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Dealing with tricky family members

In over ten years of people sharing their stories with me and helping people to address the emotional baggage resulting from their family experiences, I’ve picked up a hell of a lot of intel on the types of issue that become sources of tension and friction. Throw in thirty-eight years of dealing with TFMs on both sides of my family as well as even with my in-laws, and I feel safe in giving you a glossary of TFM behaviour and issues. This by no means is the length and breadth of every shady or difficult thing on the planet but a hell of a lot of it is covered. This is part one.

Abandonment – Doesn’t just to come down to literally being physically abandoned and that family member not coming back; there can be longstanding tensions about unmet needs and unresolved hurts stemming from emotional abandonment and general lack of support at critical points in your life. Absence comes in many forms and tension can be the result of a long and persistent pattern of a family member not showing up ad stepping up for you when you needed them, especially in childhood. Disappearing acts, financial abandonment (lack of child support, lack of assistance), not being supported when you experienced abuse. It also might be that you are perceived as having abandoned them for having done any of the above. Abandonment whether it’s them or you, feels very real for that person. A person can have a sense of abandonment even if the other party thinks that they have been ‘there’ – people feel and perceive abandonment in numerous ways. Note that TFM tensions around abandonment have spin-off issues such as trying to right the wrongs of the past in other relationships or in this relationship, which adds to the problems.

Addiction – Whether it’s acknowledged or unacknowledged, addiction, as well as being a problem for the person it affects, also has an impact on other family members especially when it’s for an extended period of time. It requires empathy and support (not the same as enabling incidentally) but what can end up happening is that family members unwittingly adopt enabler roles which becomes part of the problem. There can also be tension around the origins of the issue, which for instance, may stem from secrets and issues that family members don’t talk about. There may be a pattern of shame. It can also be that you have battled with addiction and are trying your best to overcome it (or already have) but a TFM still treats you as if you’re still ‘back there’ and won’t allow you to move forward or, they think that they’re being supportive but you’re feeling smothered. These issues are all linked to codependent dynamics.

Acting out – Some TFMs act out, so for instance, a parent suddenly starts rebelling as if they’re a child. It can also be that because they don’t talk about what is bothering them, it comes out through erratic behaviour and then they end up being misunderstood. Particularly if they keep doing it, they damage their own credibility and the effects on other family members (like you) creates tension. It can be very frustrating if it’s your parent as it can feel as if you haven’t ever had a chance to be a child.

Ambushing – Blindsiding you with stuff, surprise confrontations that are specifically done when they know that you’re in a vulnerable position. Can also be keeping silent about issues, hoarding them up for a rainy day – you do something seemingly minor and you get ambushed with a catalog of offences both real and imagined.

Aggression – Displaying feelings of anger via hostile and even violent behaviour. Used to intimidate. Historical aggression also teaches family members fear of reprisals so issues are not expressed or resolved. Not unusual to have a family with several aggressive members or a chief aggressive and then a mix of passive aggression and passivity. Teaches negative messages about healthy conflict and criticism.

Apology averse – Doesn’t apologise, ever. You might get hints of an apology with a veiled statement alluding to the thing that they pretended never happened. Oddly, they might demand apologies from others. Older generations, especially clan-like ones can be very guilty of this due to beliefs around ‘elders’.

Approval seeking – Whether it’s you seeking their approval or them seeking yours, looking for approval on an ongoing basis is going to on one hand, wind up one or both of you because whoever doesn’t feel as if they’re getting it feels invalidated and the other party feels pressured or as if nothing is ever enough and on the other hand, the party who relies on feeling ‘authoritative’ or ‘superior’ takes the baton and tries to rule the other. If you’ve been seeking approval, some of being bossed around or criticised is going to be a source of resentment. Looking for approval puts you in a bind because on one hand you’re looking for recognition but then in giving away your power, you forget about the flip-side which is that they will infer reasons to not have confidence in you. So you might look for approval but then wonder why they’re treating you like a baby when you’re 35.

