7 Strategies to Deal With Difficult Family Members
Here's how to maintain your integrity in family relationships.
Posted February 22, 2018 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Not getting along with a family member may strain other familial relationships, making it hard to separate oneself entirely.
- Trying to fix a difficult family member can be impossible. The more one tries to do so, the more demands the difficult person makes.
- It's important to recognize (and stop) an interaction with a difficult family member when it's no longer about solutions and only about winning.
Difficult people are everywhere, like it or not. It’s pretty certain that at some point in your life, you’ll come across a challenging person and will have to find a way to deal with them. It would be easy to think, “Why bother?” if being around them causes you grief. But it’s not as easy as that. Sometimes we’re just forced into situations we have little control over.
Being related is one such circumstance. In fact, family members are often the hardest to deal with, because they’re connected to us in a more complicated, intimate way. With difficult acquaintances like friends, colleagues, lovers, or neighbors, you may have to deal with them for a time, either until a conflict between you is resolved, or you are able to remove yourself from the situation. With family, we are almost obligated to go the extra mile for the sake of the integrity of the family group. In other words, personal relationships may affect the family as a whole. If you don’t get along with a family member, it may very well put stress and strain on other familial relationships.
So what do you do with those people you may not like very much and may not choose to have in your life, but are forced to deal with because they’re family?
1. Don’t try to fix the difficult person.
Accept them exactly as they are. (This applies to all difficult people, not just family.) It’s tempting to try to help someone you want to care about; you probably will make some efforts to help them. Sometimes it works, but often your efforts will not be rewarded. In fact, trying to fix someone or make their life better may become a huge headache, since the more you do for them, the more they want from you.
Accept that they are unable to change, at least at this point in time. Unless you see real change — proof that this person is making an effort to listen and meet you halfway — you can assume that their behavior is what it has always been. It’s important to temper your expectations about what others can and want to do.
2. Be present and direct.
Know that a person who is trying to stir up conflict can easily set you off emotionally, and even physically, possibly raising your heart rate and blood pressure. Try to avoid getting into a fight-or-flight response, which inevitably leads to becoming defensive. You do not want an argument or heated discussion. Stay true to yourself, grounded in your own integrity. Be direct and assertive when you express yourself. Stay focused on how you respond. Know when the discussion or argument has accelerated to the point of no return — meaning it’s no longer about conflict resolution, but just about winning. If it gets to this point, stop the interaction, and leave the conversation.
3. Do encourage difficult people to express themselves.
Let them fully state their point of view about the issue/conflict/problem without interruption. Why do they feel judged or criticized by others? What do they feel people misunderstand about them? What do they want or expect from others? The idea is to remain as neutral as possible. Just listening, rather than trying to engage, may be enough to allow someone to feel like they have the opportunity to say what’s on their mind. Showing respect for another’s differences may go a very long way.
4. Watch for trigger topics.
Inevitably there will be topics that represent points of disagreement and disharmony. Know what these topics are, and be extremely aware when these are brought up. Your past experiences should help you, especially when you are confronted with these delicate subjects. Be prepared to address these issues in a direct, non-confrontational way or to deflect the conflict if the atmosphere becomes too heated.
5. Know that some topics are absolutely off-limits.
Period. History and experiences should tell you that these subjects should be avoided at all costs. That’s not to say that important issues should be permanently avoided. Rather, if your experience dealing with certain issues has left you stressed out or emotionally depleted, and the discussion has not progressed sufficiently along to represent a rapprochement, then it’s best to avoid the discussion until a time when both parties are willing to move it forward in a constructive way.
6. It’s not about you — usually.
Yes, it’s hard not to take things personally, especially when you’re attacked or made to feel responsible for someone else. But if you look at the anatomy of a conflict, you can see how these often play out. Notice how people progressively move through a discussion or argument. Usually, it initially centers around a specific topic/disagreement/response that made a person upset. If allowed to continue, the argument can become heated, accelerating quickly to personal attacks (which often includes trying to make you feel responsible or guilty for not responding the way someone wants you to). If you have been through this kind of interaction before, make a concerted effort to imagine it unfolding before it actually does — and then nip it in the bud.
7. Your own well-being comes first.
While you want to be respectful and attentive to others as much as you can, you don’t want to bend over backwards or twist yourself into a knot just to make someone else happy or satisfied, or to keep the peace. Never allow any personal interaction or relationship to infringe upon or challenge your own well-being. Visualize your boundaries, that protective territory between you and someone else. No one is entitled to occupy your space unless you invite them in.
And then there’s that special situation where families gather together for a special occasion or holiday. it’s best to plan ahead so that you have a good idea about how time will be spent with relatives. Don’t leave too much unplanned time; you don’t want to get into a situation where you’re left alone with a difficult family member with whom you have an issue or conflict — someone who confronts, challenges, incites, aggravates, and basically pushes your buttons. Surround yourself with people you get along with, supportive people who care about you, people who are there to enjoy time together.