Atticus: “You can choose your friends, but you sho’ can’t choose your family.”
…To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee).

Toxic friends? Time to break away. Toxic co-workers? Steer clear. What about when it’s a toxic family member? Well, they bring a whole new meaning to the term  ‘nuclear family.’ 

They say (bad) apples don’t fall far from the (family) tree, but that doesn’t mean you  have to let their toxins spread from one branch to another. 
It’s never easy when dealing with difficult people, family or not. 
Strategies for dealing with toxic people/family members may include….

1. Get Clarity

Time for a reality check particularly when we’re blinded by optimism. We  may overlook their latest shenanigans because we want to keep the peace  and smooth things over. We find ourselves making excuses for unacceptable  behaviour under the guise of hope. “Things will get better when…” We are  loyal because they’re blood.  

We are often blinded to the reality of long harboured resentments, or possibly  because we, or they are holding a grudge which holds no bearing on the  present and is an issue of the past. 

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

Start to see things as they really are. A helpful way to do this is to make a  list. On one side, write down the good times – where there was support, they  came through for you, and you felt loved. On the other side, write down the  bad times – the times they hurt you, ignored you when you needed help,  actively undermined you, or tried to control you. Look at the frequency and  magnitude.  

Seeing your interactions in black and white can help you determine whether  your relationship deserves to be thrown a life line, or is essentially a dead  duck in the water.

2. Rewrite your part in the family script/drama… 

Decide what your role was/is to be in the relationship. If you’re in a family  melodrama, maybe it’s time to play another part. Rewrite your  role/responses in the family drama. For example “cut” the action scene,  change your assigned role from victim to survivor/thriver. Set limits on  negative, inappropriate behaviours. This is your life’s story…rewrite the script  and ensure ‘the players’ understand boundaries. 

Never allow someone to be your priority
while allowing yourself to be their option. 
…Mark Twain 

3. Set and stick to boundaries.

Test out the new rules of engagement… Toxic families/people are like a bush fire – they need to be contained by  drawing some lines. There are many ways to contain how you interact with  them; we can set limits on the size of the group, duration of contact, location  and more. For instance, with families…visit but stay at a motel, participate in  big events rather than intimate gatherings. Emails/texts, if it’s a ‘rant’ ..delete  the text; long drawn out phone calls – make them short and if it’s abusive or  accusatorial in nature…hang up. Yes, hang up! Nothing delivers a stronger  message! Rather, attend to relationships that you value, foster the positives  in your life.  

Do your best to see your toxic family member’s children or spouse without  having them present if need be. Remember it’s not the innocent parties that  are at fault for an adult/parent behaving badly. Ensure you have backup  support and don’t go it alone. Often a strategy applied by a toxic person is to  ‘divide and conquer.’ Choose a neutral setting.  

The first thing you need to learn is that  
the person who is angry at you for setting boundaries is  
the one with the problem . 
…H. Cloud and Townsend 

4. Surfing the wave. It’s OK to take time out… 

Family dramas usually come in predicable waves – holidays, special family  events. Once you know the pattern, you can plan. Take extra care of  yourself during the height of the storm. You may seek out calmer waters,  find a support through the storm or seek shelter and ‘batten down the  hatches.’ If your sanctuary is under threat, evict the trouble maker.

5. Cutting ties – short term or long term… 

Estrangement is not uncommon, but strangely most people keep it hidden.  It’s drastic, but sometimes it’s the best thing to do. It can be triggered by  true injustices, or sometimes for petty reasons that no one can remember. 

In a study of 900 estranged families the most common reasons for animosity  and separation were… 

1) A sense of entitlement by sons/daughters, most often demanding money.
2) ‘Objectionable relationships’ like opposing a child’s partner, or ‘bad  influences’ etc. 
3) Toxic behaviour ie continual situations of cruelty, anger, or perpetual  disrespect. 
4) Adult kids may cut ties when they feel unaccepted or rejected using the  old standby ‘irreconcilable differences.’ 

Regardless of how or why it is initiated, estrangement drives mixed  emotions.. 
– Feelings of being conflicted 
– Possible sense of relief, but then there may be the feeling of sadness or  grief. 

If someone is mistreating you and tells you 
that they haven’t done anything ‘wrong’  
listen to them. They are telling you 
they are going to continue. 
… Jennifer Deisher 

Some people won’t change, refuse to listen, or just twist your words and throw them  back at you. When this happens, distance is the way to go. After all, when a toxic  person/family member overwhelms your life with their issues, it’s OK to cancel your  subscription. 

Not my circus, not my monkeys 
… Polish saying 

Understand that the person or family member’s drama is theirs alone, their behaviors likewise. Stepping away from the drama doesn’t make you a bad  person. It’s great to be a support system for your family, colleague etc, but it’s  equally important that you are taking care of your own needs in the process, and  being treated with dignity and respect. We are all entitled to that in life.

Additional article for reading… How to Spot and Stop Manipulators Psychology Today 

Taming Toxic People … David Gillespie
Disarming the narcissist … Wendy T. Behary