How to Deal With Difficult Relatives
It's one thing dealing with difficult people with whom you have a professional or casual relationship, such as your boss, a co-worker, or anyone you deal with on a regular basis. But if the problem person is a relative and your relationship is personal and permanent, that’s a whole different beast. You must clearly define the boundaries you’re comfortable with, let the other person know what those boundaries are, and then enforce them.
Steps Define your boundaries. You set the boundaries in your relationships. If those boundaries are crossed and the other person can’t seem to take the hint, you have to assert yourself to restore balance. If you have relatives who fail to respect your boundaries and behave as if the purpose of the relationship is for you to bend over backwards to satisfy all of their needs, you certainly aren’t alone. What you need to do is define boundaries which you consider to be bottom lines that should not be crossed, ones that make you feel violated when they are. For example, if you value your privacy and a relative insists on frequent unannounced drop-in visits, that may be a bottom line for you. The first thing to realize is that it’s perfectly OK to satisfy your own needs. A relationship that makes you feel violated isn’t healthy.
Verbalize your boundaries. Use nonviolent communication (observation, feeling, need, request) the next time a relative oversteps boundaries. If you’ve been going years without clearly verbalizing and enforcing your boundaries like a mature adult (i.e. you’ve been letting the other person treat you like a child for too long), most likely the other person won’t take you seriously at first. There may be a "shock" reaction (usually feigned) at the mere suggestion that you dare attempt to put restrictions on this behavior. Just let that person have his or her reaction, but stand your ground anyway.
Enforce your boundaries. Try to enforce with kindness and compassion at first - after all, there's a good chance you've allowed this behavior to go on for years, and that makes you partly to blame for the fact that your relative has not learned the behavior you want from him or her. But if that fails, and your relative doesn't respond to gentle reminders, here's a no-nonsense approach to enforcing your boundaries: Let the other person know that for the next 30 days, you intend to strictly enforce the boundaries you’ve described. Make it clear that if that person violates your boundaries even once during those 30 days, you will then begin a 30-day communications blackout. For 30 days you simply have no contact with the other person. No drop-in visits (if s/he shows up, you firmly say, "Sorry, we just aren't ready for visitors right now. Also, we are not having contact with you at this time - remember? That is to help you with our new rules."), no phone calls, no emails, nothing — unless it’s absolutely mandatory. After the 30-day fasting period, you can restart the original 30-day boundary-enforcement trial and repeat the process. Of course you should let the other person know you’re doing this — be totally transparent about what you’re doing. Also, let the other person know that you’re resorting to this process because s/he's left you no choice - remind him or her that you've made many attempts to let him or her know how serious you were, and those attempts were ignored. Say that you want a fresh start, so that a new relationship that you can both enjoy can grow, and that by taking a 30-day break, you hope to make a clean start, both understanding how to respect one another's boundaries.
The first attempt at a 30-day blackout will surely be filled with attempts to contact you. You will rebuff the attempts by not responding to them. Hopefully, the attempts peter out, and you finish the 30 days in peace. However, if your relative is relentless and will not respect your request for 30 days, then you need to inform him or her that you're going to have to take stronger measures. Reset your calendar to Day 1. From this time forward, if the other person attempts to make contact with you at all during the 30-day blackout, the 30 days resets to Day 1. Be sure your relative understands the rules of this game, don't just do it without letting him or her know what you expect, and what the consequences of violating your request will be. If the rules are breached more than a couple times and you reach the point where you’re pretty clear the other person has no intention of respecting your boundaries whatsoever, regardless of your attempts to enforce them, then you’re done. The relationship cannot continue in its current form. If the other person can’t even respect your boundaries for 30 days, then what kind of future do you have together? It means that your boundaries will be trampled for as long as you allow the relationship to continue to exist in its current form.
This might sound a bit harsh, but keep in mind that before you reach this point, you’ve already expressed your needs clearly to the other person, and you were trampled. You owe it to yourself to take a step back and see if you really wish to continue this relationship at all. The 30-day blackout period is a time for both of you to re-evaluate the relationship from a distance. It’s also a massive pattern interrupt that lets the other person know with certainty that s/he crossed an uncrossable line, and enough is enough.
