How to Deal With Difficult Relatives

Dealing with difficult relatives can be, well just difficult. Staying calm is key to deflecting the moods, jibes and attacks that some people thrive on. By refusing to engage in like manner, you remove the fuel that eggs them on and you keep your own sanity intact.


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    Define your boundaries. As hard as it may be to acknowledge sometimes, you set the boundaries in your relationships. Think of people who don't seem to get pushed around––you'll recognize immediately that such people have clarified their boundaries with you and you know not to cross them. And no matter how much it may bug you when such a person won't budge to your bidding, you'll always have respect for such people. This is something you can initiate too, making clear boundaries in your own mind first, then asserting yourself when someone doesn't take the hint and tries to cross your boundaries. This is how to restore balance and cope around difficult personality types. By seeing things as in your control, you take away the power of the manipulator, the judge, the moaner or the victim to set off your buttons. It is empowering to acknowledge that while you can't change people, you can always change your way of reacting to them.
    • Recognize that it is all right to satisfy your own needs and to keep your sense of well being intact. A relationship that causes you to feel violated is never healthy and doesn't deserve to be pandered to.
    • Define boundaries which you consider to be bottom lines that should not be crossed, ones that make you feel violated when they are. For example, if you value your privacy and a relative insists on frequent unannounced drop-in visits, that may be a bottom line for you.
    • Realize that you're not alone. All around the world people are constantly reassessing their relationships with people who demand and never give. Unfortunately, patterns get set in stone when we give in to demanding people and in many cases, the pattern is handed down through families, with undeserved deference passed on as baggage from relatives who have never learned to set boundaries themselves. You can break the cycle and while it may upset some people, that upset is a result of their recognition that you're calling them out on their manipulative behavior.
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    Verbalize your boundaries. Things left unsaid usually get interpreted as agreement to the other person's actions and expectations. You do need to speak up and don't worry, it's a skill that everyone can learn. It can be very helpful to use the technique of nonviolent communication, in which you observe the situation, acknowledge your feelings, determine your need (such as a need for space, for not being verbally abused, etc.) and then make a request for the behavior toward you to change or cease.
    • Expect surprise or feigned ignorance in some cases. Many people have gone for years without verbalizing their pain, discontent or irritation toward another person. The annoyance sits there inside, bubbling away and may result in complaining to the wrong people (think about the times you've moaned to your kids about overbearing Aunt Mary but you've never actually asked Aunt Mary to consider the impact of her comments or actions on you and your family). As such, you may find that the other person won't take you seriously at first, when you begin asserting your boundaries.
    • In some cases, there may be a "shock" reaction (usually feigned) at the mere suggestion that you dare attempt to put restrictions on this behavior. Just let that person have his or her reaction, but stand your ground anyway. It is going to take concerted repetition to show this person you have changed and mean business.
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    Enforce your boundaries. Try to enforce with kindness and compassion at first––after all, there's a good chance you've allowed this behavior to go on for years, which makes you partly to blame for the fact that your relative has not learned the behavior you want from him or her. But if that fails, and your relative doesn't respond to gentle reminders, here's a no-nonsense approach to enforcing your boundaries:
    • Let the other person know that for the next 30 days, you intend to strictly enforce the boundaries you’ve described.
    • Make it clear that if that person violates your boundaries even once during those 30 days, you will then begin a 30-day communications blackout. For 30 days, you simply have no contact with the other person. No drop-in visits (if s/he shows up, you firmly say, "Sorry, we just aren't ready for visitors right now. Also, we are not having contact with you at this time, remember? That is to help you with our new rules."), no phone calls, no emails, nothing––unless it’s absolutely mandatory.
    • After the 30-day fasting period, you can restart the original 30-day boundary-enforcement trial and repeat the process.
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    Be totally transparent about what you’re doing when you seek to establish new ground rules for future interactions. Let the other person know that you’re resorting to this process because s/he's left you no choice; remind him or her that you've made many attempts to clarify how serious you were, but that those attempts were ignored. Say that you want a fresh start, so that a new relationship that you can both enjoy can grow, and that by taking a 30-day break, you hope to make a clean start, both understanding how to respect one another's boundaries.
    • The first attempt at a 30-day blackout will probably be filled with attempts to contact you. You will rebuff the attempts by not responding to them. Hopefully, the attempts peter out, and you finish the 30 days in peace.
    • However, if your relative is relentless and will not respect your request for 30 days, then you need to inform him or her that you're going to have to take stronger measures. Reset your calendar to Day 1. From this time forward, if the other person attempts to make contact with you at all during the 30-day blackout, the 30 days resets to Day 1. Be sure your relative understands the rules of this game, don't just do it without letting him or her know what you expect, and what the consequences of violating your request will be.
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    End things where there is no chance of improved future interactions. If the rules are breached more than a couple of times and you reach the point where you’re pretty clear that the other person has no intention of respecting your boundaries whatsoever, regardless of your attempts to enforce them, then you’re done. The relationship cannot continue in its current form. If the other person can’t even respect your boundaries for 30 days, then what kind of future do you have together? It means that your boundaries will be trampled for as long as you allow the relationship to continue to exist in its current form.
