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. These are all sad tales but there are also many here with threads of hope in them. I wish everyone peace. Speaking from the other side of the parental estrangement issue, I can tell you that when my brother cut my parents out of his life, it was downright baffling. I think if you asked him ‘why’, he couldn’t really explain it himself…and I know, because I tried, gently, many times, & got very little in the way of answers. And because I dared to keep in close touch with my parents who I feel are loving & good people, & also to straddle the middle line & try & be neutral & maintain both relationships – wow – wham-o, to him that meant I wasn’t supportive, & he cut me out, too. Never mind how often I tried to say he could make his own choices & I’d respect them, he just also needed to respect mine – nope, no dice, his way or the highway. I have seen him maybe 3 x in the last 5 years – at funerals & weddings. He will greet people he’s cut out of his life, but he’s totally icy. I decided a long time ago that if he couldn’t explain what was troubling him to me, or respond to the Xmas & b-day cards I continue to send, or the once a year ‘hey how are ya’?’ e-mails – then the problem is his, not mine. I will not keep feeding his drama. I have left the door open by going out of my way to try & exchange conversation (stifled though it is on his end) when I see him, sending cards etc – whether he ever walks back thru it or not is now up to him. It sucks because I miss him, but I believe we teach people how to treat us. And if he can’t wrap his head around the notion that people won’t always agree, & that that itself is actually ok, as long as they are being respectful…well, then, if I cave & cut my parents out for no other reason than that’s because that’s what he wants, or is what he’s done – then I’ve only taught him to manipulate me. Not happening.

    • Frog,
      I’ve been through some of this with my sister- being belittled for choosing to stay in contact with my father and stepmom, regardless of my reasons for doing so. It sucks to have a sibling berate you for making deeply personal decisions that are different from their own.
      I pretty much cut off contact with my sister after she made my wedding all about her and her conflict with my parents, and then tried to make my chronic illness diagnosis all about her as well. Keeping her in my life would have meant spending time and energy that I needed for my own health and wellbeing managing her emotions and drama. My choices- about my health, my family, my life are hard enough already- I don’t have room in my life for someone who constantly tells me that they are all wrong. I try to send texts and gifts for holidays and I’ll pass on messages from family members when possible, but that’s the extent to which I can have a relationship with her and it still be safe for me.

      • That’s some good stuff, beck – do what you can, when you can, & hope for peace down the road. Kinda where I am at, too!

  2. I spent years trying to rebuild and maintain a relationship with my mother after some difficult truths separated us. The relationship became so toxic, and she was so unwilling to have a relationship on MY terms (just never mention my father/her husband) that I had to cut her out of my life. I have a chronic pain/fatigue illness that is exacerbated quite physically by emotional stress. Even a conversation on the phone with her had so many triggers and so much stress induced that I was in the ER half a dozen times in a few months.
    It ached for years that I couldn’t have her be a part of my life, and even more so as my brother maintained a relationship with her (and assumed that meant I didn’t want any relationship with him), but I never doubted that it was the right thing for me to do at the time.
    The last two years, we’ve slowly started to visit again- and she’s finally realized how important the boundaries I had demanded were-how necessary they were to my health and to our ability to communicate with each other. I never believed that it would happen, but I’m thankful it has. It took a lot longer than it should have, but she finally heard what I said. Now we get to make up for lost time with a relationship that is healthy and fulfilling for the both of us.

    It is never easy or simple to cut anyone from your life, especially someone related to you that you love so much. You just have to realize what is best for you, your mental well being, and overall health. (and your significant other, your other close family/friends, your kids, etc) This is one of the hardest lessons I think anyone can learn and there is no catch-all guide that works for everyone. Trust yourself and be honest.

  3. My boyfriend’s mother is mentally ill and highly manipulative. She will call several times per day, always with some poorly constructed question, and if nothing else works, she will start complaining, “I am sooo lonely!” Of course talking to her for a few moments is not a big deal for me, so usually I play along and make small talk for two or three minutes, but some days I simply do not feel up to the task (long office day, bad mood etc.), and on these days I simply switch off the phone. This is not a perfect solution because naturally I could not be reached in case of emergency (sick parents etc.), but I clearly value my sanity higher than her constant attempts at eliciting pity from me.

    My boyfriend dreams of buying a phone with an option to “lock out” certain phone numbers for stretches of time.

    (My sister-in-law uses a different strategy and shouts abuse at the woman if she does not feel like making small talk, which i find less than reasonable.)

    You see, everyone has to find their strategies for coping.

