Remember that post about how to maintain a relationship with difficult family members? In response to that post, in the comments section there were a lot of questions from fellow Homies wanting some advice on NOT maintaining these relationships. Sadly, this is an area of life that I have some experience with…
I have a sibling, with whom I no longer have a relationship. Out of respect for my parents, I’ll spare you the details, but needless to say, I am unable to have a healthy relationship with him. So I’ve made what I feel is the best choice for myself, and cut him from our lives.
Oh, how I wish that was the end of the story. But unlike ending unhealthy friendships and partnerships, ending unhealthy familial relationships comes with a LOT more drama, added baggage, and hurdles to jump.
I don’t know if I can offer the definitive advice on the topic of ditching difficult family members, but I can offer up a few insights from my own years of experience…
The relationship triangle
With most family relationships there’s a triangle to consider: you + Difficult-Family-Member + every other member of your family. So be prepared for awkwardness. This means Difficult-Family-Member will be talked about at dinner by your parents, asked about at the holidays by your cousins, and you may be consistently asked to “just get over it” by your aunts and uncles. In short, Difficult-Family-Members’ ghost will continue to haunt your life.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries
Learn about, institute, and stand by your personal boundaries. For example:
- Do you want to not have any contact whatsoever with Difficult-Family-Member? Then block them on social networking sites, and set up an email filter to delete anything from their address.
- Tell your family that when it comes to events, you will not attend if Difficult-Family-Member will be there. Acknowledge the discomfort and inconvenience, but don’t apologize. Be clear about your boundaries so that family members can plan accordingly.
- Let everyone know what it would take for you to let Difficult-Family-Member back in your life, and that you will not accept anything less than what you need before anything can change.
Make peace with the fact that people will think you’re an asshole
Because of the aforementioned relationship triangle and the boundary settings, you may end up feeling like a toxic family member yourself. You will probably make your mom cry when she realizes that she may never have all her kids in one place together again. Or it’ll suck to have to lovingly tell your grandfather off when he gives you the “just get over it” speech. And it will always make you feel like a total asshole to not attend your cousin’s wedding or nephew’s birthday because Difficult-Family-Member is going to be there. It’s definitely going to be tough, but the key is owning your part of this, acknowledging that it’s uncomfortable, but harnessing the power of your Fuck-Off Fairy, and sticking to it. Which is where the next tip comes in handy…
Find a support system
When you’re in the midst of the upheaval (parental tears, grandparental side eyes), you have to re-set and remind yourself why you’re doing this. (To protect yourself? Your loved ones? To keep your emotions in check?) But sometimes running through the reasons alone, in your own head, isn’t enough. Sometimes you need a partner, or a friend, or even a fellow family member who can relate and support you in your decision. You are more-than-likely NOT the only person who’s going through something like this.
Okay, so you cut off all contact, you implemented your boundaries, you made peace with being perceived as an asshole, and you found a support system. So why is this still eating you up inside? The fact of the matter is: You were more than likely deeply and emotionally affected by an unhealthy relationship, and you may need professional help to sort it all out. A therapist can give you valuable outside perspective, and can be a great help in finding and upholding your personal boundaries. It might be pricey, but it’s so very worth it.
Focus on the positive relationships
Focus on the positive relationships you DO still have. Call up your best friend and remind yourself that your friends are the family you choose. The moment you start that downward negative-thinking spiral, give yourself a mental smack in the face and start thinking about a positive family experience: Thanksgiving with your favorite cousin, your adorable newborn niece, or that fun vacation you took with your mom. Send your energy out towards the relationships that make you warm and fuzzy in order to keep yourself from stewing in the negative.
Hone your Spidey Senses
For those of you have been in close quarters with an unhealthy family dynamic, you now have unfortunately fortunate deep insights into the minds and behaviors of the human beings you need to avoid. Instead of feeling violated by it, reframe it and use it as your super power! Help your friends through similar experiences, stop unhealthy friendships before they get too intense… hell, I’ve even predicted (and physically distanced myself from) bar fights before they’ve happened. Your “avoid this person” detector is STRONG, y’all.
Ultimately, it’s been a long, hard road to gain my independence — a cycle of fights, tears, hurt feelings, anger, and therapy. But through the hardships, the end result — the peace of mind I’ve gained — has been very rewarding.
I’m doing the best I can, but this tricky situation is always hard, and I’m constantly learning. Who else has done the sad-but-necessary thing of ending a relationship with a family member? Do you have any more advice to give — books, resources, constructive tips? What did I miss?