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DEALING WITH TRICKY FAMILY MEMBERS (1)

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Tricky family member issues are not limited to parents and siblings; there’s extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, pretend relatives), in-laws, plus you can even encounter issues with your own children.

All TFM issues are a source of pain and it depends on the nature of the issue, how close the connection is or what that relationship symbolises. Issues can also feel that much bigger if you’re already encountering issues with other family members or in another aspect of your life.

A lot of the suggestions in the classes on being more boundaried with parents and siblings apply to the remainder of your family, especially around recognising their position (empathy), quitting the over-apologising, being honest about your motivations and needs, keeping your business to yourself, and not giving positive reinforcement to dubious behaviour so if you skipped any of the last four classes, it’s worthwhile reading these as a hell of a lot of the suggestions apply and I don’t want to be repeating myself. Also keep in mind that some of the suggestions here also apply to siblings and parents plus there are upcoming classes that deal specifically with the biggies – passive aggression, aggression, and how to state a boundary.

Right, here goes!

Even if they’re older than you, you’re not a kid anymore.

They might still see you as ‘Little {your name}, but you’re not and while some of this is about affection, it becomes a problem when it’s about obligation and even silencing you where ordinarily you would speak up or step up. Don’t play the kid.

Don’t let them run you.

Not having boundaries will not eradicate a problem of a TFM not knowing their boundaries with you. Show through action and where appropriate, what you say, what is and isn’t permissible, otherwise you will feel invaded, smothered, and resentful. Only you can let them know what your boundaries are. They’re living their lives based on their own boundaries but they need to respect the ‘house rules’ which aside from being your actual boundaries might also literally be your house rules. What they do for themselves or in their own home is their business but they don’t get to tell you what yours is. If they are disrespecting you or anyone else in your home, you must let them know that it’s not cool.

Remember, if you haven’t been setting boundaries through your actions, it’s very possible that a TFM who it feels as if they’re invading you, isn’t aware of how you feel and what the actual issues are.

 

Inner and outer choices need to match.

Be clear on the cost of swallowing your feelings. If what you say and do on the outside with your family is very different to what is going on inside, it’s going to hurt. Having issues with extended family can be problematic when you feel as if you have to keep trying to keep the peace to appease close family. It may feel as if you’re being forced to ‘make friends’ or put up with behaviour that under ordinary circumstances, you wouldn’t go anywhere near the person. As an example, one of my readers was abused by her cousin both face-to-face and via text and social media and both of their mothers are trying to force her to make up, even though her cousin has not apologised. Now, family or not, we can’t always get an apology and yes, we do take steps to move on but it’s a problem when we’re being obligated to move on when we’re still hurting and even angry. Yes, you can swallow your feelings but at what price?

There is no easy way out of this situation (there never is) but do try clarifying your position with the pressuring relative:

“I’m sorry that you feel uncomfortable about what happened— so do I. I am not looking to go to war with [the TFM] but after they ________________________ [and be very specific but brief – summarise with 3 key points of the issue including examples], I cannot just go back to spending time with him/her. And yes, we are family which is exactly why I haven’t taken a much bigger step of cutting them off entirely, because if this was someone outside of the family, his/her behaviour would be completely unacceptable and the end of our relationship. I need time and I need you to trust me that when I am ready, I will talk to him/her. If you keep forcing it, it will make things worse. I’m not asking you to take sides; you can still have your relationship with [the person or whoever they’re worried about offending]”.

If the TFM’s behaviour is abusive: “I know that you are uncomfortable with the situation but I cannot keep sacrificing my well-being. Their behaviour was unacceptable to me and I cannot remain open to them doing that. It needs to stop.”

 

The way of the elders isn’t necessarily your way.

In my own extended family, none of the elder family members face conflict and almost all of the younger ones (the children basically) are distinctly uncomfortable with that. Some family can be very set in their ways but depending on who it is, you can attempt to speak with them.

“I know that [whatever the issue is] is not typically dealt with but I’m very uncomfortable with trying to act as if this didn’t happen and would really appreciate if we could talk about what happened. I really value our relationship but I was very _______________ over ______________{ what happened} and would like to avoid it happening again.”

