Ask Dr. Brinkman

The Rules of Non-Engagement for Dealing with Relatives

RULES OF NON – ENGAGEMENT

When it comes to attending family events, you always have a choice:

1. Go
2. Go and suffer
3. Don’t go

(You’ve already examined these choices in the Pre-Obligation Checklist. See previous posts.)  If you decide to go, and you choose not to suffer, then you have two more choices:

4. Go with a different attitude
5. Go with a different attitude and behavior

To avail yourself of one or both of these two choices, we offer you the Four Rules of Non-Engagement:

1. Decide in Advance
If you wait to make the decision about responding to negative or controlling comments until you’ve begun your visit, events may overtake you. Instead, make a conscious choice before you arrive about the kind of experience you’re going to have when you get there.

But it isn’t enough to make the choice not to have problems with a predictably argumentative relative. You also want to make a conscious choice about what topics to steer clear of, and what you will do if those topics come up. Consider what Carissa told us:

My mother-in-law has strong opinions about everything. Her argumentative nature is so strong that if I responded to the troubling things she said, just for the sake of discussion, I was guaranteed an argument, and more likely an attack, which almost always led to a fight with my husband in the car on the way back home after visiting her! But I now realize that I actually have a say over what ultimately gets discussed, because I can avoid the problematic topics when they come up. If I don’t take the bait, the topic eventually goes away, and usually sooner than later. Now, on the way to her place, before I talk with her, I do a little talking to myself. I tell myself exactly what I’m willing to talk about and what I’m not willing to talk about no matter what, and I stick to it. 

2. Plan for Sore Subjects

Joseane told us:

My husband’s former mother-in-law is a sore subject with my in-laws.  Mention Maggie to either of them and they spin off in anger. Next thing I know, she’s telling the same story for the gazillionth time about how inconsiderate she was, how mean she was, how absolutely awful she was.

For the longest time I felt really bad for her. I used to try and convince her that she should live and let live, that this former problem person in her life is now gone and she should be grateful she doesn’t have to deal with her anymore and let it go, but my efforts never worked and made it worse. Now when she starts talking angrily about Maggie, I just nod my head, wait till she’s done, and then change the subject to anything else! And if she asks me, “What do you think?” I know she isn’t really wanting my opinion, so I say, “Well, you know what’s best for you.” And the funny thing is, when I do that she tells my husband, “I’m crazy about that girl. She is so wise.”

You have other options too. You can speak to their intent instead of getting caught up in the content of what they’re saying. If your relative says, “You should dress up more,” you can say, “Thank you for caring about my appearance.”

If your parent asks you, their adult child, whether you’re brushing your teeth, you can reply, “Thanks for caring about my hygiene.”

By refusing to get caught up in the content of what they’ve said, you have time to breath, gather your wits, and create a cushion of non-engagement around yourself.

 

3. Keep Your Perspective

You are more resourceful with perspective than without it, and you feel better too! One way to keep your perspective is to find entertainment value in difficult behavior.

Ben told us:

“I find it incredibly amusing when people get weird. Sometimes I even play circus music in the back of my mind. It sort of animates their behavior, turns them into a caricature of themselves, and makes them look to me like a cartoon! Then my biggest challenge is not letting them see how hard I’m laughing inside.”

Mina told us:

“I tell myself that it beats being in a war zone, or any other horrible thing I can imagine.”

4. Use Reminders

Sometimes it’s useful to have a reminder system for your intentions. Garth told us:

Whenever we find ourselves obligated to attend some kind of family function, I’ve developed the habit of reminding myself that “all things will pass.” I get a small red stick-on dot that I put on my watch to mark the time we’ve leaving. It’s a perfect stealth reminder that helps me keep my perspective. As we are walking in the door, I look at the red dot and remind myself of the end point. If things start to heat up, I just grin and think, “All things will pass” again. 

To Summarize:

Rules of Non-Engagement

1. Decide in Advance
2. Plan for Sore Subjects
3. Keep Your Perspective
4. Use Reminders

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.