How do you deal with an adult bully in the family?

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Art by Kathy R Jeffords via Etsy.
Art by Kathy R Jeffords via Etsy.
For about a decade, I’ve been handling a cycle of bullying from an in-law. It’s difficult to predict what will set it off — it seems to be different each time — and my therapist has suggested that this person might suffer from a personality disorder.

But whatever the reason for it, I just need to be able to handle it.

It’s not exactly like a workplace bully — I can’t just quit my family. But I’d like to be able to not focus on this person while at family gatherings and somehow enjoy myself with the people there that I love. Anyone else dealt with a bully in the family? -Ronnie

We’ve had posts on how to maintain relationships with difficult family members, and how to end relationships with difficult family members. But what if you don’t want to actively maintain a relationship, nor can you actually end one?

What do you do when there’s a bully in your extended family?

Comments on How do you deal with an adult bully in the family?

  1. Ohhhh do I have thoughts. I also have a family bully with a personality disorder (among other issues).

    1. My bully usually tones it down when there are “good/respected” people/family within earshot (their personality disorder makes certain people “good” and others “bad”). Figure out who the “good” people are and hang out in proximity to them (or with them, if you’re there to see them). This can be difficult, because if your bully is like mine, who is “good” and who is “bad” can shift unexpectedly. This strategy doesn’t always work, but it lessens my bully’s tenacity sometimes, which makes it easier for me to process/move on from encounters.

    2. Learn a poem! I’m not kidding- sometimes you just can’t get away from a rant/bullying episode no matter how many avoidance tactics you’ve employed. I’ve learned a couple of poems by heart that I recite to myself (silently of course) if the bully starts in- sometimes they catch on that I’m not listening, which makes them upset, but usually they don’t notice. If your bully is like mine, something/one else will catch their attention before too long, they’ll move on, and you’ve barely heard a word they said. This tactic makes it easier for me to focus on the good of the gathering when I haven’t absorbed their “conversation” with me.

    3. Self-care. Therapy is a great outlet, but for the more immediate, I have a Pinterest board that I keep full of self-affirming quotes. It’s cheesy, I know, but perusing it usually makes me feel better if the bully has managed to get under my skin. For you maybe it’s taking a minute to admire a painting of yours or the garden you planted- basically just take a few minutes to appreciate yourself. I find this goes a long way in reminding me that it’s absolutely NEVER my fault that I’m being bullied and that I’m a wonderful addition to my family.

    Just a few things that help me.

  2. Do you have a family member on the in-law’s side that could speak to them? I married into a fairly drama-prone family but the rule is to leave the drama at the door if you attend a family event. If you can’t do that, then don’t attend (we have several family members that just can’t be at the same event as each other; we work around it). My husband and I had an ongoing disagreement with his mom and stepfather that was getting a little ugly on their side. But we set it aside to go to his grandmother’s birthday party. At the party, his stepfather started mouthing off to him and talking crap about him to a lot of other people there. My husband talked with his aunt (his mom’s sister) who is sort of the family fixer. She and one of her brothers took the stepfather aside to tell him he was behaving unacceptably and he needed to stop. It mostly worked at the time. And although the drama got to the point where we no longer go to events that his mom and stepfather will be going to, the family was able to see how toxic his mom and stepfather are and they tend to not invite them to family events as much. And they respect and understand why we don’t want to be at the same events with them.

    So my recommendation would be to find the person who is the family fixer or someone who the bully might listen to. Tell them what is happening and ask for advice and help dealing with the bully. It can get tricky, especially if the bully only says things to you when no one else is around (which is what my husband’s stepfather did for years). Can your partner also help you deal with the bully? Perhaps by sticking to your side so you’re not alone and also telling the bully to back off if the bully still approaches you? “Aunt Helga, I don’t appreciate you talking to my partner like that.” If Aunt Helga won’t stop, your partner can lead you away (my husband and I have hidden in bathrooms to take a breather). Just walking away when Aunt Helga starts bullying can be a good strategy. And be honest if anyone asks why. Bullies thrive on silence, so don’t be silent! Good luck!

  3. I believe my sister was abused (I am not sure to what extent, but I am fairly certain it was physical in some way) by a family member when she was little. She was too young to understand what to do, and my parents were unfortunately incredibly oblivious, even when she tried to voice her concern. The abuse has stopped, and she doesn’t like to talk about it, but she still wants to avoid the family member at all costs. To do this, she has enlisted my help to run interference and give her someone to talk to if he’s ever around. She has also informed at least some family members that he makes her uncomfortable and that she would prefer to avoid him. She will go so far as to refuse to attend a family event if he is going to be there. About half the family understands, the other half is ignorant and annoying. But the half that understand helps out and refuses to invite him to things (making excuses as necessary to the rest of the family), and generally try to have fewer whole-family things and more small packs at a time events, so that she can still see family but can avoid the one person and those who defend him.

