Seasonal Toxic Relative Disorder

Posted by on Nov 21, 2014 in Couples, Family, Family Dysfunction, Holiday Blues, Holiday Stress, Marriage, relatives, Seasonal Depression | 0 comments

Perhaps you are feeling the impending doom of embarking on a family trip over the river and through the woods to the wicked witch of the West’s house for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Or perhaps crazy Uncle Mel will be in town for a week and has nowhere else to stay.  In many families, there are relatives who can wreak havoc on what might otherwise be a peaceful and festive gathering.  A psychological textbook could be written about the ability of one toxic person to inflict chaos and pain upon an extended family during the course of a four day weekend.  For today, however, I’ll outline some survival strategies for coping with your unavoidable “not-so-loved one”.

  • Have a plan. If you are visiting for a long weekend, or god forbid a week, think ahead about what you would ideally like to do during those days. If sitting around talking in the living room for hours tends to bring up embarrassing topics or mother-in-law criticisms, then having a schedule will help.  “We’d love to see your photo’s from the cruise, but we’re taking the kids to the museum today!”  Having an agenda helps give you positive activities to look forward to, even if part of your day involves dealing with a difficult relative.  It also may shorten the amount of time you sit idle waiting for the next emotional bomb to drop.
  • Have a code word. You may be used to Grandpa’s offensive sense of humor and just ignore it. Your spouse might be about to lose their mind. Come up with a code word or phrase so that you can signal to the other “we need to leave the room and talk”.  Check in with each other out of ear shot and vent about your toxic relative’s ignorance.  At least you will feel supported knowing you are not alone. Your significant other may also be able to re-interpret, give a different perspective, or help you find some humor to get you through the next hour.
  • Exercise. If you’re not a frequent exerciser, let everyone know that you’ve started a new work-out routine.  You may need time to take a long walk, jog, or go to a nearby gym.  A) the exercise will help you burn off physical stress associated with wanting to strangle Aunt Francine, and B) it’ll give you a break. C) It might also excuse you from eating some horrible food that you politely choke down every year.  “Sorry, I love your prune cobbler, but I’m on this new exercise kick and trying to lose a few pounds”.
  • Focus on the kids. If you have an in-law that is intent on interrogating you about why you still aren’t living up to family expectations, you can always change the subject to one of your kids. Johnny’s school play, Sally learning how to drive, these are always good distracters.  If you have young kids, they can always use attention, so pretend to not hear Uncle Larry’s nosey question while playing a game with your kid on the floor.  No one is going to fault you for giving attention to your kids.
  • Ask a Question. Cousin Sarah wants to know when you are having another child (which is none of her business).  Ask her about her experience with having a third child and why she thinks it’s a good idea for you to have one.  If you turn the question around and ask a question, they may back off, feeling like you respect their superior knowledge (even if you don’t).   Or ask her how her job is going, or about her car, or about the new boots she’s wearing.  Sure, it’s changing the subject, but people love to talk about themselves.  They might get the hint because you changed the subject, or they might just get distracted.
  • Give a Maybe. Ok, you don’t have to agree 100% and you’re not lying, but if someone gives you rude advice, you can respond with a maybe.  You just have to entertain someone’s idea enough so that they don’t think you are arguing with them.  You could say “Maybe we do live in a crappy neighborhood? Hmm, I wonder where we’d move that would be better?”, or “Maybe I do need a new career, I hear there’s a lot of money in llama farming.”  You could choose to be offended by your relative’s rude advice, or you can just roll with it and give a Maybe response.
  • Prepare an “Out”. Talk with your significant other and decide on a good reason to bail, if you absolutely have to.  A call from your neighbor back home saying that they saw your front window is broken.  Work has an emergency situation you have to go deal with.  A friend is divorcing their husband and moving out on the spur of the moment and needs help.  Hey, you made an appearance, you gave it your best shot, but cousin Al is still a jerk.  Confronting him after his 14th glass of Wild Turkey isn’t going to help, so just say happy holidays and bail (keep your bags mostly packed.)
  • Be Assertive. Ok, this should be first on the list, but I’m assuming you’ve tried this – but if you haven’t….  Sometimes the easiest way to resolve things is just to state your opinion. Say it calmly without attacking the other person.   You can state how you feel, or what you would like to see happen differently, without blaming, name calling, or criticizing. You can tell people that their behavior is not helping you enjoy the holiday, or that you’d like to celebrate without a big confrontation.  You can tell people that you hear what their saying, but that you just see things differently.  Speaking up is a good thing if you can view it as sharing your thoughts, but not needing to control the situation or win a 20 year old battle.
  • Pretend You are Watching a Sitcom. This may take some practice, but it can be fun.  Imagine that the family you are spending time with is just acting. They ACT like they know you, act like they are crazy, but it’s just a sitcom being filmed for tv. You are one of the actors. You can act like you are fine with it, act like it’s funny, but above all it doesn’t have to affect you, because it’s not real. Writers in Hollywood couldn’t come up with this stuff.  Maybe this sitcom would get cancelled after this episode, but that’s not your fault – it’s hard to believe it ever got on the air in the first place.
  • Listen. When people get too whacky, just listen. How often are you really listened to?  Some of these people may drive you nuts, but they are human beings too.  Most of us like to be listened to.  Even if its boring, sad, pathetic, rude, offensive, incoherent, just listen. Nod along. A few “uh huh” s will go a long way.  Maybe you think you know everything about someone, but they might surprise you.

In the end, it’s only a few days. If nothing else fails, focus on those around you who you truly want to spend time with, and ignore the rest.  No family is perfect.  Stick together with your spouse or your significant other, have a plan, and make the best of it!

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