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Coping With a Hurtful Family Relationship
Erika Krull, MS, LMHP
It could be your sister, your mother, your uncle — for many people, there’s one family member who consistently criticizes, pushes buttons, and triggers hurt feelings. How can you cope?
You know the person I’m talking about – that person in your family that seems to really have your number. It doesn’t take much for them to get you riled up, set off your whole day, touch on vulnerable emotions. What is it about them that keeps you stuck with them? It could be your sister, your mom, your uncle, your son, or whoever. Are you able to see the forest for the trees and step away from them, or do you feel emotionally torn and entangled with them?
This can feel pretty tough sometimes. You might feel like you are being torn in two directions. You may hear one thing from this hurtful family member and something completely different from your spouse or friends. You know you and others you love aren’t being treated well, but somehow you just can’t move away from them.
First, let’s look this example and see if we can spot the problem. Your mom really has a way with words, sharp biting words. She always seems to have a timely piece of criticism ready for you. Since you aren’t going to be a doctor like your brother, you are frequently compared with him (not favorably). Once in a while, she just doesn’t say anything much at all and seems mildly pleasant. No ruckus, no strong emotion, just neutral.
You start to wonder if maybe something has come over her and she’s finally coming around. Maybe this is the start of something better, more peace, less tension. You even get a little upset wondering, “Well why can’t she just be like this?” And that’s the part that keeps you sucked in, thinking she can someday rehabilitate her attitude and behaviors toward you after all this time.
Guess what. Probably not. In fact you might be the problem here because your expectations are off track. Yes, if you can see clear evidence that your family member is treating you or other people in your family poorly (spouse or kids), the logical move is to back away and protect your family. It’s false hope that keeps us inappropriately connected. You want what you can’t have – a mom who’s proud of you, a grandma who doesn’t pit people against each other, a sister you can trust. When you can accept the face value of your painful situation instead of the fantasy, it gets easier to live with.
Now that doesn’t mean you can’t call once in a while, be around for two hours at Christmas, or have supper once a month. It does mean you may need to set some strong boundaries when they start to treat you badly. That might mean getting up and leaving their house, hanging up the phone, cherry picking what gatherings you attend, limit contact with young children, etc. And truthfully, it means setting your expectations pretty low. Casual activity that doesn’t get emotional is ideal, unless they are so destructive you should cut them off completely.
Think of it this way. If a female bear was around a grouchy adult male who was bullying her and her cubs, do you really think she’d try to get snuggle up next to him each time he came around? No! She’d either hightail it out of the area or put up a fight if absolutely necessary. She wouldn’t stay around and take it, hoping he’d get into a better mood one of these times.
Next time you face that hurtful person in your family, think about what the protective mother bear would do.