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How to deal with a toxic family member

Nicole P.

“You can choose your friends but you sho' can't choose your family.” This quote from “To Kill a Mockingbird” is universally recognized, but it didn’t hit home until recently.

In this article

When I got married, I began to subconsciously distance myself from my party-loving girlfriends. When I changed careers, I learned the importance of spending time with people that champion my endeavors. And in my 30s, I realized that time is too precious to pal around with negative people. So I mustered up the courage to part ways with a few toxic friends. Cutting people out of your life is never easy but you’ll find you are much better off for having done it. But what about when the person bringing you down is blood-related? Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to be close to my brother. My mom says when I’d go to birthday parties, I’d return home with a crumbled cookie I’d saved for him. In high school, I never told on my brother when he snuck beer from my parent's fridge. And when he landed a job after college, I flew out to help him settle into his first apartment. But then things went south. My brother lost his job, turned bitter, and began to take his frustrations out on everyone around him. He’d complain incessantly yet would bite your head off if you tried to offer him advice. He was a constant source of tension within my family and would manipulate me to distilling tidbits of information to my mother so she’d pay off his debt. My brother became, in every essence of the word, toxic.

Still, I tried to maintain our relationship, clinging to the notion that we might one day be close. I justified his actions, thinking, “he’ll be happier when he starts to figure out his life.” But one swanky salary, supportive girlfriend, and upgraded living situation later, he was still the same volatile person. I finally sought help from a therapist who explained the dangers of further engaging in this toxic relationship. I’ve since learned a few things about how to handle a difficult family member. Whenever I feel bad about putting myself first, I resort to these seven techniques.

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Decide your role in the relationship

The first thing my therapist said to me was, “You have to figure out what role you want to play within this relationship dynamic.” She explained that I was stuck in a family triangle as the piece holding my brother and parents together. “This is a tough place to be and is a lot of pressure to put on you,” she noted. After much thought, I decided I didn’t want to be the middleman anymore. If my parents and brother wanted to talk to each other, they had to do it on their own terms.

Set (and stick to) boundaries

To reinforce my newly defined intentions, I realized I had to set boundaries. I told my parents I no longer felt comfortable discussing and analyzing my brother with them. Then, I told my brother if he had anything he wanted to relay to my parents, he should do it directly.

It’s OK to take a time-out from a family member

During one session, my therapist asked, “What do you need right now in this situation?” Without giving it too much thought, I replied, “a break.” I took a step back and concluded that talking to my brother was only causing my stress level to go up. With everything going on in my life, that was the last thing I needed. I decided I needed to pull back from the relationship. I established that if he called, I would answer but I wouldn’t go out of my way to make contact with him. I was sick of him making me feel guilty over my personal achievements (and failing to acknowledge I’d worked my butt off for them). So I decided to block him from my Facebook updates. If he wasn’t able to see photos of my husband and me on vacations and updates about success at work, then he had nothing to hold above my head.

Family drama is inevitable

“Remember no one has the ‘TV family,’” says Susan Trombetti, relationship expert and owner of Exclusive Matchmaking. In deciding to back away from my brother, I was reminded that, for many years, my father didn’t speak to one of his brothers. My mother has had issues with her sisters all of her life and engages in the bare minimum of contact with them. I realized that it doesn’t make me a terrible person if my brother and I don’t become the closest people on Earth, especially if I’ve given it a fair attempt.

Don’t let your boundaries turn into fear

My initial concern with cutting my brother off was that he would get mad and pull away from me indefinitely. But at the end of the day, I reminded myself: 1) If that happened, it wouldn’t entirely be my fault, 2) He’ll likely come back around when he gets his life in order and works on himself. And as I've implemented these changes, I’ve found the latter to be true. My brother will disappear from my life for six months at a time, but then I’ll receive an out-of-the-blue text or email from him. During those six months, I’m happily drama-free; when he comes back around, he’s gentler in his approach, as our relationship has had the space that it needed.

“They are broke and you can’t fix them. You can only operate from your own moral compass."

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Their issues are not your fault

No matter how much my brother has tried to blame me for his shortcomings and our lack of a relationship, I’ve had to remind myself that he is in control of his own life. Trombetti stresses that it’s important to remember that “they are broke and you can’t fix them. You can only operate from your own moral compass and not get caught up in their anger, drama, or toxic behavior.”

Not my circus, not my monkeys

After years of dealing with the back-and-forth aspects of my brother’s negativity, I’ve learned that it’s his drama, not mine. I have since realized that, as a family, we can care about my brother and offer support, but at the end of the day, it’s not healthy for us to absorb the stress associated with his day-to-day issues. “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” my mom once told me. I have since uttered that Polish proverb to myself when I begin to feel my brother’s issues creep into my life. Salvaging a damaged relationship with a member of your family can be a difficult journey. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. The main thing to remember is that taking a time out from a toxic relative, setting boundaries for the relationship, and stepping away from their drama doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s great to be a support system for your family but it’s equally as important that you are taking care of your own needs in the process.

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