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When the Drama is Too Much: Limiting Contact With Family Members

Dealing with difficult personalities is something we all must do. And it seems to be a universal fact that we all have that one family member who makes us crazy. But what happens when that wild card behavior escalates? You know–the constant drama and the ruined family outings? How long do you put up with it before putting your foot down?

For me, the last straw was when during a celebratory family meal in a restaurant,our problem family member degraded a server to the point she began to cry. After that, I took my in-laws aside and explained that while we understood their desire to have us all at the same table, we were simply not raised to sit quietly and ignore it while someone in our party did such a thing. I wish I could say that was the final conversation on that topic, but in fact it was a very long and drawn out path to a mutual understanding. To us, family gets some leeway in the behavior department, but not free reign to ruin family gatherings without consequence.

It’s not ideal to limit or even cut off a family member, but sometimes it’s necessary. However, you should be prepared for a difficult path should you choose to do so. Make sure the benefits outweigh the risks.

If you find yourself dealing with a similar situation, here are the lessons I would like to share with you:

Ask yourself what makes the most sense, even if it’s a bit painful. For us, turning the other cheek or a blind eye constantly became exhausting. Everyone knew the behavior was really bad, but they would say “Just ignore her.” Our family gatherings started to feel fake–it took so much energy just to try to have a good time. When our son was born, we made the decision to limit contact to Christmas or other events such as milestone celebrations for our in-laws. It’s not ideal and does seem extreme, but it makes the most sense for us and we are happier as a result. You must find the best solution for your nuclear family and sometimes that means an uncomfortable break from the status quo.

Know plans might become more complicated. As mentioned, we now limit our planned contact with this person to Christmas at the in-laws’. We plan our own separate Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthday and other celebrations with our in-laws. It’s a giant pain, but it’s worth it to spend quality time with them instead of playing a game of drama roulette. 

Set ground rules. This one is really tough. You will likely get criticism, but you need to agree with your partner on a few things. At what point do you excuse yourself from the birthday party? What will your response be to an insult? Do you mess up your own schedule to wait on the person who is always hours late for no good reason? Don’t go into a situation looking for things to react to, but know how you will react if the negative behaviors do come up. You must be consistent and united.

Focus on your own plan, not what you think the person should do. When I confronted the person in question, I made sure that my statements were what my husband and I were going to do–not what we wished the person would do. An example: “You are free to behave in whatever manner you desire in a restaurant, but we are not obligated to stay while you do so.” Be very clear that you are not telling them how to live their lives, but rather that you are bothered by the behavior and will no longer tolerate it on your end. Try to be calm and rational.

Try to leave others out of it. This is something I’ve had difficulty with. My in-laws don’t want to be in the middle–nor should they be. While we know the behaviors bother them as well, we do not control their reactions and acknowledge their difficult position. It’s tempting to seek validation, and you should consider the impact to others when you make these decisions- but in the end, it’s you and your partner dealing with the issue. That is the part you control.

You might become the bad guy. It’s very likely that the toxic person will try to prove you wrong or make you look silly. They may point out that you aren’t perfect (nobody is). Be prepared for this and take the high road if it does occur. If the person truly wants to change the offending behavior, that’s great–just make sure you’re not falling back into the same patterns with them. 

Do you have experience with limiting exposure to a family member? How did it go? What did you do? Tell us in the comments.

2 Responses to When the Drama is Too Much: Limiting Contact With Family Members

  1. Carrie Chambers April 11, 2017 at 10:16 am #

    Oh, what a struggle this is! In the first few years of our relationship, this was THE biggest stressor for my husband and I. We were lucky and people changed after we had a baby. However, when it comes to holidays, we do still have to strategize and play out scenarios ahead of time so that we’ll be ready.

  2. Emily Swegert
    Emily Swegert January 30, 2018 at 10:25 am #

    I feel like I could have written this post! We are STILL struggling with toxic family members and how to beat deal with them. This is great advice.

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