How to maintain relationships with difficult family members

Guest post by Maggie A
Difficult Relatives Flask by AnchorAvenueDesigns

About once a month for the past few years I get a call at 2 o’clock in the morning from my brother. Most of the time I don’t even notice the call because I leave my phone in the kitchen when I go to bed (partially because at one point these calls were so frequent that it was a big sleep interruption). He’s an alcoholic, he’s wildly unpredictable (because of his drinking), he’s difficult, and I love him.

“Difficult” can cover all manner of things from substance abuse, untreated mental illness or just general jerk-itude (although to my knowledge jerk-itude is untreatable). There is no shortage of ways for your family to be difficult.

My brother’s wild antics and hell raising have always made for some great stories. I was telling one of these tales a few weeks ago to a group of good friends and an acquaintance. The acquaintance scolded me, and explained exactly how to fix him — get him into a rehab, get him counseling, schedule an intervention, or cut him out of your life. Apparently it’s very common for people who know nothing about you to give you advice (or so my friends with kids tell me). So I ignored her.

It’s not the first time I’ve gotten this advice and it probably won’t be the last. My little brother will be 23 this year and he’s had issues with alcohol, drugs, and just general defiance since he was 12 or 13. He has said horrible things to me, to my husband, and to my mother on different occasions. He has shown up to holidays drunk and late and a bunch of other stuff too (I try not to keep track). No matter what he does he’s still my brother and I love him and I decided I’m not going to cut him out of my life (unless he cheats at Monopoly — then I’ll never speak to him again).

Now that you know where I’m coming from I’m going to give you my advice for dealing with a difficult sibling or family member you want to keep in your life.

Know your limits

Set parameters for contact, make them clear, and make them something you can live with. I won’t drive anywhere in the car with my brother if he’s been drinking at all — but he knows why and he knows the deal. If he calls me for a ride that’s the first question I ask him.

How strictly you set the parameters will probably determine how often you see the person. If you aren’t comfortable with how much you’re seeing them you might have to adjust your parameters. I know I won’t see my little bro very often (maybe at all) if I refuse to see him when he’s been drinking, so that’s not my rule. I’ll hang out with him, have dinner and if he gets rude or ugly I leave. As for those late night calls — I answer if I’m already up and if I see it the next day I return the call.

Know that you can’t fix them

They are who they are (right now) and no amount of forcing, cajoling, arguing, or blackmailing is going to change that. People will tell you that you can force them into rehab or AA meetings by cutting off contact with them (cutting off contact is usually the consequence set up in an intervention). It might work, I’ve never done an intervention or threatened this because I know I’m not going to follow through. What I do know is that most rehab options are voluntary because people don’t get clean and sober because someone else makes them. It’s something they have to decide themselves and something they have to work at. You can’t help them until they want to be helped (it’s trite but true).

Let them know you love them

One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I think my middle brother (who had very similar substance abuse problems) might have died thinking I didn’t love him. That he should quit drinking and get his shit together was the thesis to almost every conversation we had. So I don’t end a conversation with my baby bro without telling him. I haven’t given up my right as a big sister to attempt to boss him into another lifestyle, I’ve just accepted that he probably won’t listen and let him know I still love him when he doesn’t.

Don’t be an enabler

I have been called an “enabler” by some for not refusing to cut my brother off. I disagree. If I were buying him booze or drugs I would definitely be enabling and encouraging his self-destructive behavior, but I don’t do those things. I’ll buy him dinner or groceries from time to time, and I still buy him birthday and Christmas gifts. I think these are things an older sister who had a “normal” brother would do from time to time for her baby bro just starting out in the world. But this, like many things, is a matter of degrees and you have to decide what you’re comfortable with.

