For some, the holidays are eagerly anticipated and for others, they are dreaded. Spending time with certain family members is a very common reason some people do not enjoy the holiday season. Whether you are single, married, or partnered, if family represents a problem for you over the holidays, then the following article is for you. Inappropriate behavior may include you feeling hurt or disrespected and can occur in a variety of ways. Sometimes family is very direct with their difficult behaviors and sometimes passive-aggressive. Before looking at them, though, I urge you to look at your possible contribution to the problem. You want to sweep your side of the street first before asking others to sweep up theirs. With that said, I have two main suggestions for people anxious about upcoming encounters with certain people in their family.
Have a Plan
If you are single and feel certain people in your family are inappropriate, it’s a little easier to plan. Spend some time thinking about what you will tolerate and what you won’t. What behaviors harm you or will leave you sitting with further resentment? When you are clear what behaviors are not healthy for you to put up with, it’ll be much easier for you to set necessary boundaries. For people who are married or in a relationship, it’s important you both be unified in your plan. If you have trouble with your own family, this will most likely be easy. But, if you feel offended by your partner’s or spouse’s family, this is a bit more delicate. When you go to your significant other, try and communicate what you experience and what you feel as a result of his/her family’s behavior – NOT what you don’t like about them. In other words, be careful not to criticize his/her family because you may get defense instead of the support you are seeking. It doesn’t matter how “right” you are. It’s just common that people will defend their family when criticized. Try and not put your partner in the position of feeling like they have to choose between you and their family. If you tell your partner how you feel about his/her family’s behavior and ask for support surrounding that, you will have a good chance of getting supported and backed. If you do a good job expressing your feelings and needs and are not supported by your partner, this is a red flag indicating possible relationship compatibility issues and problems that are likely to continue in the future.
Be Prepared to Set Boundaries
So, after you have a plan, be ready to set limits and draw boundaries. This is basically you saying “no” to behavior that hurt you and are not healthy for you. It’s a way for you to have your voice and needs heard and not stay passive in a situation that feels bad. Setting boundaries with people who are inappropriate is often challenging because it’s important for you to stay assertive, but not aggressive. If you are aggressive, there will most likely be conflict and nothing will get resolved. The challenge lies in being vulnerable while being assertive. This involves letting the individual know you feel hurt or offended by their comments or behavior and asking them if they will refrain. If you tell them their behavior is “rude”, “wrong” or “disrespectful”, you will again most likely be met with defensiveness. It’s easy to argue with an accusation, but harder to argue with someone’s experience surrounding how they feel. So, the boundary setting involves you speaking up to the person you are upset with, letting them know how you are effected and requesting a change. If this is your partner or spouse’s family and your spouse/partner agrees, it may be helpful if they speak to their family since they have the primary relationship with them. This can be discussed while making your “plan” as outlined above.
If you do the above and are met with further disrespect or a lack of concern, boundaries may then involve distancing yourself from your family emotionally and/or physically. This is always my last suggestion, but if family members continue to treat you in a way that is hurtful and refuse to change, it’s important to take care of yourself. Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to take care of yourself is to keep yourself out of the line of fire. This is a very difficult step and I see many people in counseling who are taking careful and deliberate steps to protect themselves and distance themselves emotionally from certain family members. With some family members, the above suggestions work well and there is a relief for the person who took the steps to take care of themselves. With that comes more ease when spending time with family. If you are having trouble with someone in your or your partner’s/spouse’s family, I hope the above steps help! Either way, you will be taking active steps to have your voice heard and your experience known and this is an important part of empowerment and self care.
Sylvia Flanagan, MFT is a San Diego therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. For more information about San Diego Therapy, feel free to call or email her.
Office hours are Monday through Thursday 9:00 to 6:00.