    Bullying is a type of abuse, and hopefully someone in your family will understand that. Get them as your ally, let them know what’s happening, and get their help. Especially if it sounds like the person has a disorder of sorts (my family member certainly does, it has become clear), others may be very understanding, and you can let others know what’s going on and even if they don’t fully “get it” they should help you avoid them. Otherwise I can’t recommend anything but avoiding family gatherings. Your relation to that person (your spouse? their spouse? your sibling?) should understand or at least then realize how much it’s affecting you.

    Finally, realize that this person has some big problems, there is nothing wrong with you, and hopefully you can let their bullying slide off you a little more easily. 🙁

  4. Depends on the type of bullying. My brother has been a “difficult” person for outsiders (my boyfriends, friends, visitors to family parties) historically, and has been reprimanded many times, but is a very argumentative person by nature, and kind of a bully if people don’t engage in “debates” with him, or don’t have a strong back bone and strong case to explain their views. He will poke at the situation, tell them they’re stupid, other namecalling… It has ruined relationships for him and other family members, including myself, and he is in therapy now. I think he just never learned appropriate social behavior and the importance of it – nor does he care until it bites him in the butt (people leave the family etc.). For me, I have not felt bullied by him myself, since I was a kid when I didn’t know how to push back or laugh it off. Now I have the backbone to strike back and I’ve found that’s all he’s really looking for. He wants someone to show him their teeth and nails, so to speak, so he knows he is in strong (“equal” in his mind) company. Personally, I realize strength does not necessarily correlate to fierceness, but it’s his measure of character for whatever reason. You never know though, depending on the person, snapping back could just escalate things, especially if drugs or alcohol are involved. Humor has gone a long way in my family. And shutting it down by acting like you’re in control and it doesn’t bother you. I hope that helps. I don’t mean to make any excuses for bullying, but sometimes it’s only a matter of figuring out what the person is really after then shutting them down. Trying to control others is often a sign of personal helplessness, fear, or isolation of some kind.

  5. Well, this was timely. I don’t really have anything helpful to add, a couple weeks ago I made the decision to limit contact with my parents, and it’s very difficult (especially because I do love them despite everything). I’ll be keeping an eye on the comments of this post. Thank you for sharing it, and to the original question-asker and to the others dealing with this, good luck. ♥

    • Hi Gumdrop, I ceased all contact with my father on the 15th Aug last year after years of toxic parenting from him I decided it was for the best for my mental health more than anything and it has helped heaps not having to deal with his toxicity, it was hard but you need to do whats right for you in the end. Good luck <3

      • Thanks both (and the silent “THIS”ers) for the encouragement. I’m not completely cutting them out but severely limiting contact at the moment (I live 900 miles away so you’d think this would be easier) and we’ll see later. Luckily my partner is 100% supportive and my sister is as well.

        Lollie24, I’m glad it’s helped, and good work on making it almost a year.

    • I have found that avoiding unnecessary contact worked best for me. I have enough time mentally steel myself against their attacks, and enough time to prepare myself to diffuse the situations. Luckily, all sides of my family are spread out enough that they’re easy to avoid. Good luck on your journey!!

  6. Three generations of amphetamine users have given me a world of grief (grandmother was given an infinitely refillable prescription by a doctor who got hefty kickbacks for mental hospital referrals, father called them “truckdriver pills” and thought they made him a better provider, brother got tangled up in the drug revolution.) Even after they kick the drug the problem doesn’t go away, and in fact might get worse, because the body instinctively replaces it with adrenaline addiction–meaning a desperate need for drama at all times, grasping any excuse for thrillseeking, fear, anxiety, or rage. Bullying satisfies the need for rage. What hurts the most is that these are or were all people I loved intensely, and in childhood people I depended upon.

    It’s very hard when you love someone, but you have to accept that their opinions do not matter. They are messed up. Their words do not reflect reality. They have no grasp of it about anything else in life, so why believe it when they rail about you? Fill your heart with pity for them that they’re so out of touch.

    Do everything you can to remind yourself that sane people like you. Compare your interactions with other people to what they say is wrong with you, to confirm how mistaken they are. For instance, I constantly got accused of enjoying getting my brother in trouble and in fact causing chaos wherever I went for the excitement of it (talk about projection!) But everyone I know outside my family seeks out my company as a peacemaker. Other people get in less trouble around me rather than more, and my brother gets in trouble even when I am miles away and haven’t contacted him in years (he will still accuse me of accursing him from afar.) The fruit of my life gives evidence to contradict what they say.

