Dealing With Difficult Relatives

August 29th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

With regards to the post on Dealing With Difficult People, several commenters asked follow-up questions on how to deal with difficult relatives, such as an overbearing parent or in-law. The original post was written in terms of dealing with difficult people with whom you have a professional relationship, such as your boss or a co-worker. But if the problem person is a relative and your relationship is personal instead of professional, that’s a whole different beast.

Define and verbalize your boundaries

You set the boundaries in your relationships. If those boundaries are crossed and the other person can’t seem to take the hint, you have to assert yourself to restore balance. If you have relatives who fail to respect your boundaries and behave as if the purpose of your relationship is for you to bend over backwards to satisfy all of their needs, you certainly aren’t alone. I’m talking about boundaries that you consider to be bottom lines that should not be crossed, ones that make you feel violated when they are. For example, if you value your privacy and a relative insists on frequent unannounced drop-in visits, that may be a bottom line for you. Or if your mother-in-law, Endora, keeps turning you into barnyard animals without your consent, you might feel it’s time to put a stop to it, especially if you begin craving grass while in human form.

The first thing to realize is that it’s perfectly OK to satisfy your own needs. A relationship that makes you feel violated isn’t healthy.

Correcting problematic relationships in a physical, external world sense is fairly straightforward. You must clearly define the boundaries you’re comfortable with, let the other person know what those boundaries are, and then enforce them. There isn’t much more to it than that. If your boundaries are reasonable, and the person is either unwilling or incapable of complying with them, you’re done — in most situations it would be foolish to continue such a relationship. It will only erode your self-respect.

If you’ve been going years without clearly verbalizing and enforcing your boundaries like a mature adult (i.e. you’ve been letting the other person treat you like a child for too long), most likely the other person won’t take you seriously at first. They may even react with a bit of shock (usually feigned) at the mere suggestion that you dare attempt to put restrictions on their behavior. Just let that person have their reaction, but stand your ground anyway.

Enforce your boundaries

There are many ways to enforce your boundaries. Here’s an approach I happen to like. Let the other person know that for the next 30 days, you intend to strictly enforce the boundaries you’ve described. And if that person violates your boundaries even once during those 30 days, you then begin a 30-day communications blackout. For 30 days you simply have no contact with the other person. No drop-in visits, no phone calls, no emails, nothing — unless it’s absolutely mandatory. After the 30-day fasting period, you can restart the original 30-day boundary-enforcement trial and repeat the process. Of course you should let the other person know you’re doing this — be totally transparent about what you’re doing. Also, let the other person know that you’re resorting to this process because they’ve left you no choice.

If the other person attempts to make contact with you at all during the 30-day blackout, the 30 days resets to day 1. If this happens more than a couple times and you reach the point where you’re pretty clear the other person has no intention of respecting your boundaries whatsoever, regardless of your attempts to enforce them, then you’re done. The relationship is dead, at least in its current form. If the other person can’t even respect your boundaries for 30 days, then what kind of future do you have together? It means that your boundaries will be trampled for as long as you allow the relationship to continue to exist in its current form.

This might sound a bit harsh, but keep in mind that before you reach this point, you’ve already expressed your needs clearly to the other person, and you were trampled. You owe it to yourself to take a step back and see if you really wish to continue this relationship at all. The 30-day blackout period is a time for both of you to re-evaluate your relationship from a distance. It’s also a massive pattern interrupt that let’s the other person know with certainty that they’ve crossed an uncrossable line, and enough is enough.

Disarm the primary weapon of guilt

If the other person attempts to use guilt as a tool of manipulation (which is extremely common), that’s fairly easy to overcome. Whenever you perceive the other person attempting to manipulate your emotions by making you feel guilty, bring the whole matter to conscious awareness by asking, “You’re not trying to make me feel guilty, are you?” The other person will probably deny it, but soon the pattern will re-emerge. Keep interrupting the pattern of falling into a state of guilt by bringing attention to the other person’s emotionally manipulative tactics. Simply keep asking questions like, “Why do you feel it necessary to attempt to use guilt as a tool of manipulation?” or “You must really find this upsetting if you feel it necessary to try to make me feel guilty to get what you want? Can we try a more mature way of discussing this perhaps?”

You don’t need to beat the person up about it, but put a stop to the weapon of guilt once and for all. If you refuse to enter the emotional state of guilt, it will allow you to be more compassionate in seeing that the other person is probably using guilt because they feel powerless. And if you can address that powerlessness, you have the opportunity to transform the relationship for good.

Who does the enforcing?

If the problem relative is an in-law (or equivalent if you’re not married), then the person most closely related to them is the one who must do the enforcing (i.e. your significant other). This is especially important in a marriage. You and your spouse must put each other first above all other relatives. If one of your spouse’s relatives is violating your boundaries, then your spouse must bring it to their attention and do the enforcing.

Problems of this nature are especially common in relationships between 20-somethings because you’re often in a transitional phase with how you identify your primary family. For example, if you’re living with someone, you may be getting closer to them while still thinking of your family as the one you were born into. But when you’re married with a couple kids, you’re likely to think of your primary family as your spouse and children. So for many people the 20s represent a period of shifting identities, a time when problems with other relatives can spike because they interfere with your romantic relationship, and your partner will bring it to your attention.

It’s not uncommon to be living with someone and building a close romantic relationship while gradually discovering the other person is still married to his/her “Mommy” (or equivalent). When you see this pattern occurring where you don’t have the leverage to enforce boundaries on your spouse’s relative, and your partner seems spineless about having a confrontation, then you have to enforce these boundaries with YOUR PARTNER by holding him/her directly responsible for the behavior of his/her relative. This has the benefit of pushing your partner to grow up (albeit sometimes kicking and screaming) and learning to put your needs first and “Mommy’s” needs second. Some people just need a good kick to get themselves out of childhood and into adulthood, especially during their 20s. In the long run, your partner will likely be grateful to you for his/her new spine.

If all else fails, run!

If the above solution fails, just up and move to another city. Many people swear their marriages have been saved by this solution. :)


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