Even though my brother has issues and I am almost constantly worried for him I still love him. His addiction is going to take a lot of things from him. One day (hopefully) he’s going to wake up and wonder what happened to his twenties and as he gets older I think his future self is really going to regret some of the decisions he’s made. But I’m going to work hard to not be one of the things that this takes from him. And it’s worth it when I get a call at the wonderfully reasonable hour of 10 in the morning from a sober little bro asking for a ride to mom’s house for a family dinner.

I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that anyone stay in an abusive (physically or emotionally) relationship. If my relationship with my brother took a turn in that direction I’d make the drastic changes necessary to protect myself.

So let’s hear it with your advice. REMINDER: We’re not here to bitch about our family members or compare horror stories — we’re here to share survival tips for dealing with the drama.

Comments on How to maintain relationships with difficult family members

  1. I love this article, and think there are really good strategies mentioned – especially setting up boundaries to keep yourself safe and sane.

    I also did want to represent the other side, and point out that you don’t -have- to maintain these relationships. Its totally the right decision for the writer, but it won’t be the right decision for everyone. Even if the relationship is not abusive, you are under no obligation to continue a relationship with someone simply because they are a blood relation to you. Its a relationship, not a contractual agreement, and if it is a relationship that is negative and holding you back, sometimes ending it is the right choice.

    I have had to end my relationship with my father, and its not because of any abuse. It is the right decision for me, and I feel so much better for having this negative, toxic, judgmental person gone from my life. But there’s such a big stigma attached to it! Honestly, people saying “but he’s your FATHER” really bothered me, and the fact that he WAS my father was one of the hardest things for me. It wasn’t an easy step to take, and people who were ignorant of the full extent of the situation and advising me to get back in touch with him really made it much harder.

    So I just wanted to say that if you do choose to end the relationship, there is nothing wrong with that. I guess that’s my survival tip – if it’s what feels right to you, get the hell out of there!

    • I’ll agree with this – I recently went no contact with my parents & one sibling. It was the idea that I would be teaching my kid(s) how they could expect to be treated and the example of how I was being treated, which was poorly. I chose to go no contact because after 15 years of trying to get them treat me better, it never happened. So – I agree, just because someone is ‘related’ to you, does not mean you need to maintain the relationship. But being clear on the boundaries, expectations, and follow-through is super important as part of the process.

    • This! I haven’t talked to my father in over a decade because he was abusive and toxic and for the longest time my mother would say “you really should talk to him because he’s your father”. It was so frustrating because he was abusive to her as well and I don’t want to put myself in that situation. Unrelated, I seperated from her earlier this year as well for numerous reasons that are hard to explain. It was a very difficult decision but I needed to do what was right for me. I don’t feel like sharing blood means that you get to treat each other badly.

    • <3 that you raised this – thank you!

      Three months ago I made a similar decision (after 15 years of wanting to, but being dissuaded by others).

      It was a straw that broke the camel's back kind of moment that made everything crystal clear – all relationships are privileges and not rights; and as he had continually abused the privilege, it was time to end the relationship.

      Thanks for sharing your experience, I can totally relate.

  2. Wow, thank you for this. My family is really struggling with my younger brother. He is only 16 right now, but we have some very real concerns about his future lifestyle if he doesn’t start making different decisions. And it has been a struggle to balance loving him but not his choices. He is (international) adopted, so he has attachment issues, which makes the loving him part even more important! Sometimes we feel like he does things just to prove to us that if he is ‘bad enough’, we will stop loving him. I adore my younger brother. And I hope I can continue showing him the love and support he needs regardless of choice he make make that I do not support. Thank you for some guidance on finding a balance.

    • have ya’ll looked into reading books or blogs by international adoptees? even as a domestic adoptee, the ages between 15-20 were pretty ROUGH on my identity and I took it out in anger and other destructive ways. Even just having stuff around, like Journey of the Adopted Self, or other things to help normalize his experience might help? There are a ton of transracial adoptees blogging out there!

      • Yes yes, a million times yes! I have been reading her blog for years and she’s amazing. SO much good info there about the hard, hard stuff of adopting and attachment disorders…. and about dealing with YOUR stuff first!