Bad boundaries – Not knowing other people’s line and their limit, likely also having poor boundaries for themselves. They cross your emotional, mental, physical and ‘stuff of life’ boundaries (money, possessions etc). The worst boundary offenders are the ones who seem to think that they don’t have boundary issues or that they’re exempt. It’s also incredibly annoying when they won’t respect your boundaries but claim to have a whole load of boundaries to dictate to you about.

Bearing grudges – Harbouring and in fact dining out on a feeling of resentment based on a real or imagined injustice.

Betrayal – A severe breach of your trust and confidence (or you theirs). Family comes with an inherent expectation of loyalty and at the point where you (or they) feel betrayed, it will be stemming from what is perceived to be a deliberate act.

Bringing Up Old Sh-t – You can’t bring up something from five minutes ago but they can bring up everything from the past 500 years. You’re supposed to forget things and move on, they don’t forget a damn thing. You try to talk about something and they can’t stick to the subject matter.

Bullying – Someone using influence and coercion to cause you harm or to intimidate you into compliance. They are seen as being stronger and you being ‘weaker’ but bullying is a sign of weakness and is about displaced anger and acting out. Bullying is a form of abuse and never justified or acceptable.

Bushfire Conflict – This is when one family member has an issue with another and then decides to now have an issue with you and possibly other family members, even though you don’t have anything to do with the issue. Suddenly your mother has a disagreement with your brother and she’s calling up all the kids and having a pop, bringing up old sh-it and cutting you all off – yes, that’s a real example!

Change – Most people have some level of fear of change but in a family where change is regarded as threatening or where one member takes your own personal changes personally because they see it as judgment about them or feel inconvenienced now that they, for instance, might have to be more boundaried, it makes for a lot of drama. Some family members feel threatened by big change because they feel out of control (they’re not necessarily controlling but they do like things just so (change might bring up feelings of loss and grief) and sometimes it’s quite simply that if you change then they cannot be in control of you. Sometimes though, the tension can arise because you make changes and it suddenly makes you aware of issues in the family. New-found confidence can sometimes be misinterpreted by them or even you – you might get a bit over-zealous. Sometimes we can be so happy with the changes that we’ve made that we want everyone else to change to and sometimes it gets a person’s back up because they feel preached to. And sometimes they’re jealous of the changes you’ve made.

Chronically worried – Worrying is like praying for what you don’t want to happen. Some people take worrying to a whole new level and have gotten into such an anxious state that it’s hard to take care of themselves. They likely mean well but their way of living can take a toll when they expect you to fit in to the worrisome lifestyle.

Codependency – Excessive emotional reliance, yours, theirs, or both of you. Part or all of a family can be codependent so tensions can arise when one (you) makes changes. In codependent families or dynamics, one party enables the others dysfunctional behaviour so the relationship and dynamic is dysfunctional. The TFM might be dependent on you being dependent. It’s not necessarily case of them not loving or caring about you but their way of living is incompatible with yours if they’re expecting you to compromise your well-being by functioning on their behalf by providing for all of their needs, expectations, wants etc. You’re made responsible for their feelings and behaviour. They avoid responsibility, functioning as their adult self or in their role within the family (so they make you mother when they’re the mother), or expect you to cover up where they’re, for instance, dealing with addiction or not showing up in another area of their life. The more you shelter them is the more you enable them from natural consequences but also from addressing the issues plus you end up not being able to take responsibility for you. All of this leads to eventual resentment and frustration, possibly on both sides. A lot of blame gets thrown about and sometimes this is used as emotional blackmail to keep you compliant. Big tensions will arise when you attempt to break the cycle. You rightly wanting to change your role will bring up all sorts of issues for both of you. It’s important to recognise as well that sometimes you are assuming responsibility that you don’t have. More friction will arise if you end up in a pattern of codependent outside relationships (romantic and friendship) stemming from it being habit and also trying to right the wrongs of the past. When things go wrong in these relationships, you might feel resentful of whoever inspired your codependent choices.

