Dealing with Difficult Relatives

As a psychologist in December, I get a lot of questions about typical holiday concerns.  Pulling off Christmas without running out of money, energy, and time is a big challenge for most of my clients.  But what really piles on stress for people at this time of year is pressure to live up to pervasive Hallmark images of big, cozy get-togethers with extended family.   Most of us know that those Hallmark families exist mostly on old TV shows, and we get that certain personalities, even when bonded by blood, just don’t mix.  Yet we try and we try with prickly relatives because we’re conditioned to believe that if we’re related, there must be a way.

Well, I have good news for you.  You may not be able to turn your family into the Waltons, but you can make gatherings with difficult relatives more bearable.  These tips will help:

1.  First, ask yourself honestly if you’re at least part of the problem.   It’s easier to accuse others of being unreasonable than to look squarely in the mirror and admit that maybe you’re the one who needs to open your mind and lighten up.  Could you stand to be a little less demanding or judgmental?  Could you listen more and talk less?  We all have irritating personality traits.  Pinpoint your quirks and resolve to work on them.

2.  Appreciate the context. Perhaps you have a certain aunt who is usually good-natured but has been ornery for the past few months.  Before assuming that she’s suddenly become an incorrigible curmudgeon, consider that maybe she’s experiencing health, career, or relationship issues and could use a little encouragement this year.

3.  Focus on the positive. Let’s say you have a cousin who complains incessantly, a brother-in-law who is always one-upping you, or a sister who talks too loud and too much.  Chances are these people don’t mean to be offensive; they are likely insecure deep down and don’t know how to engage others.  Give them a break by finding something, anything – what they’re wearing, a joke they told, the appetizer they brought — to compliment them on.   No matter how irritating someone is, they are easier to bear when you view them through an optimistic lens.    And because most pesky behavior comes from a desire for attention, your kindness might actually reduce the grating conduct somewhat.

4.  Set appropriate limits. Yes, it’s important to be nice, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen to a boorish uncle drone on and on about his political agenda or stomach your harried sister screaming at her bratty kids for hours on end.  Just because you’re invited to a holiday gathering doesn’t mean you have to stay the duration.  As an adult, it’s entirely up to you to define the parameters that work for you.   Smile, say thank you, and excuse yourself when you’ve had enough.

5.  Avoid toxic situations. Most of us have at least one relative whose behavior is damaging to others.  Maybe you have a nasty alcoholic in your family, or a pathological liar, or a foul-mouthed bigot, or an extreme manipulator.  People who consistently behave in ways that are abusive usually don’t change no matter how hard you try to get along with them, and they should not be tolerated.  Your option is to either calmly state your terms in advance, such as, “I’ll come for Christmas dinner, but I will leave immediately if you insult me or my kids” or simply decline the invitation if you know from past experience that you need to stay away to protect yourself.

6.  Drop your guilt. The number one reason why people put up with impossible relatives is that they feel obligated.   Tolerating behavior ranging from annoying to abusive in the name of preserving family ties or preventing hurt feelings will only drain your energy and allow the bad conduct to continue.   When you set boundaries with difficult people, letting them know gently yet firmly what you will and won’t put up with, you give them a truly valuable gift:  the opportunity to look within and contemplate how they can change if they want to see more of you

2 Responses to “Dealing with Difficult Relatives”

  1. Dylan Says:

    This is a great topic, thanks for your insight.

  2. Dylan Says:

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