How to Get Along with a Difficult Family Member
For good or bad, you can’t choose your family. Not the one we’re biologically related to, anyway. The clan we’re raised by is enormously influential on our worldview, our values, and our idea of a good joke. But sometimes it can feel like there’s a gulf between us and the people that we’re duty-bound to love – or at least put up with – simply because we are generally linked to them somehow, or raised within the same unit. Between tricky in-laws and guilt-laden relations with parents and siblings, to dealing with bigoted relatives that you normally try to avoid at every family wedding, trying to keep the peace and manage your own sanity within an uneasy family dynamic can be exhausting. But there are boundaries we can put in place to protect our energy and time, because difficult relatives do not have a right to drain them. Here are some tips on how to manage these relationships so that everyone can get along more peacefully.
When a difficult family member is being too demanding of your time, be sure to manage expectations from your side. This is an important part of maintaining boundaries, and requires clear communication so that there are no misunderstandings about what is being offered or promised. Try placating them with your good will and honesty about what you can manage in a certain time frame. For instance, if there is a family member pressuring you to see or visit them more often when doing so would cause other problems for you, try responding with something like: “I would love to see you, but my schedule is so hectic this week/month. How about…”
Find some compassion for them
Someone who regularly makes life difficult for others – or, specifically, those who enjoy doing do – is typically a deeply unhappy person. However they may come across, there is likely some unmet need gnawing away at them, even for the most obnoxious, arrogant of people. When someone exhibits this type of behavior with you, look at the wider stories of trauma in your family and previous generations – perhaps fleeing conflict or experiencing poverty. Maybe this person had cruel parents or teachers, and didn’t get enough hugs. Try to see through their armor and understand that they may be scared and lonely, and lacking the tools and self-awareness to heal that. Through this lens, you can accept them for who they are, flaws and all – in the same way you wish for your family to accept you. Who knows – although you shouldn’t be beholden to that outcome, there is a chance that treating them with this compassion may even help them to heal and improve this behavior down the line.
Find something you can connect on
Family members that are difficult will typically be craving connection. Find a neutral topic – away from politics or religion – to engage them in. Give them the attention they desire by asking for their advice on something they are knowledgeable on, such as gardening or fishing, or bond with them over the football. Make it your “thing” together, and you could even establish a routine around it, like going to a game or the garden center once a month. In this way, you can give your time together some purpose that you will both get value and connection from. It will also help you build a relationship with them that is separate from the one under the cloud of whatever it is you clash on.
Concede the battleground
Whatever fundamental differences stand between you, accept that there’s nothing here to “win”. Let them be “right”, or agree to disagree. If they challenge your views and opinions, let it be an opportunity for your faith to be tested – which is how we establish true security in ourselves. Standing firm in our own principles and beliefs is an inward journey rather than an outward one, so prioritize living them rather than performing them. Experiencing some humility will only make you stronger.
Replace your defenses with boundaries
Decide what you’re prepared to put up with, and don’t give an inch further. Until that point, be receptive and accepting. Defensive energy is usually met with the same, so softening your own energy around a difficult family member might make a huge difference in how they respond to you. Knowing your boundaries – such as the amount of time you’re prepared to spend at an occasion – creates the safety to go all in with love, kindness, and generosity, because you’ve got your own back on how much you’re willing to give.
Do your own work
Family members tend to be so triggering because their behaviors are so close to home. We see the parts of ourselves that we don’t like reflected back to us, and unhealed childhood wounds are vulnerable to re-opening. But you can use this friction as an opportunity for your own growth. Figure out what it is about this difficult family member that grinds your gears, and examine what it brings up for you. If it’s a deep emotional wound like guilt, shame, anger, grief or fear, explore where it might be coming from within you. You might need a professional to help you untangle any dysfunctional family dynamics – and a lot of self-care as you heal from them – but it will be worth it when your relatives’ words and actions no longer trigger you. It may even help you in your other relationships beyond your family, as a step on your path towards more personal growth.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Family Relationships and Well-Being; Communication Surrounding Estrangement: Stereotypes, Attitudes, and (Non)Accommodation Strategies; Family Communication Patterns and Difficult Family Conversations.
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