  3. I think it’s wonderful that you still love your brother despite his issues. However, I also feel that many times, people keep very unhealthy, even abusive and dangerous people in their lives, because they are family. It’s extremely rare even for therapists to suggest total estrangement, which I feel is damaging for those people that have severely mentally ill/abusive/addicted family members. I also feel that people putting up with this type of behavior is condoning it, despite the fact that you have set up parameters. The message still is “I will tolerate this until it becomes so ridiculous I can’t” which to me, isn’t any victory. I feel sometimes people need to come to the harsh realization that their actions have hurt people they love so deeply, that they will not be tolerated in any way. Until they better themselves, I don’t think those type of people should have the the privilege of seeing loved ones. Sounds harsh, but I feel the alternative is worse.

    • I don’t feel that “cutting off” a family member who is struggling with some sort of personal issue, particularly in the reader’s instance, is helpful to the situation at all. In fact, it can be even more damaging. You’re not really condoning the behaviour by maintaining a relationship with the person. You’re letting them know that they are loved. And by setting boundaries on when they’re allowed to spend time with you, such as when they’re sober, etc., you’re letting them know that the negative behaviour isn’t tolerated.

  4. My husband and I both grew with family members that had alcohol issues. We choose not to be around our family members that have problems with alcohol if they are drinking. After growing up asking, sometimes begging them to give up drinking we both know we don’t have any control over what they are going to do and all we can do is leave or hang up if they are drinking and see them when they are sober.
    We chose to have a dry wedding to save us stress about possible bad behaviour of family memebers at our wedding and it worked out really well. Before we made the desicion to have a dry wedding, we were stressing out about how much alcohol to have available etc. We very rarely drink, it is just not part of our lifestyle so a dry wedding made sense in the end. Our family members know if we have a party it is likely going to be dry as well.
    I know some people probably think it is crazy that we don’t drink just because others in our families have problems but it is not something that either of us enjoys. We rarely drank alcohol as adults before we met eachother and we just continued a dry lifestyle after we moved in together.

    • I have friends with similar stories. One of them doesn’t drink because it actually used to limit the fun she could have in the evening — the minute the glass of wine/beer/whatever hit the table in front of her, she was obsessively checking her behavior for signs of her mother (who was an alcoholic/addict). It used to cause her more stress instead of just being a relaxing glass of wine. Once someone jokingly said she was uptight for declining a beer. She laughed back, “You think I’m uptight now? You should see me when I drink!” She did work through those issues, but still found that drinking was just not something she really felt she needed to do. I think it would be weirder for someone to try to force themselves to like drinking just because that was the social norm.

      As a fringe benefit, keeping a dry lifestyle helps her to maintain boundaries with her family members who do have addiction issues — sounds like that might be true for you guys as well!

      • Jokes like that can be tough. With so many people who have issues or friends or family members that have issues, I try not to make jokes about it. I love that your friend does what is right for her and also has a snappy comeback!

        I like being out with a group of people where some drink, some don’t, and it’s not a big deal either way.

        And, Katherine, I’ve been to more than one dry wedding! It sounds like your situation was the same as my friend’s- she didn’t care too much about alcohol, didn’t want to pay for it, and didn’t want alcohol induced family drama or to enable the people with issues. At first my friends and I were joking about bringing personal flasks, but we didn’t, and we had a blast sans-alcohol.

        • Quite a few people came to us months after the our dry wedding and told us that they had a great time and it was one of the best weddings they had ever been to. Only one person complained about the lack of wine and after I explained why we had a dry wedding she totally understood.
          We thought it was a fun day and we were able to be more relaxed because it was dry.

