How to Set Boundaries With a Difficult Family Member
It’s tricky but doable, says Nedra Glover Tawwab, a therapist and best-selling author. Here are her strategies for getting started.
Nedra Glover Tawwab knows deep in her bones that you cannot choose the family you are raised in.
Ms. Tawwab, 39, grew up in a bustling home in Detroit where she “experienced it all,” she said, “from substance abuse to neglect in family relationships.” She scores a seven out of 10 on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey, a tool commonly used by health care providers to measure the severity of trauma that a child has faced.
That background led to her career as a licensed clinical social worker focusing on relationships. She is also a best-selling author of the book “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself” and a popular Instagram therapist whose 1.7 million followers devour her pithy nuggets. (A recent example: “The silent treatment isn’t teaching them a lesson; it’s showing you can’t handle conflict.”)
In Ms. Tawwab’s newest book, “Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships,” she offers practical strategies for dealing with toxic family dynamics — and ways to successfully disconnect from a person when you decide to do so.
“As a child, relationships are put on you, but as an adult you get to choose who you want to be in relationships with and how,” Ms. Tawwab said. “Even with family.”
Setting and maintaining boundaries in relationships is difficult, enduring work, especially when it involves a parent, sibling, child or some other family member who has played a significant role in your life for as long as you can remember.
Ms. Tawwab shared some strategies to help start this emotional process.
Decide what a “successful” relationship would look like to you.
You’ll never have a perfect relationship with anyone in your family, Ms. Tawwab said. With a difficult family member, it helps to step back and consider what a “successful” connection means to you.
To begin, identify the issues that are affecting your dynamic with this family member, she said. Then decide what type of relationship you can realistically have, and want to have, with that person, taking those dynamics into account.
For example, perhaps you are struggling in your relationship with your in-laws. “If you come from a close-knit family and your partner has a family that’s a bit more distant, sometimes we try to arrange things, we try to invite them in, and when we get that pushback we’re upset,” Ms. Tawwab said. In that scenario, “success” may mean that you accept the way your in-laws are and stop trying to change the family culture, she said.
Ask yourself: What can I control?
Throughout her new book, Ms. Tawwab emphasizes her belief that you cannot change your family members.
“When the solution to the problem is ‘they need to change,’ the problem will never go away,” she writes. “You can only control your side of the street.”
Ms. Tawwab recommends asking yourself: If this person did not change a single thing, what — if anything — could I do to make the relationship different? Write it all down in a list, she said: “These are the issues in this relationship. These are the parts of those issues that I can change, and these are the parts that are not my stuff.”
In the book, Ms. Tawwab offers the example of “Kelly” (she uses only first names throughout), who has been emotionally “burned” by her brother, time and again. Instead of dwelling on how much she would like to change his behavior, Kelly could jot down coping strategies within her control, like letting his calls go to voice mail so she can return them if and when she is ready, and letting him know that certain topics, like rants about siblings or parents, are off-limits.
Increase your tolerance for difficult conversations.
Changing a dysfunctional relationship will invariably require you to say hard things to a family member. But that is a skill that anyone can develop, Ms. Tawwab said.
Start with a pep talk. Remind yourself that being assertive about your needs and your boundaries is not rude, she said.
Then, when it’s time to address your family member, keep your script simple, Ms. Tawwab said. People often put off difficult conversations because they are searching for the “right” words. It’s OK to say something like “I don’t want you yelling at me anymore,” she offered as an example, adding, “There’s not a more ‘beautiful’ or perfect way to say that.” (Therapy can also help you identify and connect to your needs and learn to express them, she said.)
“We have tricked ourselves into thinking that we’re supposed to always feel comfortable, so even as we’re saying hard things our goal is to say it without the other person feeling upset or mad or wanting a further explanation,” she said. “And that’s not realistic.”
Know that the family member will likely take it personally.
In dysfunctional families, change is almost always seen as a rejection, Ms. Tawwab said. She writes in her book that “boundaries in unhealthy families are a threat to the system of dysfunction.”
Your call for change might be met with disapproval (“You’re wrong for changing; everything was going well until you intervened”), shame (“You’re a terrible person”), or resentment (“I’m upset because you want something different”), she writes. You could also encounter general pushback, which might involve your family member continuing to behave as though you said nothing or pressuring you to change your mind.
Anticipating those responses can help you steel yourself so you are not hurt by your family member’s reaction.
Find a healthy distance.
Ms. Tawwab said she was struck by the number of people she encounters who overlook the strategic power of distance and its importance in preserving certain bonds while still establishing a healthier dynamic.
Distancing yourself from a family member is not the same as ignoring that person, she writes. Distancing might mean putting time and space between you and your relative (for example, declining invitations or staying in a hotel during family holidays). Distancing could also mean engaging less with the person on an emotional level (for example, steering the conversation away from topics you’re not comfortable with or simply excluding that person from certain areas of your life).
If you want to maintain a relationship with a difficult family member because it ultimately feels worth it to you, acceptance — and strategic distancing — can give you some peace, Ms. Tawwab writes, but it won’t be easy.
“You will have to do the work to accept situations, and build patience for what is outside your control,” she writes. “Remember that dealing with certain problematic behaviors is a choice.”