Select Page

DEALING WITH TRICKY FAMILY MEMBERS (1)

Audio Video

Depending on the type of TFM issues that you’re dealing with or how long it’s been going on for or how affected you are, you may find that you either need to put a little distance between you or that you need time out, either temporarily or permanently. These are all boundaried options though because your reasons for doing so are entirely different to when you don’t have healthy boundaries and are in some way trying to influence or even control the other party’s behaviour. Many people who struggle with family go to extraordinary lengths to keep the peace and to preserve the relationship or concept of family, to the detriment of their emotional, mental and physical health. Stepping back or having time out may be what is needed especially if you’ve recognised that your attempts to keep things together are positively reinforcing unhealthy behaviour.

So what’s the difference between distance and opting out temporarily or permanently?

When you choose to have a bit of distance, it’s not necessarily something you go and make an announcement about— it’s more an adjustment and recognition of the fact that you need some healthy emotional, mental and physical space between you. You’re not taking time out— you’re just not spending as much time around this person or engaging at the level that you have previously.

Example: B.A. and Hannibal are brothers. While they had many good times together, as they’ve gotten older, it’s become evident that Hannibal still feels the need to be competitive and defensive, to the point where they’re not really enjoying spending time together. B.A. is tired of feeling guilty about being older and snide accusations about being the favourite and feels frustrated that each time he tries to have any type of discussion about anything, it near turns into World War III. Hannibal is never wrong and knows everything and B.A. has spent forty years getting drawn into fighting his corner and now doesn’t care about being right or disproving Hannibal’s point of view; he wants to conserve his energy for his own growing family. B.A. has tried to talk about the pattern with Hannibal but this results in more defensiveness so he has taken the decision to quietly step back. He recognises that Hannibal does love him but that for whatever reason, there is defensiveness and resentment and they both need to do their own thing. If they’re going to be close, it can’t be forced by either of them or their mother; it’s got to go beyond being brothers and respecting each other’s individuality. He’s stopped inviting him along to his guy nights but still stops by to see him periodically and they see each other at various family things. He refuses to get drawn into any unnecessary debates and changes the subject or moves on to a different family member plus he’s stopped asking his opinion about things that he’s doing. Initially he feels sad but he notices that this tension and resentment that he’s been feeling but not acknowledging, lifts plus he can enjoy spending time with the family and even observe his brother and see the humour in things.

When you put some distance between you and another person, it is not to punish them; it’s to regroup with yourself, to give you a chance to process feelings and get some perspective, and to also recognise the current limitations of the relationship that are showing through the gap between reality and your hopes and expectations. Distance does give objectivity so you might also find that you’re able to articulate the issue and discuss it from a calm place.

You are not stopping engaging altogether with this person when you’re putting a bit of distance between you; you’re stepping back a bit and just not engaging as much. It might mean hanging out less, not getting involved in their dramas, calling once a week instead of every day and basically, being immersed in something other than whatever has preoccupied you about this relationship.

Don’t do it from a passive aggressive place because that’s not being boundaried; do it from a place of recognising your part, no matter how small and recognising that the situation has been sapping you of your energy.

Sometimes having a bit of distance happens naturally say for instance, after you’ve both had a disagreement, but if you both value the relationship and sort your heads out separately, when you reconnect, you will find that you’re both ready to move on and can even laugh about it.

If they do notice the distancing, don’t do the whole making out that it’s in their imagination. Instead, explain that you have been caught up in some other stuff, had a lot on your mind etc., and then suggest a time to catch up. Or be frank – e.g. “When you said ________ / when I saw / spoke with you last, I realised that I needed to clear my head a bit” and then suggest a time to meet up / catch up but make sure it’s not a panicked suggestion where you’re trying to appease – Use the Be Factual Approach. If you don’t want to see them for a few weeks, suggest a date to meet up around then.

When you choose to opt out, whether it’s temporarily or permanently, you’re choosing to stop engaging. You don’t just need to see or engage with that person less than you usually do— you need time out. You won’t be in touch with him/her and typically, they know that you’re not. It might also be that you both choose to opt out. You might both do it from a relatively healthy place or, assuming that you’re sticking to being boundaried, you’re being boundaried but they might go off in a blaze of glory.

Opting out, whether it’s temporarily or permanently, is the option to go for when you’ve tried engaging from a boundaried place and putting some distance between you and it’s become clear that this is not going to work. It’s also the option to go for when the TFM’s behaviour is so over the line and they’re lacking remorse over it, that the safe thing to do is to remove yourself. Same for when you realise that you’ve been submerged in a very toxic situation with this person over a period of time.

Sometimes opting out, whether it’s temporarily or permanently, happens because you love the TFM (and they you), but their way of living and their expectations of you, are very toxic and it becomes clear that the only role you can have with them is one of codependency where they keep trying to make you responsible for their feelings and behaviour.

If a TFM is unreasonable or even abusive and they seem as if they’re committed to continuing, opting out, especially for the latter, is going to be highly likely. You might also find that opting out temporarily and then switching to a distanced relationship might work – for clarification though, this latter option is only appropriate with family.

Opting out needn’t be your default option.

Some people misuse opting out, preferring to do it because it’s better than being vulnerable and having to be seen, having to engage and try to find resolution and yes, better than hearing what the other person has to say or dealing with the tension.

Opting out temporarily allows you to get grounded and to take care of you. When you encounter boundary issues with a TFM, it can do quite a number on your self-esteem if the situation is quite destructive or you’ve spent a period of time blaming you and/or trying to please them. You get to grieve your feelings and gain perspective without having to continue to engage in what has become a toxic situation. You are No Contact – you’re not available to them and vice versa. You use the time to put some much needed boundaries into the situation and when you re-engage, it has to be from a more boundaried place. Again, just like when you distance, you need to acknowledge what you need to do in order to not be open to being in that same space again.

Opting out permanently isn’t a decision to take lightly but sometimes it’s very necessary. It doesn’t have to be in a blaze of glory; sometimes you quietly reach the conclusion that you’re done, finito — you just can’t take anymore and are not willing to sacrifice your well-being for even another moment in a toxic situation. Opting out permanently can also be quiet but often painful acceptance that whatever you want that person to be, not only are they not that person but who they are just isn’t going to work. You know that you cannot have a mutually respectful relationship and that marks the end of the road. You will need to grieve the loss of the relationship including your hopes and expectations for it – Unsent Letters as well as other forms of therapy including one-to-one sessions with a therapist / counsellor or support groups. The next class talks about healing from anger and loss.

The TAKEAWAY

  • It’s important to recognise that some people will misinterpret your love, patience, kindness etc as you being open to being the target of their anger and pain. They lack the self-awareness and conscientiousness to own their part.
  • You have three options when you’re considering space – engaging with them from a more boundaried place and including some distance, opting out temporarily and opting out permanently.
  • Putting some distance between you both helps you to make decisions about how you want to feel and act going forward.
  • You’d be surprised – when you put distance between you and the TFM after things have been strained and even quite forced, it can be quite a relief on both sides.
  • Sometimes opting out permanently does happen straight out of a big blow-up but I would caution you on making a decision in temper because even though anger can galvanise us into action, sometimes when we calm down, we realise that it doesn’t necessarily have to be to this level but then feel too embarrassed to go back, so make sure you reaffirm your decision from a calm place.
  • Distance isn’t easy but sometimes it’s necessary – you can’t hold yourself hostage to a situation (or have them do it).
  • Don’t beat yourself up for having to take time out or to opt out – it’s better than letting stress consume you and destroy your well-being.
  • Not everyone will get your decision and that’s OK. People often project their own, for instance, views of their own family on to others so of course they cannot imagine stepping away but they’re not in your situation.
  • Unless they’re being abusive or have consistently demonstrated that they’re boundary intolerant, try engaging from a more boundaried place first, and that way you can have deeper trust in your decision.

Journal PromptJOURNALING: What feelings come up for you when you think about distancing and opting out as a potential option in the future? If you’ve had very negative experiences of these, explore the memories and add in some fresh perspective. How are past experiences influencing any resistance to having these as an option? Are you able to differentiate between the past and the present or someone else’s way of distancing/opting out and yours?

taskTASK: Come up with three things that you can do that will enable you to put some emotional, mental and even physical distance between you (without opting out, unless necessary) as part of your more boundaried approach with this TFM.