      • I can totally relate to your friend worrying about drinking. On the rare occation that my husband and I might have a drink ( two or three times a year) I do find I am hyper aware of my bavior, it is not relaxing for me.
        We don’t think about drinking it just not on our radar. We have several bottles of wine that people have given us that we have packed around for a number of years, it just never occurs to us to make drinking part of our evening, and because we so rarely have a drink, we are total lightweights and one drink is plenty for either of us, an open bottle of wine in our house is usually because one of us is cooking with it.
        The bonus to all of this is we don’t have addiction issues in our own home, so it is a sanctuary for us that we didn’t have as kids and we save money because we don’t drink, so no budgeting for alcohol, ever. It is not a bad way to live really.

        • My grandpa was a recovered alcoholic so we just never really had alcohol at any family gatherings. For me, this was absolutely normal – it never even occurred to me until recently that you can serve anything BESIDES sparkling apple cider at a fancy meal like Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner. 😉

          I guess my point is: normal is what you make it!

    • I’d fall into this category. I’m known as the teetotaler of the group (whether that group’s my family or my social circle), and have been for years. I never experimented with drugs or alcohol as an adolescent, because I saw what a problem my dad had with drinking. (He quit cold turkey about when I graduated high school and has stayed sober, which is great; it still affected all of my childhood.) Other family members have/had various struggles with alcohol as well, which leads me to think that it would be bad for me to start.

      It’s taken me more than a decade after leaving my parents’ house to come around to the idea that an occasional drink might not be the end of the world/the beginning of a downward spiral into addiction for myself. I’ve also loosened up a LOT about having alcohol (and people who drink socially) in my presence. My wife and I had a dry wedding, which wasn’t a big deal, and we’ve kept a sober, substance-free household… but I’ve decided that a housemate keeping a six-pack of beer or a bottle of cooking sherry or red wine in the kitchen is going to be okay as long as their behavior about it isn’t problematic.

  5. Great post! I spent tons of money and countless hours in therapy to reach the same point. I just want to add one thing. Trust yourself to know what are acceptable rules are. You know better than anyone else what safe, healthy limits for yourself. Don’t let others guilt or manipulate you past your comfort zone.

  6. I really agree with treating a difficult family member as normal. And as part of a normal family relationship, it’s good to tell each other that you still love them and think they are an important part of your life.
    I have several “difficult” family members (addiction, mental health, and jerk-itude – oy!), and this is where I try to come from in all my interactions with them.
    I’ve had my own share of therapy for mental health issues, and generally my therapists agree this is my best course of action. (Along with not enabling/engaging destructive behavior.)

  7. Whew, difficult family members. I can relate (haha, sort-of pun).

    I think the biggest thing to do is make rules/boundaries and stick to them. If you cave once, that person assumes that you will cave again. Also, respecting other people’s rules or boundaries they may have with you (if you’re the obstinate one). And knowing when to pick your battles with people versus when to just leave them alone.

  8. I have a difficult cousin. She has made decisions that have repeated put her (and her children) in bad places in her life. Though despite the efforts of everyone in our family she refused our offers to help, mostly because those offers came with boundaries (curfews, steady job, drug testing etc.) But she is also the type of person to constantly publicly post her “woe-is-me-my-life-is-horrible” stories all over social media.
    She suffers from addiction as well as mental illness, but I too suffer from mental illness and her graphic posts and cries for attention were triggering for me. So I stopped following her. I got a LOT of push back from people over this. But I’ve made it clear to everyone (and to her) that she knows where to find me if she TRULY needs me for anything, and if things do get really bad and we need to step in more aggressively I will be there in a heartbeat, I just couldn’t watch her public train wreck any more. It saved me a lot of grief and sleepless nights.
    As a result, I tend to be more objective when it comes to situations involving her. Our family is largely divided on how to handle certain situations or take care of her when needed. I find that the ones who still see her posts tend to react way differently than those of us who don’t.

