Dealing with Difficult Family Members
By: Fay Brezel
Q: I have a family member with a very difficult personality. She is extremely powerful and shrewd. Everyone is afraid to speak up around her. She goes around talking about everyone and hurting people, but then always denies having done anything wrong. I have been very hurt by her over the years. I finally gathered up my courage and told her what has been bothering me. She completely denied everything and made me sound totally nuts for the way I feel. She then went to the rest of the family, trying to gain support, and turned it into an entire family dispute. I have gotten feedback from others in the family, actually thanking me for finally voicing what they have been feeling. But I am left drowning in emotions and doubting whether I should’ve let sleeping dogs lie. I know deep down that this had to be done. I feel it’s time for her to own up to all the injustices she’s wrought. She has been really out of hand and causing a lot of problems in the family. Moving forward, what can I do to prevent getting hurt over and over again, and what are the best ways to deal with difficult family members in general?
A: Families. At their best, they’re indivisible units, capable of weathering great hardship and fostering even greater love. At their worst, well, you can finish that sentence. Naturally, families have their ups and downs, highs and lows, and not every family has the dynamic of a loveable sitcom.
However, when there’s a consistent falling out around the same people, you can’t always forgive and forget. Disagreements fester, arguments simmer, and suddenly, someone you’ve loved for years and years becomes insufferable. You may find yourself dreading the Shabbat meals or the next family gathering because you know she’ll be there, same as you, with an axe to grind.
It doesn’t have to be this way, however. Although we have no choice over who we’re related to, we can choose where to expend our actions and efforts.
Choose from these 5 strategies to avoid feeling crushed and diminished the next time you’re in the company of that difficult family member:
1. Keep your distance
This doesn’t mean you should skip town whenever you know this difficult relative is paying a visit. Rather, you should try and avoid situations that might antagonize her.
Use your past experiences to help you actively avoid crossing paths and getting into another argument. Identify patterns to slowly learn how and when to pick your battles.
Maybe this means skipping out on whatever hot topic is up for discussion. Maybe this means carrying on a conversation with someone else, well out of earshot. Remember, being non-confrontational is an option, and your conscious effort will save you a lot of future aggravation.
2. Tell your family how you feel
Without the support of your family, your only course of action is going one on one with the other party. And of course, she most likely won’t listen to you as an individual. The rest of the household, however, is more difficult to ignore.
The family dynamic is largely responsible for letting difficult people continue to be difficult. They may think it’s polite to avoid arguing, or would rather tune this relative out, but simply ignoring a problem is not a solution. Collective negligence is never a good thing, and sometimes, you may need to snap the rest of your family out of their trance.
Having healthier family members on your side allows you to put your heads together and brainstorm a strategic intervention. The intervention may be collectively supporting each other or the victim, but this is still a strategy, as opposed to ignorance.
3. Avoid “déjà vu” arguments
It doesn’t do anyone any good to argue in circles or to sound like a broken record.
More often than not, you’ll just be further entrenching your relative into whatever stance she had on an argument, anyway.
People listen to and hear what they want to hear. Everything else barely registers as background noise. It’s all hot air or static to them, so don’t waste your breath.
Find something new and refreshing to talk about—if you’re going to talk to your relative at all, that is.
Knowing how to articulate the root cause of our emotions gives us such a great perspective on our problems.
It’s also incredibly cathartic finding just the right words or way to phrase an idea.
If you want pen and paper to help you overcome your relative’s barbed tongue, try writing exercises, like word association or free writes, to help clear your mind.
Or work on spelling out how you really feel, the arguments you had, and what was left unsaid.
Writing can be an invaluable tool when dealing with relatives. You’ll never feel as if you have to keep things pent up: let them loose on the page instead of at the dinner table.
5. Don’t bite your tongue—stand your ground
Sometimes you’re really stuck. You find there’s no use keeping quiet and tolerating someone you find intolerable. And at the same time, giving your relative a piece of your mind never ends well.
What you’re left with, then, is this gray area, where it’s difficult to express yourself without stepping on somebody’s toes.
Remember this is what differentiates you from that relative. She may have no problem putting you down, undermining you, or generally screaming over you. You, however, can control your tongue; articulate how you expect to treated, and show her how it’s done—all while maintaining your dignity. Try this challenge on for size. It may be just the right fit for you.
Best of luck!
LMHC, DCC, is a psychotherapist who specializes in treating individuals struggling with the spectrum of eating disorders and related anxiety, depression, and body image issues. She works with children, adolescents, and adults who are ready to give life and recovery a chance, despite their fear and ambivalence. Most recently, she is the co-founder of okclarity.com, a new wellness platform for the Jewish community, where members share their questions, concerns, and thoughts about mental health, relationships, and personal development and hear from both others who have had similar experiences and professionals and experts. Join Okclarity today—a healthier you is just a click away!