3 Things to Know About Dealing with Difficult Family

The arrival of our daughter and the decline of my mother-in-law has begun to break down some walls in our family. Maybe because the start of a new life reminds us all that life can be joyful, and joy is meant to be shared. Maybe because the end of a life reminds us that life is short and not meant to be spent in constant anger and frustration.

This doesn’t mean we’re no longer struggling to communicate better, to understand each other, and to treat each other better. All three of these things still don’t come easily to me, Husband, and our family members. Each week, while going through an endless cycle of naps, feedings, play time and diaper changes, I find myself plopping down in prayer that soon, very soon, we can find a way to jump off the parallel merry-go-round of miscommunication, misunderstandings, and revenge-motivated actions.

Then last night, a friend came over for a quick visit to meet our daughter and ended up staying more than two hours. She’s been dealing with some thorny family members as she and her husband try to gain custody of their two nephews. While my friend and her family would provide a supportive and loving environment for the boys, some egos and stubbornness in her extended family have prevented them from moving in with my friend and benefiting from the stable life she and her husband can offer.

Seems I’m not the only one blessed – yes, blessed – with strong-willed family. What doesn’t drive you away will make you stronger.

Family life can be a merry-go-round of frustration - but also joy.

When family treats you poorly, you learn what you will and will not tolerate, what to let go of, and what’s in your power to change the situation.

These are three things I’ve learned about dealing with difficult family:

  1. You can’t control their actions, and their actions do not have to control you.

Our family says and does things that make Husband and I question how we’re related to them. We have been blown off, chewed out, had our intelligence called into question, and been expected to do things for family that they aren’t willing to do for us in return. At first, we’d get upset and blame each other for our frustration:

“YOUR uncle called and said THIS.”

“YOUR MOM crossed a line.”

“YOUR sister has gone and done THAT. AGAIN.”

Blaming each other gets us nowhere, though. Husband didn’t criticize. I didn’t cross a line. Others did, and we are letting them subtly sabotage our relationship.

When family upsets you, take a step back. Breathe. And consider this:

Will their actions today still have an impact on you and your spouse, and on your future family, in a year? In five years? In 10?

If the answer is no, let it go. Let your family criticize, but don’t let their criticisms sink in. Run them by your spouse if they really bother you, but let him reassure you that you’re doing fine. His opinion matters more than anyone else’s. Marriage means two people cleave from their separate families and become a new family that takes precedent over other family relations. Show your spouse you truly believe that by letting others’ words go in one ear and out the other.

If family won’t help with something you can’t do on your own, remember that they’re not the only people who could help. Ask other family members for assistance. Enlist friends whose skills and knowledge align with your needs. Hire a professional. Taking care of family, running a family business, or other big projects in your life aren’t about making certain people do their part but about getting things done. Do you want your excuse for not reaching a certain goal to be, “Well, so-and-so wouldn’t help, so I couldn’t do this”? Kids make that kind of excuse. Not grown adults.

Taking the work outside of the family also has the benefit of relieving you and your spouse of projected frustrations. When the family is dissatisfied with the job being done, we put a hand up to their objections and politely ask them to direct their complaints to the non-family member helping out. If they continue their litany, we repeat our request. They usually stop complaining in short order. It’s harder to berate a stranger than a family member. And we enjoy the absence of the weight of their negativity.

And if certain family members won’t change their behavior, remove yourself. We have family who still use unacceptable racial slurs; some call Husband childish names at family gatherings; some treat their spouse poorly in front of us and expect us to be complicit. You don’t have to be around their negativity. Minimize the time you spend with people who won’t be respectful of the values you’re trying to live. Make yourselves too busy to be pulled down to their level. If anyone asks why you have started avoiding them, be blunt: It’s not okay for others to treat your spouse like garbage, you will not stand by while it happens, and until they can clean up her behavior, you and your spouse will be spending your precious free time doing things you enjoy and that build each other up.

When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever. Psalm 73:21-26

Don’t let others take control of the narrative of your marriage and your life.

2. If they’re lying about you, the rest of the family probably sees through their lies.

While lunching with my husband’s grandmother last weekend, she told me that some of my husband’s old baby toys and clothes are still in his parents’ house and suggested I swing by to pick them up so our daughter could enjoy them. I thanked her for the suggestion but then told her that I haven’t been to my in-laws’ house in more than a year, and will not be visiting it any time soon because my sister-in-law has accused my husband and me of stealing things from the house. (My father-in-law died three years ago and my mother-in-law hasn’t lived in the house since early last year, so I’m not avoiding them – just the house.) This isn’t true. My husband has brought a few of his childhood items over to our house, but they are his, and I have no interest in relocating things that aren’t mine.

When I explained this to Husband’s grandmother, she understood. She knows her granddaughter’s character – and mine.

My friend trying to take in her nephews said her sister spreads various lies about her among her family, but the boys still want to come live with my friend. They still realize that she and her family could provide the opportunities they lack with their grandparents, and they dismiss their mom’s attacks against their aunt.

False words can hurt, but those who really matter to you will know your true character. They’ll see through others’ slander even if it’s fogging your outlook on your family.

3. It’s not their job to entertain you.

When we expect hospitality from our family, are we doing so because we truly need the rest they can provide, or are we wanting to continue being spoon-fed the comforting traditions and family space we’re used to?

Plenty of couples talk about starting their own traditions and creating their own space around holidays, children, travel and milestones. It’s much harder to actually start them. But it’s necessary to take that step as a married couple because it is not your family’s job to entertain you.

My husband treasures his memories of family gatherings and holidays while growing up. With his dad gone and his mom stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, getting together with family has taken on more importance to him. But the rest of our family does holidays on their own. I mentioned Husband’s desire to be with family during Christmas to one aunt. She replied that she loves getting together with everyone but can no longer do the work of coordinating everyone and hosting every time. She doesn’t have the bandwidth to chase everyone down and work out a party for every holiday.

Nor should she. We’re two adults. We have the ability to make our own plans. We have a house big enough to host family if we choose.

Rather than sulk – and because it is not her job to entertain us – we stole away to Asheville for the holiday – and had a wonderful time. It was so special and rejuvenating to set aside that holy time for just each other.

My family lives in another state and most will probably never come to our home to meet our daughter. At first this upset me: Is a new granddaughter/niece/cousin not a good enough reason to come visit? Why should we have to do the work of traveling with an infant to introduce her?

But because we want our daughter to see more than just our town – and because it is not their job to entertain us – we’re making plans to introduce our baby to the places and people most important to us on our own schedule. She’ll become the seasoned traveler we want her to be, with (hopefully) fond memories of special family trips.

Our family isn’t terrible; it’s simply comprised of flawed people trying to do their best in a flawed world. Sometimes we get things right, but when we don’t, we place our marriage and each other first.


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