  9. I really second ‘knowing your limits’. Not just in behaviour, but also in amount of contact. I have an uncle who was diagnosed with a mental illness relatively late in life. He isn’t a bad guy by any means but his illness can make being around him very draining. He always has to have deep conversations, on topics that I don’t feel we are close enough to discuss, and fending him off politely (any clear boundary setting would just set off more deep ‘but why’ discussions). It just sucks up all your energy. So I limit contact with him. It’s tough because I do wish I could see more of his teenage kids, but for now they are too young to see independently from their dad.

  10. Thank you for writing this article! I have a sibling with mental health issues who can be manipulative, dishonest and downright mean. My parents enable her and continue to focus all their time, energy and money on fixing her problems and helping her raise her children. I coped for many years thinking I could help her or fix her too. I was very depressed and anxious all the time – getting easily upset about her choices because I had emotionally invested myself in her well being. I have since then been through counseling to deal with my anger and learn to set boundaries. It’s been SO much more healthy for me to give up my emotional investment in her life!! I still care for her, but I have come to terms with who she is and how my family treats her. I have had to tell my parents if they cannot spend time with me without talking about her problems that I don’t want to see them. It’s not fair that my 2 other siblings and I cannot be around her without some kind of angry explosion on her part, and we cannot be around our parents without her because she is all they can talk about. Set boundaries. Parents – please don’t ignore your children who do the right things because the bad ones “need you more”. My sister has divided our family and caused hurt so deep it may never heal.

  11. This article makes me happy. My baby brother struggled with severe clinical depression for years. He was really difficult to live with, especially when he got frustrated with his traditional treatment and started self-medicating with pot and alcohol. There were boundaries set, tears shed, fights, and assurances of doing better. My mother got SO MUCH SHIT for allowing him to live at home, with no job, and keep him on her insurance. But these family members and friends didn’t understand depression, and I was sometimes the only one who could tell my mother “you’re doing the right thing” If my mother had listened to those people telling her to throw him out, he’d be homeless right now.

    Cutting someone off completely CAN be a wake-up call to them. But if they’ve got a real issue underlying the bad behavior, cutting them off is just going to take away a source of help for getting back on their feet. It’s also going to turn into another reason to turn to the drugs and alcohol, because someone with an addiction is using these to deal with issues in their life. Taking away love and support is another “issue” they will try to fix with booze. Often, they don’t make the connection between their actions and the actions of their loved ones. They just think “they don’t love me anymore” Obviously every situation is different, but I personally am not convinced that cutting off contact will have the intended effect on the person with the problem. Cutting someone off to keep yourself sane or safe is another matter entirely. I’m totally on board with boundaries. There’s stuff that’s unacceptable, no matter what kind of problems someone has; stealing, physical violence, being unsafe with vehicles, bringing drug dealers over to the house, etc. Limiting the time you spend or the actions you tolerate will vary from person to person, and is healthy and necessary.

    • Thanks for this comment. I have a cousin in her early 20s who is trying to deal with mental illness after self-medicating with alcohol and recreational drugs for years, and I worry that her father (my uncle) will cut her off, and I know that it would really be the worst thing for her, for many of these reasons.

    • it’s a very delicate seesaw of feelings- on one hand, maybe the refusal to be their welcome mat is the thing they need to buck up, on the other, maybe the dejection is the final ingredient in a recipe for tragedy.

      my brother in law breaks my heart all the time for this reason. he’s such an amazing person and i love him so much but he is still suffering (though hiding it well) from his relationship with his long deceased father. when my husband and i try to approach him with our concerns for his happiness he turns it around, claiming we are the unhappy ones and trying to bog him down in domestic misery.

      this is not my first experience with such a relationship, but i was fortunate enough to have the freedom to walk away last time; he is now a pinprick on the horizon of my memory. but now, i will have this person in my life forever and it pains me to imagine a future where our feelings for him alternate between love and hurt.

      distance didn’t work- to him it was as though nothing extraordinary happened. i wrote letters, held his hand when he needed it but apparently this isn’t enough to prove that he is important to someone else in this world. i tried being direct- unfortunately the only time he seems to be emotionally permeable is while inebriated, a temporary state with fleeting results.

      as much as i want to live without this constant struggle, i’ve decided that i will show him nothing but love (which makes us happier anyway) and let go of the hurtful things he does and says because under everything we know he doesn’t mean it. one day when he realizes the person he was, he will at least know how much love there is and and it never faltered.

