How to love really difficult family members

Okay. First up, in case there are any of MY family members reading this, THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. Be reassured, Mum, Dad, brothers, everyone else vaguely or distantly sharing blood. Sit down. Breathe deeply. It's alright. I love you. I'll phone you. Mwah mwah mwah.

Now that's sorted out, we can get on with the post.

I get asked tricky questions every so often, and the most recent was this: "How am I supposed to love my difficult in law family member? I don't even like him/her and I just feel really angry at him/her every time we're together."

Ahhhh, family. The best and worst of inventions. We love so deeply when it's good, and hate so intensely when it's not. Add in-laws to the mix and it's a wonder any of us are functional human beings at all.

But the question is real, and it brings a lot of grief to a lot of people, so I'll do my utmost to answer in the best way I know how.

1. Define what you mean by 'love'.

We often have very specific, very deep, and often unspoken expectations in our minds when it comes to family members. We glean all sorts of ideas from all sorts of places about what a relationship ought to look like - books, movies, TV, our friends' families and our own imaginations, and then we sit back and wait for things to follow our plans. 

What this usually means is that we want certain feelings to come about as a result of our interactions with our family. We expect they will listen to us in this particular way and respond to us in that particular way. And then we expect that we will feel bonded / warm / understood / cherished - whatever. Take your pick. 

When we feel those expected feelings as a result of interacting with the person, we often call it 'love'. For example: my Pop always compliments my appearance and says how beautiful I look, no matter what I wear. As a result, I feel warm and happy and a teensy little bit more beautiful, even though I know he's 94 and needs his glasses to be able to open the fridge. It's easy then to say, "I love my Pop."

That's not to say that getting good feelings from someone isn't love. But it's important to realise that it's only one part of love. A lot of love is deciding to commit to a person, to being there for the relationship, to doing good even when it's hard. In the old, old words, love is patient, love is kind. It forgives, it perseveres, it protects and it does a whole lot of other very active, mindful and disciplined things that most people don't do naturally.

My simplified definition of love is this: wishing and acting for the good of another. 

So to love a difficult family member, we need to be able to wish them well, and act for their benefit. 

But that's all terribly difficult when they annoy the heck out of us and we can't even look at their face without feeling like we want to explode. So what do we do with the highly charged feelings that come our way?

2. Grieve the relationship you expected 

Grief isn't just restricted to death or divorce, or the big events of life where we lose something we had. You can grieve something you never had, but you really, really wanted. Sometimes those griefs can be even bigger, because in grieving them, you have to say, "There is never any chance that this dream of mine will be fulfilled." 

Grief hurts. And it takes time. There are stages of grief that are easy to get stuck in and sometimes it feels like you're never going to get out. Or if you do, you're going to be angry all your life. Elizabeth Kubler Ross's five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Unfortunately a time line of grief doesn't come with the stages. It can take longer than you think.

Grieving well is an art and a discipline. Some people benefit from journalling, others set aside specific time to think their thoughts and feel their feelings. In my own experience, I have found that sitting with the feelings and actually bearing the pain they bring helps them dissolve more quickly. Fear of feeling sad is often stronger than the sad feelings themselves - not always, but often.

3. Look elsewhere for what you needed from the relationship

 Perhaps you expect a warm listening ear from a particular relationship, or a certain amount of time spent with family, or simply a phone call or a polite 'hello'. The things we expect and want from relationships are related to certain needs we have. Maybe the needs are significance, affirmation, friendship, or simply some time off from your kids.

Identify them and write them down as specifically as you possibly can. Then go looking for other ways to get them fulfilled. 

I find that looking for my significance and sense of purpose from God takes a lot of pressure off relationships. I can be free to let other people give me what they give me, without having to worry that I'm not getting all the things I need from them. If it's a more practical need, like babysitting or help around the house, ask around and see who else can provide - perhaps on a swap-type basis.

4. Understand the person, and the family system relationship you're both in

My Nanna was a lovely lady but sometimes she was a bit, um, 'feisty'. It helped a lot to realise that she was brought up as the youngest child in  a very poor family of 9 siblings in the depression. She learned to speak up and out to get what she needed from a very young age. And those early habits don't disappear easily. 

Dig a little into your family member's past, but look also at the broader family they found themselves in. "Family systems theory" says that we learn how to get on with others from the family system we are born into. If it's a highly anxious system, you might find that one family member controls everyone else through panic or misplaced 'concern'. Look at the type of family system your family member comes from, and (if it's different) the type of family system you've come from. What's your role in that system? Does it transfer across, or are there lots of differences?

At this point it's important to look at ways you may be inflaming things, perhaps by the way you react, or with an annoying habit you may have. (Of course, you might not have any, but it's important to be just as vigorous in self-examination as it is to be vigorous in understand the other person too.)

Doing the work of research and analysis of what actually is going on might not make you like the person more, but hopefully it will make them more human and more understandable. At the very least, you'll have more knowledge up your sleeve, and more understanding of what is actually going on - especially if the relationship is really, really toxic and you need to protect yourself.

And, actually, this point is important. Some relationships are toxic, and you do need to keep yourself safe in them. Some people are abusers, in which case you should avoid them entirely, even to the point of breaking off the relationship if it is hurting you badly. (But this is an extreme step, and not one to take lightly.) Other people are just difficult and tricky, but still manipulative and out for what they can get. Understanding their strategies and the patterns is really key to knowing how to proceed.

5. Have a plan

With all this work under your belt, it's time to make a plan for how to proceed in your difficult relationship. Some things to look at might be: putting boundaries around the time you spend together, deciding not to pursue certain conversation topics, if you know they are likely to end up exacerbating things, or refusing to get drawn into old family battles or gossip sessions.

What are the things that make you most uncomfortable or upset in this relationship? Work out three things you can do to reduce the stress. Write them down. 

6. Take baby steps 

It's pretty unlikely that all your relationship difficulties are going to be solved all in one miraculous hug-fest one sunny afternoon after Christmas lunch. More realistically, you're going to be in for a long haul with ups and downs. Some years wiil be better than others. Sometimes you're going to be so angry you'll feel you could burst.

If you can do one small thing from your plan in every interaction, you will be on your way to loving that difficult family member more and more.

If you fail, don't beat yourself up and give in to middle of the night miseries. Have a bit of a thinking session, work out what happened, and figure out ways to make it better next time.  Go back through these steps. Grieve again, work out what you're needing and get it. 

You can't change them. You really can't. All you can do is to actively, and with God's help, work on yourself and your own reactions, understanding why they happen, and what's going on in your own soul.  Yes, that's a slow process, but it does work, and it does make lots and lots of things in life a whole lot better.


What helps you to love difficult family members?