    • Yeah, my FIL likes to try and guilt trip us about how lonely he is. He was always in need of being rescued from something. He used to call all the time. Several times per day. It started when my MIL died, and we kept answering his calls every day for updates about her at the hospital, and then later to make sure he was coping. But he never really stopped. We just ignore his calls if we don’t feel like talking.

      We had a small blow out earlier in the year when he decided pity wasn’t getting him anywhere so he tried yelling at us. My husband and him had a long talk and we both established some boundaries. We told him if he calls he has to leave a message about what he wants for us to call him back (granted we get “Hi, call me! I want to talk to you” as the only indicator of what he needs, but he cut back on how often he calls so I’ll take it).

      My personal boundary is that I won’t put up with pity parties or give sympathy to them. If he needs help I can help him think of a solution, but I’m not going to let him know I feel sorry for him. When he mentions he’s lonely I suggest he get a pet and talk about how awesome our dog is to switch gears. Or we remind him how competent he is and that we know he’ll figure out a good solution for himself. That in and of itself seems to have worked wonders. Apparently all he wanted was our time and attention regardless of how he got it, so when we give him attention for good behavior and ignore bad behavior, he just does good behavior more. It’s like dealing with a 5 year old, I swear. Luckily me and my husband can laugh about it, but our relationship with him has gotten much more pleasant, and I even enjoy seeing him when we visit.

  4. This was a well-timed article for me. My parents are very helpful, well-intentioned people. However, the second you reach that point of desperation that you will accept their help, the conditions start- almost always after they have agreed to help (with no conditions at that time) . Each condition that is met leads to another condition and so on. Usually the goal is to try to make me the ‘better person’ that they are (make more money, have more stuff, work more, live less. Etc) . I have struggled with boundaries with them for years and yesterday I set one- which lead to a huge argument and threats. It sucks but I decided no one is going to be allowed to control me again.

    • I *so* get this! My in-laws are the same. ‘Don’t leave us in the dark’, ‘Let us help’, etc. But when you do give them sensitive information or ask for help – WHAM! Judgement & 2nd-guessing & interrogation, and help-with-umpteen-conditions attached. They don’t know how close they have come to not being a part of my life at ALL.

  5. Not all difficult siblings are substance abusers.
    I am a difficult sibling. I am intelligent and self employed, a home & pet owner.
    But I have an often explosive temper and a sarcasm habit that don’t quit.
    I love my siblings and loved (my now deceased) parents. I have some really wonderful and forgiving friends.
    But I fear that my age (just gone 50) hormonal status and increasing disillusion and impatience with many aspects of modern life will make me even harder to bear.
    I regret lost friends and feuds with my sisters.
    I blame myself, and that can be isolating and punishment enough.
    So to the people who say just cut the poison out, remember that the PERSON you ostracise has feelings too.

    • wendy, you’re amazing. Thanks for posting!! We all have our faults, & it’s never easy to admit them. I like your thought about “….So to the people who say just cut the poison out, remember that the PERSON you ostracise has feelings too.”. That’s just it – even when we find others hard to deal with etc, it never hurts to take what my old college professor calls “the one down”. Rise above, when possible…bite your tongue a little more…just a little more….try your best to keep up some contact etc…set boundaries, but word your request as kindly as you can….because so often, a person who hurts, is one who lashes out more often, or more strongly. Do we want to add to that…? To those who have made the hard choice to cut someone out, hey, I haven’t walked in your shoes either, so I am not saying all situations can be saved, or that all people deserve second chances. But I’d like to congratulate you on your candour, and your wisdom, wendy – it took guts to post your thoughts.

  6. This! Could not have said it better. I have had one brother successfully overcome a decade of hard drug addiction- on his own. Nothing we tried could help him- he had to make the decision to change himself. My other brother still struggles with addiction as well as bipolar/schizophrenia. He is only 23 and I hope he will find the strength that his big brother did to overcome his addiction and manage his illness. I make sure my brothers know I love them no matter what, even when they mess up, and encourage them to be the best men they can be. Others may judge my brothers, and myself, because of them and my decision to be there for them, but that’s not my problem. I am open about their struggles to those who are a part of my life, as much as I would be about any other family member who was sick- and addiction is a disease, an improper wiring of the brain. So often people choose to ignore this. Thanks so much for sharing OP, It’s comforting to know others understand, and I wish you and your brothers the best.

  7. I know this all too well. I have had to cut my brother out of my life. I am civil to him when I see him for whatever reason for my dad’s peace.
    My brother has stolen from me, and my children, nearly got my mom killed when he went to her to bail him out of a drug deal gone bad, and the list goes on.
    I’m happier with out him in my life. I work hard for everything I have. I have had to fight and claw for my life, and while it may not be “perfect”, it’s mine, and I will not let him or anyone take it down.