But you may find that they are very set in their ways and while it can be annoying, accept them for who they are and be boundaried in the sense of not being open to being affected by them in the same way. Understand the limitations of your relationship in that area rather than trying to make them in to something they’re not. Remember that they’re of a very different time and may be coming from an entirely different level of awareness.

 

Differences are OK.

The fact that you do things differently is not a judgment on them. You living differently doesn’t invalidate the way that they live. You have to live your life based on your values – your preferences for how you want to live. “I’ve come to understand that I’m the type of person who isn’t comfortable with pretending that everything is OK so I will always speak up if there’s an issue but I do recognise that everyone has their way of handling things”.

Also, it’s important to acknowledge that even though extended family are your family, that they have their own units within it and may have a total different sense of boundaries and what is and isn’t OK. This means that you shouldn’t assume that they should ‘get’ where you’re coming from just because you’re all family.

 

It’s not important to be right.

Issues drag on when it becomes about being entrenched in a position of who’s right and who’s wrong or who’s the winner and who’s the loser. You may go blue in the face trying to get this person to see your side and the more you try to convince them is the more that you bring suspicion upon you plus you’re unconvincing you in the process. It’s as the saying goes, Sometimes you’ve got to accept an apology that you never got.

Your well-being comes first. It is not worth going to toe to toe on an extended basis with a TFM. You will end up feeling bad and it will affect other areas of your life. Unsent Letters are brilliant here because this is where you get to vent and gain perspective.

One of the things I’ve learned from having gone through similar is that you cannot control the uncontrollable so sometimes you have to go inward and change your responses and feel more in command of you.

My mother-in-law lived with us for 8, yes you read that right eight-and-a-half months, and it was only after I let go of trying to be right and instead, recognised my own feelings and focused on taking care of me, that I felt better about the situation.

 

Don’t put someone in the middle.

As you’re all adults, if Pam has a problem with Peter, Pam does not need to keep talking about it to Pablo, Penny, and anyone else she can especially if who she is talking to is close to Peter. That makes things very uncomfortable and the best course of action is to go out, not in. This means that if Pan, Pat and Pandora get on with Pam but are not closely connected to Peter, that is where Pam needs to be going to. Anything else is disruptive, opens things up to ‘sides’ and also alienates Peter if he doesn’t feel as if he can talk those people, or if he does talk to them, it puts Pablo and Penny in the middle.

If someone is in the middle and hearing one or both sides, neither of you will truly know the extent of each other’s feelings.

Don’t put people in a tug of war.

 

Leave out the kids.

As a child, my siblings and I were forever dragged into whatever fallout was going down which means that after a while, we stopped spending time with extended family and as adults, it’s been easier for us to just continue with that habit because, who can live their life feeling as if they have to watch what they say in case it’s perceived as taking sides or being instructed to be family and then instructed to not be family?

If there are any kids between you and the TFM, leave them out. It’s super confusing to them and sends unhealthy messages about boundaries. It’s not the kids’ jobs to manage the awkwardness; it’s that of the adults, so they shouldn’t feel under emotional duress due to whatever is going on and ideally should be left out of it – they don’t need to know the ins and outs of it!

 

Halt bad boundaries about your kids.

If the TFM issue is about the person in question not being boundaried with your kids, do not be afraid to make your boundary clear because even though they’re family, it doesn’t give them the right to think that they can set up their own rules and that extends to grandparents (your parents). It does not mean that there has to be any big war or cutting off but calmly and firmly let the line be made clear.

Example: When you ____________ to/with [the child(ren)], it felt as if you were _______ because you were ______________[whatever came across in their body language]. It’s important for me to raise this concern with you because I teach the kids about _________ and want them to understand ____________ {e.g. the importance of healthy boundaries}. I appreciate that this is the way you do things but I would ask that you not say/do that stuff to/with them. I do value our relationship and want you to be a part of my child(ren)’s lives hence why I’m saying this.