Disarm the primary weapon: Guilt. If the other person attempts to use guilt as a tool of manipulation (which is extremely common), it’s fairly easy to overcome. Whenever you perceive the other person attempting to manipulate your emotions by making you feel guilty, bring the whole matter to conscious awareness by asking, “You’re not trying to make me feel guilty, are you?” The other person will probably deny it, but soon the pattern will re-emerge. Keep interrupting the pattern of falling into a state of guilt by bringing attention to the other person’s emotionally manipulative tactics. Simply keep asking questions like, “Why do you feel it necessary to use guilt as a tool of manipulation?” or “You must really find this upsetting if you feel it necessary to try to make me feel guilty to get what you want. Can we try a more mature way of discussing this?” You don’t need to beat the person up about it, but put a stop to the use of guilt as a weapon, once and for all. If you refuse to enter the emotional state of guilt, it will allow you to be more objective and compassionate in seeing that the other person is probably using guilt because s/he feels powerless. If you can address that powerlessness, you have the opportunity to transform the relationship for good.
Re-evaluate the relationship. If the person refuses to change, think deeply about your relationship with him or her. You might find that you harbor one or more beliefs that perpetuate the problem. If you operate under the belief that all family is forever and that you must remain loyal to all your relatives and spend lots of time with them, those beliefs are your choice, and you’re free to embrace them - or release them. If you find yourself with family relationships that are incompatible with your becoming your highest and best self, then excessive loyalty to your family is likely to be extremely disempowering to you. Think deeply about your own beliefs about family and loyalty, and consider the following:
You would probably never tolerate the same behaviors in a stranger as you will in a family member. To push a family member out of your life might cause you to feel guilty, or could lead to a backlash from other family members. But genuinely ask yourself, “Why do I tolerate this behavior from a family member when, if it were a stranger, I would refuse to tolerate at all?”
Identify the nature of the external conflicts you experience, and then translate them into their internal equivalents. For example, if a family member is too controlling of you, translate that problem into your own internal version: You feel your relationship with this family member is too much out of your control. When you identify the problem as external, your attempted solutions may take the form of trying to control other people, and you’ll meet with strong resistance. But when you identify the problem as internal, it’s much easier to solve. If another person exhibits controlling behavior towards you, you may be unable to change that person. However, if you feel you need more control in your life, then you can actually do something about your responses without needing to control others.
You can love your relatives without having a particularly close-knit relationship. Maybe your personal values and lifestyle have moved so far from theirs that there isn’t enough basic compatibility to form a strong common bond anymore. Even though this might be the family you grew up with and shared many memories with, your core values are so different now that it just doesn’t feel like a meaningful family relationship anymore. Despite all these differences, you can be on good terms with each other and get along fairly well, but your differences create such a big gap that you have to settle for being relatives without being close friends.
Familial relationships can be complex, and cutting one person out can lead to your losing someone you really do want to have a closer relationship with. Decide which hills are really worth dying on, in other words, if you only have to see this difficult person two or three times a year, consider just letting it roll off your shoulder. Although you want to be the captain of your own destiny, it won't hurt you to just endure this person for a few hours, and the trade-off is worth it if you are keeping your other relatives happy by doing so.
Tips When you see this pattern occurring where you don’t have the leverage to enforce boundaries, such as with your spouse’s relative, and your partner seems spineless about having a confrontation, then you have to enforce these boundaries with your partner. You must clearly tell your partner to speak to his or her relatives, to defend you and your marriage/partnership, and to make it clear to his or her relatives that you must be respected, or else the two of you will not be visiting much. This has the benefit of pushing your partner to grow up (albeit sometimes kicking and screaming), learning to put your needs first and the “Mommy” figure's needs second. Some people just need a good kick to get themselves out of childhood and into adulthood, especially during their 20s. In the long run, your partner will likely be grateful to you for his/her new spine.
If all else fails, run! If the above solution fails, just up and move to another city. Many people swear their marriages have been saved by this solution!
Warnings If your boundaries are reasonable, and the person is either unwilling or incapable of complying with them, you’re done — in most situations it would be foolish to continue such a relationship. It will only erode your self-respect.