    • This might sound a bit harsh, but keep in mind that before you reach this point, you’ve already expressed your needs clearly to the other person, and you were trampled. You owe it to yourself to take a step back and see if you really wish to continue this relationship at all. The 30-day blackout period is a time for both of you to re-evaluate the relationship from a distance. It’s also a massive pattern interrupt that lets the other person know with certainty that s/he crossed an uncrossable line, and enough is enough.
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    Disarm the primary weapon: Guilt. If the other person attempts to use guilt as a tool of manipulation (which is extremely common), it’s fairly easy to overcome. Whenever you perceive the other person attempting to manipulate your emotions by making you feel guilty, bring the whole matter to conscious awareness by asking, “You’re not trying to make me feel guilty, are you?” The other person will probably deny it, but soon the pattern will re-emerge. Keep interrupting the pattern of falling into a state of guilt by bringing attention to the other person’s emotionally manipulative tactics. Simply keep asking questions like, “Why do you feel it necessary to use guilt as a tool of manipulation?” or “You must really find this upsetting if you feel it necessary to try to make me feel guilty to get what you want. Can we try a more mature way of discussing this?” You don’t need to beat the person up about it, but put a stop to the use of guilt as a weapon, once and for all. If you refuse to enter the emotional state of guilt, it will allow you to stay more objective and be more compassionate in seeing that the other person is probably using guilt because he or she suddenly feels powerless. By addressing that powerlessness, you have the opportunity to transform the relationship for good.
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    Re-evaluate the relationship. If the person refuses to change his or her way of interacting with you, think deeply about the worth of continuing your relationship with him or her. You might find that you harbor one or more beliefs that perpetuate the problem. If you operate under the belief that all family is forever and that you must remain loyal to all your relatives and spend lots of time with them, those beliefs are your choice, and you’re free to embrace them––or release them. If you find yourself with family relationships that are incompatible with your becoming your highest and best self, then excessive loyalty to your family is likely to be extremely disempowering to you. Think deeply about your own beliefs about family and loyalty, and consider the following:
    • You would probably never tolerate the same behaviors in a stranger as you would in a family member. To push a family member out of your life might cause you to feel guilty, or could lead to a backlash from other family members. But genuinely ask yourself, “Why do I tolerate this behavior from a family member when, if it were a stranger, I would refuse to tolerate at all?”
    • Identify the nature of the external conflicts you experience, and then translate them into their internal equivalents. For example, if a family member is too controlling of you, translate that problem into your own internal version: You feel your relationship with this family member is too much out of your control. When you identify the problem as external, your attempted solutions may take the form of trying to control other people, and you’ll naturally meet with strong resistance. But when you identify the problem as internal, it’s much easier to solve. If another person exhibits controlling behavior towards you, you may be unable to change that person's way of interacting toward you. However, if you feel you need more control in your life, then you can actually do something about your responses without needing to control others.
    • Familial relationships can be complex, and cutting one person out can lead to your losing someone you really do want to have a closer relationship with. Decide which hills are really worth dying on, in other words, if you only have to see this difficult person two or three times a year, consider just letting it roll off your shoulder. Although you want to be the captain of your own destiny, it won't hurt you to just endure this person for a few hours, and the trade-off is worth it if you are keeping your other relatives happy by doing so.
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    Decide to love and let be. You can love your relatives without having a particularly close-knit relationship. Maybe your personal values and lifestyle have moved so far from theirs that there isn’t enough basic compatibility to form a strong common bond anymore. Even though this might be the family you grew up with and shared many memories with, your core values are so different now that it just doesn’t feel like a meaningful family relationship anymore. Despite all these differences, you can be on good terms with each other and get along fairly well, but your differences create such a big gap that you have to settle for being relatives without being close friends. That's okay, it happens and you can stand strong and affirm what matters to you through the close relationships you choose to be a part of.


  • When you see this pattern occurring where you don’t have the leverage to enforce boundaries, such as with your spouse’s relative, and your partner seems spineless about having a confrontation, then you have to enforce these boundaries with your partner. You must clearly tell your partner to speak to his or her relatives, to defend you and your marriage/partnership, and to make it clear to his or her relatives that you must be respected, or else the two of you will not be visiting much. This has the benefit of pushing your partner to grow up (albeit sometimes kicking and screaming), learning to put your needs first and the “Mommy” figure's needs second. Some people just need a good kick to get themselves out of childhood and into adulthood, especially during their 20s. In the long run, your partner will likely be grateful to you for his/her new spine.


  • Be aware that other relatives may come down hard on you. "How could you talk to Aunt Jane like that?" Don't apologize for standing up for yourself. Realize that in many cases, the shock is derived from a form of envy that they're incapable of doing the very same boundary-setting for their own selves. Moreover, very manipulative people rely on complicit others to support their manipulative ways and they'll expect this kind of "loyalty" whenever their bad behavior gets shown up. Keep strong––you're doing the right thing.
  • If your boundaries are reasonable, and the person is either unwilling or incapable of complying with them, you’re done—–in most situations it would be foolish to continue such a relationship. It will only erode your self-respect.

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