 

Stay out of it.

If it’s not your battle, at some point, you’re going to have to draw a line. Issues get out of hand when other family members beside the people who the issue directly happened to, get involved. Be mindful of getting drawn into drama and if you are getting involved, make sure you’re honest about your motivations for doing so because time and again, I see people get involved in another family member’s drama and on some level, they hope for recognition, validation of some sort and then when they encounter drama with the one that they defended, they feel aggrieved. If it’s not your drama, don’t make it yours. Believe me when I say that resentment will build, especially because even though it may not be the conscious intention, you will be sought out for validation and comfort, acting as a the stabiliser in the relationship but actually, you’re sheltering both parties from facing the issues with conflict and criticism. If, for instance, a parent is putting you in the middle (or trying to), that is about their own issues with conflict and criticism, so they’re likely slipping in to a child-to-child role with that person and so it feels as if they have to lawyer up and grab sides.

“I’m really sorry that you’re experiencing issues with _________. I really hope that you sort things out soon”.

Don’t offer advice and don’t be a dumping ground. If they’re calling up to sound off, limit the call or make your excuses. Screen if necessary.

 

Don’t tell them your problems.

We tell family because they’re family but they’re not always rational and sometimes take things out of context. It is one thing when they show that they’re trustworthy and supportive but it’s another when they take that information and talk amongst themselves, or they use it against you, or even get involved. If they’re a TFM, stop telling them your business and if there is someone else that’s telling them, stop telling that person, which might be easier than saying, “Don’t tell [TFM]”.

 

It is unfair of a partner to expect you to have bad boundaries just because they do.

This can be a hard truth to swallow. The truth is, if your partner has bad boundaries with their family and continues to, it will negatively affect your relationship because he/she will not step up when it’s necessary. It is hard enough to see a partner affected by a TFM but if your partner ends up inadvertently throwing you under a bus due to their problems, them letting you down and their fear will overshadow your relationship and potentially lead to resentment. You can be empathetic and recognise your partner’s issues including the circumstances from which it came about but if you are over-empathetic, you will keep absolving your partner from their responsibilities and end up feeling uncared for.

It is unfair for your partner to expect you to sacrifice your well-being so that he/she can maintain their relationship. It’s also unfair to your relationship because their actions affect their own well-being and contribution when things are very toxic.

 

Easy on the reputation management.

One of the reasons why so many people stay in touch with exes and their mutual friends, isn’t because they necessary like these people but they want to keep an eye on what’s being said and manage their image. Funny enough, this same mentality is behind a lot of the pursuit and keeping up of unhealthy extended family relationships. That’s why I hear from so many people who force themselves to spend time with their extended family just because they want to try and control the uncontrollable and so kid themselves into thinking that they know what these people are thinking and saying.

If I keep spending time around them and doing all of this stuff for them, they won’t have cause to take issue with me.

 

That never stopped anyone!

People are gonna think what they’re gonna think, do what they’re gonna do and say what they’re gonna say regardless, so the best thing that you can do is get on with the business of being you and let go of your need to try to influence or even control other people’s perception of you.

 

Know your delusion threshold and let that define your limits.

This has been my saviour with my extended family. I know my bullsh-t levels and have become attuned to what I am OK with being around without losing myself. I know my delusion threshold.

Be clear on what it feels like when you’re losing yourself – not being you, not compromising what you believe – and then decide how much you can engage with this TFM without losing yourself. Let this define the limits of your relationship and honour it.

 

Don’t suck up.

This is especially the case with in-laws. Be yourself because each time you do the whole sucking up thing, you set a precedence and sometimes they can sense that you are not being yourself and see this as a reason to question other aspects about you, even though what you were likely doing is trying to be accepted. Yes, be a kind, decent, loving person but there’s no need to keep feeling as if you have to roll out the red carpet because each time the TFM annoys or even hurts you, it will feel as if you got sucker punched and short-changed.

 

Acknowledge the white elephant of awkwardness.