    (This, by the way, is gaslamping–to convince you that they know you better than you know yourself, to make you suspect that you are crazy or evil for not seeing your own alleged malice as clearly as they say they do. Remind yourself that they do not have a window on your soul! You alone have the right to say what your motivations are.)

    Keep in mind also that bullies will exaggerate any flaw they can into something horrific. They will get to you with that grain of truth (for instance, yes, I am overweight, but so is Pope Francis) but they will exaggerate it past all reason. Perfection is impossible, and they have no right to expect it. Nor do your flaws define all of who you are. If you are kind and do what you can to contribute to the community, within your capacity, you are quite good enough.

    • This is incredibly applicable to my relationship with my ex husband. He did this very thing. He said that I was a miserable person who thrived on conflict and therefore he was not accountable for any problem in the relationship as all problems arose directly and exclusively from this problem in my temperament.

      I believed it for a very long time. What was very helpful was when, as the relationship ended I stopped being so private and silent about the problems. I was reminded over and over that no one else saw me the way he did. No one else thought I was unreasonable or perpetually miserable. No one else thought I was delusional.

  7. My brother has been a bit of a bully in the past. I didn’t want the drama, so I pretty much let him have his way and that makes him happy. However, there are a few subjects that I know more about and I won’t let him walk on me about them. One time he just kept getting louder and louder and I just told him he was wrong until our mother told him to knock it off. I wasn’t arguing, I was stating a fact. Now, I don’t know if Mom told him that I was one of the few relatives he could depend on and the only one in town, or if our sister told him that he’d better get along with me or what, but it hasn’t happened since Mom got sick. On the whole, I don’t care if he wants to be wrong, if its a subject I know I don’t know anything about, or at least not much. I don’t like to stress – I get ulcers that way – so I’ve pretty much avoided him since I moved out of our folk’s house in 1976. Having said that, he’s the one who’s made the overtures, inviting me to holidays and the like since Mom died.

    So, my suggestion is to pretty much let them be wrong, everyone else will know it soon enough. That’s what we did with his ex back when he was married to her. Nobody in the family liked her, we just did our best to avoid her. Either she’s on good drugs now, or she was trying to get along when she came to her daughter’s wedding…

  8. I think firstly it should be stated that its inappropriate for a therapist to make comments where they attempt to diagnose someone with a mental illness from afar. Its not appropriate to say “oh this person who isn’t a client, that I’ve never met, sounds like they have a personality disorder” to another client. Above and beyond everything else, it contributes to continuing stigmatisation of people with mental illness or personality disorder.

    Secondly, regardless of whether a person is mentally ill or not, a bully or abuser doesn’t have to be tolerated. You can absolutely quit family or limit your contact with them if that would be safer for you. If this isn’t an option then you can either really make it clear you’re not listening (I like the comment above about reciting poems in your head, or even song lyrics), or you can be firm and polite and say “This conversation isn’t one I wish to continue. You are upsetting me/hurting my feelings, and I would appreciate if you would refrain from comments of this nature.” Or something along those lines.

    • Or take a walk. Sometimes just getting away for 15 minutes helps, especially with exercise to help restore your endorphins and burn off the stress chemicals.

  9. I highly recommend Captainawkward. Com for social situations life advice. There are searchable archives and lots of helpful scripts and commenters!

  10. Set boundaries, I find my MIL difficult to deal with (her behavior is a fine line between rude and bullying), and since they don’t live in town, I have discovered that I have only about 4 days until my stubborn argumentative side starts coming out. She came to stay with us for nearly 6 days for my SIL bridal shower, and she was rude (telling my husband he had gotten fat, which wasn’t true, but even if it was it’s SUPER RUDE), constantly brought up how he had been a “terrible child”, told me that I shouldn’t have care about my wedding, rolled her eyes when I didn’t want wine with dinner (knowing that I was on really strong antibiotics for a UTI), demanded that we go tell our neighbour that her dogs are annoying (which they are but that’s just going to cause drama!), and constantly talked about my SIL’s weight and how she was “finally slimming down” (on a terrible crash wedding diet). By the end of that visit I was starting to talk back, wearing shorts shorts because I’m aware my large tattoo bugs her, and made passive-aggressive comments myself. Since that visit, I’ve put a 4 day limit on visits, 4 days is the amount of time before I start turning into a rebellious teenager and can sit politely during her barrage of rudeness (which is odd, I hadn’t been a rebellious teenager to MY parents lol), since I know there’s no way to show her the error of her ways, and I don’t like who I turn into around her. This has caused some conflict with my husband, but I think he understands that I’ve imposed this so we can still have visits with them, have a relationship with them, so it won’t get to the point where people have to pick sides. Sorry that turned into a big rant, she just frustrates me so much!