  8. Wow, this post and these comments.

    My family doesn’t have addiction problems, but without getting into too much detail, everyone has their own complicated web of whom they get along with, whom they still talk to and how easy it is to get through certain holidays and visits. And long grudges based on something someone carelessly said, combined with some wildly different degrees of empathy and communication/listening skills. With a small helping of money issues thrown in for good measure.

    I can’t agree enough about boundaries. I know my sister listens to me more than anyone, but when she was having trouble with another relative and cut her out, that relative constantly tried to guilt and manipulating me into trying to manipulate my sister. Which, um, NO. I’ve had to lay out clear lines where I just won’t discuss particular people with other relatives anymore, and have shut conversations down when someone totally outside a particular drama wants to know details which won’t do anyone any good.

    The constant operating principle is to get out of the middle. I let people vent up to a point if something is fresh, then cut it off. I don’t take responsibility for the actions of people who are older and should know better than I. I won’t tolerate a lot of badmouthing of the people I love who are still very much related to me (say, my parents about each other). And, my favorite line of defense, letting a call go to voicemail when I know I don’t have the energy to enforce those boundaries, and calling back another time when I do.

  9. Thank you for this. My baby brother (he just turned 24; I’m 32) has struggled with serious drug addiction and mental illness since he was around 16 (at least that’s when we became aware of it).

    There have been peaks and valleys — some times better than others but no times have been great — and he’s most def in a ‘valley’ right now. (Meth: Not even once.)

    Since he was about 17, we’ve all been walking on eggshells, never able to let down our guard, never sure of what might be around the bend. It’s taken its toll on our entire family and there was a steep learning curve, for sure — in the beginning, we were all guilty of enabling his behavior, to an extent.

    We’ve all found different ways of coping.

    My mom has found strength and support in AlAnon — she goes several times a week, and sharing with other parents in similar situations has proven invaluable.

    My dad finds solace in prayer, religion, and meditation.

    My other younger brother (28 years old) has basically severed all ties and has no contact with him at all.

    My older sister (39 years old) is somewhere in the middle — she doesn’t really get involved in his issues, but also hasn’t cut him off. It’s a very casual relationship between them, and she has two sons who both love their uncle but understand (in an age-appropriate way) that he has issues.

    For me, I’ve basically chosen the same path as Maggie. He has said terrible things to me and my husband when he’s using. He has lied, cheated, stolen. He’s made me so unbelievably sad and hurt and angry.

    …But at the end of the day, he is still my baby brother. I know that the person he becomes when he’s using isn’t *him*, and I still see glimmers of the person I used to know somewhere deep inside of him.

    I won’t enable or indulge him — I never give him money, he’s not allowed to stay with me, I won’t talk to him when he starts on a tirade or is being aggressive or abusive.

    I will always be his big sister, with all that that entails — I will always work towards what I know to be in his best interests (even if that means incarceration, which right now it does) and I will always try to get his life back on track.

    …But I also accept that there’s only so much I can do and make a point of ensuring that he knows that I love him, no matter what.

  10. Totally agree with how you handle it. There is a time and a place for those conversations… We have family friends like that and we also help out with groceries etc

  11. What about family members you DON’T want to see again? I cut out a sister (believe me, it was well deserved) and my family keeps pushing her at me. When I tell them it’s not open for discussion they look at me like a toddler who wants another cookie or something. Now she has a kid and they continually tell me how great it is to be an “Aunt”. I just want them to drop it and leave it alone. I’m not letting her hurt me again.

  12. Thank you for writing and sharing this. It’s timely for me and I agree with everything you’ve said here. In a way, cutting someone out of your life just because you don’t support their lifestyle is yet another attempt at “fixing” them. The logic being that if they lose people important to them, it will get them to change. It might or it might not–and same with every other kind of “fixing,” it could do more harm than good. The method I’m trying to work with is to keep living my life the way I want to live it, be honest and set boundaries, and love my family members the way they are. I can’t change them and I don’t want to lose them.

    Best wishes for you and your brother. <3

  13. I love this article as a mental health professional and as someone whose family is toxic in many ways. Obviously, I don’t want to cut off my family- they still have redeeming qualities and I do enjoy some time with them. However, moving away from them was the best decision for me. It’s easier to set boundaries when family lives 1500 miles away. I also found when I set firm boundaries with them, it’s easier for me to enjoy time with them, because they know I won’t budge on certain issues and I don’t have to obsess over it.

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