With a TFM, you can become confused about what is and isn’t OK so even when things are OK between you, you worry in certain situations. A classic example of this is when they say that they’re going to pay you back money and you’re not sure if you’re supposed to say, “Oh no, that’s OK. Don’t worry about it” because they typically are not being sincere with the offer and will get funny with you if you ask them about the money.

So acknowledge the white elephant.

“I want to check so that there isn’t any awkwardness – is this one of those situations where you want me to say, ‘No that’s OK’?”. Keep it light and the humour will likely diffuse the awkwardness. Of course, if they get annoyed, “I asked because on this occasion (and give a couple of examples), there was an issue and I value our relationship and would like to avoid a repeat of [what happened].” Boom and passive aggression dodged and also brought in to the open – there’s a class coming up on dealing with passive aggression.

 

Don’t hoard it up out of politeness.

When we have issues with extended family, we often hold back on saying what we really think because we’re worried about upsetting somebody who we love and are getting on with just fine. We worry that by showing our anger about the TFM that this other party will feel compromised. Problem is that if you do this, you’re going to end up feeling lonely, not because you are alone but because you’re swallowing down your feelings. When you do eventually erupt (and you will), you will wish you’d spoken up because it will come out far worse than it would have done if you’d faced and honoured how you felt. You end up simmering in resentment and that’s not fair to either of you. They can handle it. Stop worrying so much about hurting feelings – speaking up protects the integrity of your relationships!

 

Draw boundaries with adult children.

It’s very painful when your children grow up and things become very fraught. It might be a continuation of issues from childhood or some may seem quite fresh. Sometimes the issues come about because your child may feel angry about certain things that you may or may not be aware of, they might blame you for their current unhappiness, or feel as if you owe them because of something that happened in their childhood. It’s an incredibly tricky situation but at some point, a line will need to be clear. I’ve spoken with parents who have near bankrupted themselves, emotionally, physically, mentally and financially in order to keep proving a point to their adult child and just like with blackmailers, once you pay up once, they keep coming back for more.

One reader has handed over his business and written large cheques for his forty-something children, impacting his relationship with his second wife and three children. They have always played on the fact that he divorced their mother and money has been his way of trying to say in many thousands of pounds, “I’m sorry that as a result of divorcing your mother and my own issues, I was not the father you wanted me to be.” The problem is that no matter how much money he throws at it, money isn’t love so it’s deepening the problem and positively reinforcing what at times is pretty abominable behaviour on both their parts. Finally, he has said, “All I can offer you now is love and my time” because he realises that they do not respect him and even he doesn’t respect him. He can’t cope anymore with the emotional blackmail and threats. It isn’t peaceful yet but there are boundaries there.

There is no easy way through this. There is a lot of anger, sadness, regret, hurt, frustration and more in these situations and no parent wants to feel as if they’ve brought children in to the world that aside from not respecting them, don’t love them. Equally, I hear from a lot of adult children who struggle with a parent (I’m one of them too) and they have their own feelings about the situation too and yes, some many not be based on logic or may be based on old pain.

Refer back to the classes on boundaries with parents and siblings (Days 17-20) to see if you can see the situation more clearly – the parent classes may open up your awareness about how they might see things and the sibling classes might provide clues as to where some of the tension is coming from (if they have siblings).

Counselling, group therapy and mediation can be of great benefit if your child is open to opening up a dialogue where you can each see and hear each other differently. You are their parent but you also have to have a more boundaried relationship in the sense of it no longer being parent-to-child. If you can see beyond the definition of your relationship so it is less enmeshed and instead, see you each as individuals, you may be able to see each other more clearly and finally hear and see where the other is coming from.

As is the case with most arguments and issues, what we think we’re fighting over isn’t the real issue – it’s the subtext underneath.

Journal PromptJOURNALING: Do you know what your comfort levels are for dealing with what may be another person’s delusions? What do they look and feel like to you? At what point would you feel as if you’re losing yourself and compromising what you believe (your values)? Has it reached this point with your TFM? What can you do to step back a bit and regain you? We do need to live and let live but an important part of that is recognising the points at which we need to know our line that let’s us know that it’s time to step back.