  11. Why is your spouse not handling this in-law issue? Why do the rest of your in-laws allow this to happen in common company?

    Here’s the thing. This has been going on for 10 years so there’s no expectation for anyone to change. The only thing you can control is your situation. Maybe it’s time to take some time off of the in-laws. Ask yourself why you feel it’s necessary to subject yourself to this.

  12. I have one in-law who is not necessarily a bully but intentionally brings up provoking topics like race, immigration, and politics in an attempt to start an argument. Early on, I fell for the setup every time. Then we had our son and I was doped up on Percocet at Thanksgiving (he was born just days before the holiday) I completely snapped. This in-law used a very insulting racial slur in the presence of my older children (whose bio dad is from a mixed-race family) and I told him flat out “never fucking speak like that in front of me or my children, or it will be the last time you see them”. That was all it took. He is still a racist tool but at least he keeps his mouth shut around us.
    So I don’t know what my advice is. Fake an injury and a pain med Rx, then blame your pretend meds for an assertive outburst? Seems legit.
    But for real, I hope you and/or your partner find it within yourselves to vocally stand up to this person because no one deserves to be made to feel like a prisoner around their own family. You shouldn’t have to “just deal”. It sounds like everyone else in the family has been conditioned to “just deal” and all that’s doing IMO is aiding and abetting the bully. Maybe get a handful of other family members on your side to speak to the person, or even mail an anonymous typed letter from a different zip code than your own.
    In the meantime, limiting time spent with the bully, self-care and/or therapy, and rehearsing assertive things to say next time, could go a long way in helping you manage your emotions.

    • A friend of mine solved a similar issue less explosively but with the same message. For years he just took his father-in-law’s bullying out of politeness, but when the man barged in and insulted the whole family (“All of you [let’s say Joneses] can go to hell!”–which the little ones took literally!) and brought his children to tears, he packed every gift that the in-law had ever brought over into a box and brought it to the man’s house, saying, “It’s my job to protect my children, and I can’t allow you to ever visit your grandchildren again unless you first come with me to counseling with a priest.” (That was the cheapest counselor they could afford.) The in-law, horrified at losing contact with his grandchildren, agreed, even though he was not a religious man. By the end of the session he was the one crying, realizing just how horribly he’d been behaving, and he acted much better after that.

      Sometimes you MUST confront.

  13. I have similar types in my family. The best coping mechanism I’ve come up with is to simply not respond to their bullying. The objective of bullying is for the person engaging you to get you to feel afraid, or react in a way that makes the person feel like you’ve given them attention. It might not be conscious, but just a way for that person to try and feel better about themselves or their situation. So by choosing not to respond or react in any way, you’re taking away the main reason for that person’s behavior and breaking the cycle of reinforcement.
    It may take some time for this to actually affect the other person’s behavior, but it’s an easy way to start building boundaries with this family member.

  14. Put up your hand and state unequivocally “I will not tolerate being talked to in this manner” if that doesn’t work (it usually doesn’t ) turn and walk away, go to a room and close the door in thier face if you have to. Repeat as necessary until they learn to back off. I had repeated this for many years, finally said I was disowning my brother as it was too hurtful and wouldn’t invite him to my wedding. He called me and swore at me, I said “when you can speak to me in a respectful manner we can talk, until then, goodbye” and I hung up. He called and swore some more, I repeated, he texted swear words at me, I deleted. He finally figured out that I wouldn’t accept his behaviour, we discussed it, I explained why it was hurtful, he tried to justify, explain and negate his behaviour. I explained that his excuses were invalid because I was setting my limits of what was acceptable to interact with me and he could either work within them or not interact. He changed! This is YEARS IN THE MAKING, but he changed, we can have a civil freaking conversation now!

  15. Firstly, if it’s your in-laws and your partner is not the one heading this off there is a major problem.

    I’ve got social anxiety and I try to avoid confrontation but if it’s someone on my side acting like an ass to my partner? They are immediately spoken to and made to understand that their behaviour won’t be tolerated. My partner married me, not my family and they are not his responsibility — and I expect the same treatment from him.

    That being said, I don’t go to him with a problem unless it’s ongoing and I don’t get my point across. The following usually works for me;
    – That’s inapproiate.
    – Please don’t talk to me that way/You can’t talk to me that way.
    – I don’t care (last ditch effort).

    I’ve simply turned and left conversations or the room too.

    10 years of this bullying, they expect you (and your partner) to roll over and take it. It’s your choice.

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