  12. I’m 60, and for many, many years I coped with my younger brother and his outrageous choices and behavior. I was usually his advocate and ally against the family firestorm of anger, judgement, moralizing, etc. Sometimes he lashed out at me or used me and I would cut off contact for a few years. But I understood the source of his pain, we had shared a traumatic childhood and I would eventually forgive him.
    I found that those who had the most anger toward him were my parents, who could not bring themselves to admit they played a part in his pain – it was easier to blame him.
    He always knew I loved him and that I would help with whatever positive request he made. He died on the streets four years ago at the age of 54. My parents had not spoken to him in years, their last words were vicious; they are riddled with guilt.
    My advice is this: If that loved one dies tomorrow, how will you be able to find some bit of peace with it? I will always feel sad about my brothers life, but knowing that he knew I loved him and that I did what I could without harming myself brings me a measure of peace.

    • Denise, I’m really sorry for the loss of your brother. I think it’s so easy for people to see people on the street and forget that they have families and histories and loved ones – it’s heartbreaking but lovely to hear your side of the story and your wise advice.

      • Great advice: “how will you be able to find some bit of peace with it?” I think this is so fitting because it can really look different for everyone.

        Maybe it’s, “he knew I loved him,” or something like, “we always treated her well,” but it could also just be, “we had a good relationship until he started making the decisions that made it unacceptable for me to have him in my life” or “I did what I needed to do to protect myself/my family.”

  13. In addition to knowing your limits, I think you need to make sure that the family member(s) knows them as well. Tell them clearly “I will not do this” or “please don’t do that”.

    My parents both ask me for money on a semi-regular basis, but the cause of their need for money is different for each of them. My boundaries with them are different as well; if my father asks me for money, I flat out tell him no and remind him that our relationship doesn’t work that way. If my mother asks me, she knows the deal is that a) I have to see her budget and where it went wrong, b) I will pay whatever bill is overdue but won’t just give her money, and c) I’ll expect it to be paid back.

    Also, be prepared to accept the fall out. Sometimes to keep yourself sane and/or your relationships bearable, you have to set boundaries that may result in folks halting contact with you.

  14. This is such a hard issue. There seems to be no cookie cutter way to go about dealing with a family member that has substance issues. My uncle passed away 13 years ago from a heart attack. He was only 46 and the doctors said that his heart had been weakened by his regular cocaine usage.
    Now it seems like my older sister is on the same track. I know she’s regularly used various drugs since she was 15 (she is now 31) and she has bounced in and out of rehab 3 times in the past year. My mom is scared for her, but my dad is so angry, he just can’t even speak to her. They’re both afraid she’ll end up like my uncle. All I know to do is answer the phone when she calls and tell her that I love her and that I hope she’s OK.
    Otherwise I just don’t talk to her. It just hurts too much.

  15. Great article, and thanks for posting.

    My family and I have struggled with my younger brother’s depression, which has led to some not-so-good choices, for over a decade now. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse.
    There are always people who have smart advice on hand, or have theories on traumatic events, or on chemical imbalance in the brain (“but is he taking medication?”), or an explanation for any other number of reasons why things are the way they are. I have proceeded to mostly just ignore them.

    I second every single one of your points, especially “know you can’t fix them”. While the media likes to suggest that family members can help by going through things like interventions or making other very hard and hurtful choices, I found none of this to be true. We tend to try and “help”, but in the end he is his own person and I am mine. He makes his choices and I make mine. We cannot “help” the other person, but we can make the right choices for ourselves. I will gladly help, and love, and be supportive, but at the same time I cannot feel responsible if things don’t work out.

