Ten Tips for Dealing With Difficult Relatives

With the holidays approaching, I thought I’d use this post to examine another aspect of love: familial, with all its wonders and complications. For anyone fortunate enough to have lived with family, we know that doing so enables us to feel a sense of identity and home that no other type of relationship can quite replicate. This is where we learn our first emotional vocabulary. It is within the bosom of family that we discover things such as our favorite foods, the joys of playing, or the nurturing reassurance of a warm hug. But it is also where we first get laughed at or misunderstood or punished. We learn that, too.

No other relationship strikes the same chord of emotional rawness simply because we don’t let anyone else see so much. Those moments when we’ve let ourselves go–furious or devastated about something we care about–are rarely witnessed by anyone outside the family. They know our weak spots. They know our history. If you have anything in common with me, you will know what it’s like to feel outright loathing or consuming rage at a relative. The kind of hurt and rejection they can inflict is light years beyond what anybody else can do. The problem with family is that we can’t truly divorce ourselves from them. Whether in person or as a memory, like a bad penny they keep turning up, reminding us of parts of ourselves or our lives we’d rather forget.

How can we love and loathe somebody at the same time? What’s a re-booter to do when forced to interact with those from whom there is no escape?

Not too long ago, I read an article about forgiveness where the person leading the meeting asked who in the room was not speaking to at least one close relative within their circle. Nearly every single audience member raised their hand. When asked what the feud was about, most of them couldn’t remember; what lingered, however, was the ill will, intransigence, and distrust the experience engendered. Can love for a relative exist under such searing conditions? What does this sort of love look like? What does it obligate us to do (that’s different than what we’re obligated to do for anyone else)? What do you think?

It’s hard to know what to do when you find yourself confronting such a searing breach. Forgive and forget is one adage. Trust and verify another. When grappling with ongoing, low level but chronic unkindness, someone close to me says, “It doesn’t matter,” which always drives me crazy because it does matter! It matters very much and pretending it doesn’t is, to me, the equivalent of rolling onto your back and saying, “Stab me. It’s ok, I won’t bleed much.” Nuh huh, not me. I’m way more martial than that. The way I see it, there’s a clear line between putting things behind us versus allowing bad behavior to go unchallenged. Not all may agree with me on this, but I have extensive personal knowledge which informs my opinion. (Of course, learning how to make this challenge without blowing everything up has been a critically important lesson I’ve had to learn…)

So, how does a determined and dedicated re-booter tiptoe their way through the minefield of family grudges and insecurities to extract the very best of those same relatives?

One: approach the relationship anew. Try thinking of these people as strangers. You’re likely to think and speak with greater care, making far fewer assumptions about what they’ll say or do next.

Two: control your facial expressions. Neutrality in appearance is key!

Three: don’t leap to assumptions. Rather than leaping to the hostile shorthand of intimates, start off by giving them the benefit of the doubt before deciding you’ve been dissed.

Four: Initiate an obvious and sincere gesture of goodwill. Be courteous. Be flexible. Be cooperative. Try to find something you can both laugh about.

Five: Don’t expect to be thanked or that your gesture will be reciprocated. Do it for yourself, for your tranquility, and for the satisfaction of knowing you’re trying.

Six: Try to see beyond their insulting behavior. So often, what they’re doing has way more to do with them than it has to do with you (or whatever bullshit attitude you’re dishing out–yes you do it, too). They probably treat everyone this way.

Seven: Don’t rely on old data. Making the assumption that you know them as well as you once did may not be correct. Give yourself a chance to observe them now before jumping to conclusions.

Eight: The less said the better. You’re older, wiser, and far more independent now, so is it really so important that you stake your ground? You’re leaving in a few hours, so why not just hold your tongue. (Bonus points for this one.)

Nine: Take pity on them. You don’t know everything they’re dealing with. If they refuse to budge, if they remain as horrible as before, there will be nothing you can do except feel sorry for them.

Ten: Learn to embrace the new, downscaled normal between you. It may not be the warm fuzzy relationship you had before, but if it’s civil with at least a modicum of cooperation, you’re doing well. Find a way to be content with that.

This isn’t easy and it isn’t fun, but it is worthwhile, if you can manage it. You’ve got a few weeks before the holidays hit. On your mark, get set, go!


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