Dealing with Difficult Relatives

Any time I see an article on this topic, the advice generally goes something like this: “We know it’s hard to disagree with relatives sometimes, but they love you and want you to be happy, so as long as you explain to them that what you’re doing makes you happy, they’ll be kind about it even if they don’t agree with you! Then everything will work out just fine!”

I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I define difficult relatives.

If you’re like me, you have some relatives for whom this holds true, but you also have relatives who are difficult in a different way, who say they care about you but can be incredibly destructive, damaging, and selfish in their relationships with you. These are the relatives who pretty much always leave you feeling worse about yourself and your choices, who, no matter what you say, will never just agree to disagree. These, to me, are the truly difficult relatives.

There can, of course, be other people who treat you this way besides your family, but I’ve found family to be the most difficult to deal with in this category because they’re so unavoidable. So, here are some ways to protect yourself and respond to family relationships that cut you down.

1. Avoid them.

You may feel tremendous guilt in seeking to avoid people in your family, but let me give you permission right now: you are not doing any favors to yourself or to the people in your life by spending time around people who degrade you. So make excuses. “Forget” about appointments that you just have to go to. Get sick. Do whatever you need to do to get out of any unnecessary contact with them. Yes, you will hurt their feelings, but in this kind of relationship, their feelings will be less hurt than you would be by spending time with them.

2. Create a buffer.

In those circumstances you can’t get out of, create a buffer between you and your destructive relative. Invite a friend along — relatives often can’t be nearly as cruel to strangers as they can to you. Bring a board or card game to create an activity that doesn’t focus around tearing people down. If you’re meeting at their house (or yours), bring your dog! Pets are a great distraction, not to mention the studies that confirm the emotional benefits to cuddling up with a furry friend.

3. Take breaks.

Escape to the bathroom more often than might be biologically necessary. Give yourself a couple of minutes to breathe, text a friend, and remind yourself that your relatives don’t define you. You can also “get an important call” and walk outside for a few minutes. It can be helpful to download a meditation app with 2-minute SOS-type sessions designed to help you re-center yourself in a difficult situation.

4. Nod and smile.

The typical advice is to just be honest. If you, like me, have tried this and discovered that it causes more conflict than it’s worth, it’s okay to just nod and smile. Don’t feel the need to correct their misinformation or point out your own point of view if it isn’t going to go anywhere, unless that makes you feel better. If that helps, then by all means, do it. If not, feel free to zone out of the conversation and make faces and noises of agreement at appropriate intervals.

5. Give yourself an out.

Often the most dangerous form of time with toxic relatives is the kind without a hard end time. To avoid this, schedule something, real or imaginary, to take place an hour or two after you meet with your family. If they get upset about it, just say it’s a work thing you can’t get out of. If it helps, you can always throw in a few choice words about your manager.

6. Practice self-care.

Immediately after time with your relatives, do something kind for yourself. Hang out with a best friend, read a favorite book, or go on a long walk with an encouraging playlist. As an extrovert, I’ve found time with people who really do care about me and who can validate my worth to be the best way to detox, but other things may work better for you. The important thing is to immediately build yourself back up and to not stay in the space of feeling down about yourself. Another idea is to take an area that your relatives can be particularly damaging about (say, your appearance) and keep a list or folder of things that make you feel better about it.

7. Look out for others.

Protecting yourself in a damaging situation is important. If you’re in a place where you feel like you can, though, it’s also good to be able to protect other people whom the situation might affect. Share these tips, and anything else that works for you, with a sibling who also can’t avoid the situation. If you have friends who are dealing with toxic relatives, encourage them and offer space for them to vent and regroup. I would guess that more people are in damaging family relationships than are willing to admit it — creating strong support networks that work both directions can help mitigate the damage for everyone involved and start the healing process.

What about you? What have you found to be the most helpful in dealing with difficult relatives?

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