    Staying loving and supportive without developing anger or completely destroying yourself in the process requires A LOT of energy. It is also a process that makes you stronger and more patient.

  16. I seriously could have written this post. I have a brother who is 23 and has had some serious issues with alcohol abuse (I suspect as a form of self medication for the depression that runs in our family). He showed up drunk to my rehearsal dinner and an hour late for my wedding.
    My mom has an especially hard time as she has a family history of substance abuse. She takes his promises to get better with a grain of salt. My dad believes everything he says. I have a really hard time with it now that I have kids. He has only seen my son like twice. He didn’t call at all when he was born.
    Thankfully he hasn’t asked for much from me and he lives several hours away. It makes me sad because we used to be so close…

  17. No one has mentioned this yet, but there are resources to help. One is Al-Anon for families and friends of alcoholics. The other is therapy (individual or group). I decided to go the therapy route and it has been very helpful dealing with my father’s addiction.

  18. Thank you for this! I have a family member in a bad place – mental illness + an abusive relationship. I try to be supportive, but have developed boundaries that make it less draining for me. I have generally tried talking through my feelings on the issue with friends, but got so much push to just give up on that person and be done with it. It is really disheartening to be told that after you explain to someone that you just need to talk things through and aren’t looking for advice on how to hange people. I have struggled with mental illness and hearing someone brush it off like it is completely their own fault and that they don’t deserve any compassion makes me wonder how they would deal with me during a hard time.

  19. I loved this article. It really hits home. I too (like many out there) have a brother who is an addict. I commend you for setting healthy boundaries for yourself. It really sets the stage for not getting so wrapped up in the addiction and the behaviors that come along with it.

    I decided after I got married last July to end contact with my brother. He stole thousands of dollars in cash from our card box at the wedding and gave the most embarrassing speech at our wedding, humiliating my husband and I in front of all our guests.

    Looking back, I realize there was a ton of resentment between the two of us. I live a fairly normal life and his life has been a roller coaster for the last 10+ years. I wish I knew what I know now and could have seperated what I wanted from the relationship and just loved him WITH boundaries. Boy are addicts facing a major war within themselves.

    I do not regret cutting off the contact between he and I. I send my love through the universe and in my yoga practice. We all deal with addiction differently which is our personal right and duty to our happiness. I commend you for the way you’re handling your realtionship with your brother.

  20. Such a timely post! I’ve been dealing with a younger sibling who essentially only talks to me when they want/need something from me, and a real jerk of a father. Just in the last 2 weeks, I’ve gotten hit up for money 3 times by my sibling (and sent it), and I didn’t even get a thanks in return. I’m also dealing with how to set boundaries with my father, so I’m reluctant to draw hard no-contact lines in the sand, but I have to find a way to protect my sanity (and my bank account!). Does anyone budget sending funds to family members? And does anyone have any tips for setting boundaries when the offending family member is oblivious/in denial/ignoring that there’s any issue?

    • My husband and I changed our boundaries so that we don’t send money to anyone. Ever. We have made this very clear to everyone. Every time they ask ( a lot) we say “We don’t have money to send you”. Which is technically true (since we do NOT have a budget category for dramatic, avoidable, catastrophes).

      However: we do have a budget category for gifts that is divided by people we buy for (x per person). We NEVER let that be straight up money. If you felt comfortable or compelled then you could send cash.

      Obviously, I think it’s better to just. Say. No.

    • I generally will agree to pay a specific bill or drop by with groceries, rather than outright cash. I know that isnt really budgeting help, but it gives me peace of mind

  21. I’ve surrounded myself with addicts my entire life, probably because my parents are addicts. A few years ago I started attending nar anon meetings and it changed my life. I was skeptical at first but my life was truly in crisis and I needed help. Things are much better now but I still attend on almost a weekly basis. I’ve learned a lot of things there but the thing that probably helps me most is ‘you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it’ (the 3 c’s). I have a very codependent/caregiver personality and I can lose myself into trying to fix situations that aren’t mine to fix. Letting go has been huge for me. Having a solid program that was mine to work (not the addicts) and having a group of people who understood what I was going through was so key for me. Good luck.