Crazy-making – Messing with your head. Deliberately saying and doing things to throw you off balance. Creates a lot of self-doubt. Also known as gaslighting. This is all in the territory of abusers.

Critical – Seems to be predisposed to find fault. An expert at everything, apparently. Appears to have a thing about highlighting whatever they think is wrong with you or what you’re doing. Judgmental, possibly like to comment about everything. Might be a bit of a nightmare on social media, a pain to have visit your home, and creates uneasiness due to being generally disapproving. Criticism can also be about them perceiving you as judging and criticising them (even if this isn’t true).

Communication style – Lack of attention to tone, language, appropriateness, timing, sensitivity, boundaries. Some TFMs claim that they’re discussing something with you yet their language, tone etc give the impression that they’re firing bullets.  They might be aggressive, passive aggressive or passive. It’s also possible that a TFM is actually assertive but mistaken for being aggressive if you are typically passive or have negative associations with assertiveness. This can also be a clash in styles. We infer messages about ourselves from the way people communicate with us which can lead to all sorts of misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Not communicating and hinting are big sources of tension.

Controlling – Trying to influence and control your behaviour by force – this represents abusive behaviour. There’s also controlling in the sense of the TFM being someone who likes to be in control so they want everything just so, they want everything done a certain way, they might not let other people help, or claim that it’s easier for them to do it because it will take too long to explain, or want to be in everyone’s business and be leading everything. Tensions can result because, well, who wants to be on the receiving end of this? It can also feel quite overbearing at times plus people who have control issues overcompensate for where they feel out of control in other areas of their lives and also tend to have angry outbursts due to being overloaded and not speaking up. They might be pissed off with you because they feel unsupported but neglect to remember that you used to offer to do stuff all the time but they kept telling you that you were doing it wrong or that they didn’t need you, so you stopped asking. They can be quite rigid thinkers, so very, My way or the high way, and you might have taken to rebelling against them or after a period of trying to keep the peace, have become frustrated, annoyed and even resentful. You might find that you have been passive aggressive at times, possibly in response to their passive aggression but also possibly as a more covert way of letting them know your discontent, so you may be bouncing off each other.

Coveting issues – It’s the Jerry Springer Show territory of a TFM sleeping with your partner or even setting up home with them, a parent sleeping with your friend, or stuff like disrupting your friendships or ‘taking’ your friend(s), trying to take over your role with your kids. Basically they’re super inappropriate and likely gravitate to what they feel is already approved of. They’re also jealous of you although they will often deny it.

Clan – Clan-like families can be large and intertwined or they can be relatively small but they all stick together. If one is offended, they’re all offended. They might act like The Sopranos or The Mitchells (Eastenders) as if they run the place (the town, the world). It’s all very well when you’re in the clan or when things are going good but if you have a big bust-up, suddenly it can seem as if you’re only “family” when it suits them. It can be very painful. Clans are very image focused so there can be an expectation to tow the line.

Closing rank – This is where it feels as if the TFM and another family member (possibly also a TFM) have united against you as a means of trying to make a valid concern or criticism invalid or to close themselves off to you so that you cannot talk and address the issue. They gather one or a few family members to demonstrate the loyalty they have on their side but also, what’s quite interesting is that when a family is quite clannish, if one family member (you) breaks with tradition (e.g. you call someone out on issue), they show support for each other, not because they necessarily agree or even know what the hell the actual issue is, but because if you have an issue with one member, they see it as a criticism of the group.

Journaling PromptJOURNALING: Are any of these issues familiar to you in your TFM situation? See if you can summarise the specifics of what the particular issue is. Is there anything here (e.g. abandonment) that you think represents baggage that they’re bringing into the situation that’s affecting their behaviour and how they’re feeling and perceiving things? Explore your thoughts and feelings on this – use Unsent Letters and other resources if it feels as if there’s a lot coming up. Is there anything in this list that you hadn’t recognised it in your TFM situation until you read about it? What were you telling you before this? How does it feel to recognise something for what it is?