I think it’s fair to say that we all have at least one family member that really seems to get under our skin. They say things that shouldn’t be said. They say things to put you down. To make matters worse, they’re related to you so you’ll eventually have to see them at family gatherings and such. I have some experience dealing with difficult family members and my Uncle Jesse* is one of those people.
Anybody who knew the relationship that my Uncle Jesse and I shared when I was in college would have never guessed that now we don’t speak. He was one of my biggest supporters in college. I didn’t have a car in college and getting rides to the grocery store was a pain. Luckily, I had my Uncle Jesse and he would often come out to campus and take me to the grocery store. Sometimes, even paying for my groceries. After I graduated from college and moved back home, we still kept in contact and had a decent relationship. It wasn’t until after my other uncle, Orlando, passed away that our relationship drastically changed.
I always knew that my Uncle Jesse was not a drinker and a very “godly” man. To him, drinking was forbidden and a sin. On Christmas Eve 2016, my oldest girl cousin, Sarah* on my mom’s side invited all of us younger cousins over to watch Christmas movies, make gingerbread houses, and to bake cookies. Just a fun time for us to all get together and enjoy each others’ company following the death of our uncle. Four of us cousins were of legal drinking age and someone brought over a bottle of Bacardi that he had won at a work raffle.
We decided to partake in some Christmas spirits. Rum and Coke was the drink of the day and it was delicious!
Later that afternoon, my Uncle Jesse’s two daughters came over and they were both still in either high school or middle school. We included them in our movie watching and cookie baking fun. We did not ask them if they wanted a drink because we knew that their father was very particular when it came to that. But, we did ask them if it made them uncomfortable if we continued to partake and they both said they didn’t have a problem with it.
The day continues and we are all having a great time until Ruth* gets a phone call and excuses herself from the room. We didn’t know who was on the phone and didn’t ask any questions. About 30 minutes later there is a knock on the door and it is Uncle Jesse at the door looking to pick up his daughters. He comes into the room stone cold and with a very disapproving face. Sarah asked him if everything was okay to which she got no response. Next thing you know he asking both Sarah and I to step outside because he needed to speak with us. We oblige because didn’t think anything of it.
The first thing that came out of his mouth was, “Did you know that giving alcohol to a minor is a punishable offense of at least a year in jail?”
Sarah and I looked at each other in complete and total shock. How could someone that we thought cared for us even think of throwing us in jail?
He continued to ramble on and belittle us about being disappointed. He immediately left without giving either one of us a chance to say a word. We both called our moms in tears because of the encounter. We had decided that we both were not going to go to his house the next day for Christmas.
Christmas Day my mom made me go to his house so she could try to hash out the problems. Uncle Jesse and his wife did not want to listen to a single word that I said and I knew then that I would never have a good relationship with this man because he wasn’t willing to be open-minded.
Whenever I see him now, it is a simple hello and goodbye and that’s it.
As time has gone on, I have come to realize that there are ways to deal with the Uncle Jesse’s in your life. Here are some tips on how to deal with a difficult family member:
1. Don’t try to fix them
Accept them as they are. It is human nature to try to “fix” someone you care about. More likely than not, your efforts will not be rewarded. Accept that they are not able to be changed. They have always been that way and always will be that way. The only exception to this is if you notice that they are truly trying to make an effort to listen and meet you halfway.
2. Be Present and Direct
4. Know that the person is trying to stir up conflict and cause a reaction.
Try to prevent getting into a fight-or-flight response. You do not want an argument or heated discussion to erupt. Stay true to yourself. Stay grounded. Be direct and assertive. Speak from a place of confidence. Be aware of how the discussion or argument is elevating and leave the conversation before it gets to a point of no return. KNOW YOUR WORTH.
3. Don’t take the bait
They are trying to get a rise out of you. Keep calm and think about what they’re doing before blowing up and giving them what they want..
4. Watch for trigger topics
There are topics that are points of disagreement and disharmony. Recognize what they are and their purpose. Be prepared to either address these issues in a direct, non-confrontational way or to deflect the conflict if the atmosphere becomes too heated.
5. Let the other person be “right”
This one is extremely difficult. When we let go of our need to be right, we deepen our acceptance of a situation and we engender peace despite differences. Rather than simply listening to a family member, so that you’re able to counter what that person says, try to listen for the sake of understanding. Where is he or she is coming from? This doesn’t mean you need to agree, just that you’re showing that person a basic level of respect.
Rather than interrupting with counter-arguments, try to paraphrase back the points you think a person is making, and acknowledge the emotions he or she seem to be expressing.
6. Take care of you first
This is the most important one! Never let a relationship with someone infringe upon your own well-being. Visualize your boundaries and make sure that you are guarding your protective barrier. Don’t let them take over your space unless you invite them in.
If you take into account all of these tips, you will be able to tackle any difficult relationship in a way that will boost your mental awareness of each situation and your mental health.
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality