversation. Talk about a friend who’s also doing the online thing or watch a romantic comedy. If he’s a comic-book nut, dissect the sexual tension between Superman and Lois Lane. Just get the ball rolling. Let embarrassment and procrastination get the best of you and you’re asking for problems later.

Dear Miss Information,

I’ve been in an on-again, off-again exclusive relationship for about two years. We’ve had our problems, like any other couple, as well as good times together. However, I had a really bad hunch something was a bit off this past week. He’s been treating me with a lot of affection — more than usual — like he was guilty or something. I asked him to open up to me and told him he could talk to me about anything. He said he was fine and that he just missed me a lot because of the nature of his new job.

While he was sleeping, I did a terrible thing. I snooped in his phone. I saw a text conversation with his sister. She wants to set him up with a friend of hers who is looking to settle down in his city and mentioned how they both love spicy food. (I can’t handle spicy). Instead of declining the offer, he calls her a matchmaker and tells her to send him more information so that he might consider her. She’s supposed to be sending him the girl’s contact info in the next day or so. While I haven’t met his family yet, they do know about me.

I’m shocked. At my own actions and those of my boyfriend. I know that there is nothing to justify what I did but I also don’t know how to feel or what to do now that I have this information. My girlfriends are telling me he’s cheating and I need to run. My guy friends say what I saw may have been taken out of context and that I need to confront my boyfriend first before making a rash decision. Either way, I don’t know if this relationship is going to last. What should I do? — Appalled and Ashamed

Dear Appalled and Ashamed,

You shouldn’t have looked in his phone. You know that. I know that. Do these findings confirm a recent suspicion or are they symptomatic of deeper issues within this "on-again, off-again exclusive relationship"? By the way, what is that, exactly? Are you exclusive when you’re "on," "off," both, or neither? "We’ve had our problems, like any other couple" is also suspicious. I hear that one a lot, mostly from couples who’ve broken up and gotten back together so many times they no longer bother updating their Facebook status.

When relations are stormy, there’s greater opportunity for misinterpretation. For instance, you could be reading the word "matchmaker" as something romantic when, in reality, it’s just your boyfriend’s sister trying to help him make a new platonic friend. Was the "more information" that he asked for something like her line of work and favorite cuisine or was it her dating status and chest measurements? Since then, has he hounded his sister for the contact info like some sex-starved golfer or has he let it drop to the bottom of his To-Do list?

On one hand, we could assume he’s on the up-and-up, because what kind of sister would try to sell her brother on a new girl when she knows he’s already dating somebody? On the other hand, if she’s heard a lot of complaining and knows he’s chronically unhappy, she could be trying to push him in a new direction. But we’ve run out of hands, so I’ll stop the speculation here: it’s time to spill it to the boyfriend. Tell him what you did, how bad you feel, and ask him to explain the conversation.

Will you get the truth out of him? It’s a tossup. Try to be the "good cop", as hard as that is, and resist the urge to throw out accusations. If you approach him from a place of empathy and compromise you’re more likely to get the information you require. You may even try making your own revelations: "You know, there were times when I was tempted to go out with someone new," or, "You know, I’m starting to think that maybe this isn’t working for either of us," (if that’s the way you feel) and see what he says.

Then, once you have what you need, you can really lay into him. Kidding! (Sort of.) Overall, just listen to your instincts, but be patient. This isn’t one of those conversations that’s going to come to a quick and tidy end. You may find that you want to break with him even if it turns out he didn’t cheat. Sometimes a person can be looking for a way out but doesn’t want to admit that to themselves, so the feelings get displaced. Could that be you, Appalled and Ashamed?

Readers, what’s your call on this one? Would you confront the guy, wait and keep snooping for something more incriminating, or keep your mouth shut forever?