  22. This article was perfectly timely for me. I currently maintain a relationship with my 22-year-old brother whose mental health issues (and alcoholic coping mechanisms) keep him from living any kind of productive life and one of the best things I did for myself is seek help myself.

    Thankfully, my work pays for five sessions of therapy and I was able to use this when things were getting to be too much for me to handle on my own. It was incredibly helpful to have the support of someone who understood exactly what I was dealing with, and to have the reassurance that I was doing all I could do for him, while still maintaining boundaries and a positive relationship with my brother.

    It’s hard, yo. Take care of yourselves.

  23. Thank you SO much for sharing this – it is just what I needed to be reading right now. I have been struggling for years with similar issues and I always appreciate hearing how others manage these tough and complicated relationships. So rarely is there one correct answer for how to handle a situation with a difficult family member so listening to others is a way of adding tools to my toolbox so that I can pick and choose from them as needed. I have slowly become more comfortable in knowing that I will make mistakes and regret how I handled some situations and that is just part of the process. This has also helped me learn, though, that just like all relationships, messy relationships evolve over time and therefore I can always adjust my boundaries as I see necessary. For me, the most crucial thing I have learned is that I must take care of myself first and foremost and set boundaries that keep me safe, sane and capable of being of any help to others. Self-care can mean so many different things but seeking help for myself helped me truly understand and believe that I deserve to have my needs met and to protect myself and my well-being.

  24. This touched home in a lot of ways.
    I have a family that went through a lot and used to be difficult. I still have a brother who can be abusive, withholding, condescending and filled with jerkitude…but even he is getting better.
    However-I married into the biggest shit-show family I have EVER come across.

    An alcoholic with chronic heart issues that go ignored with a habit of finding “girlfriends” 40+ years his junior that is in and out of jail for DUIs all the time and calls us for money after he blows it on his weird harem. One that has a litany of mental illnesses including antisocial/borderline personality disorder. Along with a history of substance abuse and has been steadily deteriorating. That one is extremely abusive towards me and she often launches campaigns to ruin my life (generally calling every government agency she can and telling them I am doing something heinous that they deal with). The last is in prison for impregnating a 16 year old and also for endangering their child by injecting drugs into her.

    When I met him, he didn’t really talk to any of them except his mom once a week. Then it snow-balled and now that are all in my life. I finally just sat down and wrote out the role I wanted to play and what my lines were with each of them. I conferenced with my husband and we came up with boundaries.

    -We never give any of them money. They only do terrible things with it.
    -I see his mother extremely rarely and NEVER alone for any reason at all.
    -I will write brief letters and send yoga poses and interesting articles to the sibling while he is in prison. But after he gets out we have to see how he goes and then re-draw our lines. (He’s actually taking the opportunity to rehabilitate himself in prison. I try to promote that and since he doesn’t have a lot of normal people to talk to…)
    -We will see his dad every chance we get and call him often. We won’t spend time with his tribe of nefarious miscreants.
    -Under no circumstances EVER will our soon-to-be child ever be around any of them alone.
    -No one is allowed to bad-talk me or disrespect me especially in front of our soon-to-be child. My husband immediately backs me up and we leave the situation.
    -No one ever moves in with us ever ever ever ever again, no matter what. If we can, we will help rent them a room or something. If not, we have prepared ourselves for the worst.

    We have had a LOT of fights about his family. Especially his mother, since she moved in with us briefly. We almost split up. Luckily, with lots of therapy and fighting and help we came up with a set of rules that works for us. I think it’s important not just to make those boundaries for yourself, but WITH your partner as well. What works for one, might not work for the other and you may have to deal with how to react when your difficult family member makes your partner uncomfortable.

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