The Family Frenemy

Posted on September 24, 2010


When you’ve recognized Frenemy behavior from those closest to you and taken proactive steps to address it, there’s little else you can do but separate yourself from parties who refuse to respect the new changes you’ve made.

This is not so easy, however, when the Frenemy is some one to whom you are related.

You can’t just kick dear Granny Jones to the curb or stop speaking to your children, no matter how nasty they may have become now that you’ve changed. (Okay, okay, technically you can. But how would this fare out in the long run?) You may be able to avoid that persnickety aunt at holiday gatherings but it’s a bit harder to do with family members who you see on a regular basis.

So what is one to do when the Frenemy behavior comes from one’s own family?

For many of my clients, negative words and actions from their relatives are the most hurtful and difficult to deal with. In our society, we can easily fathom a jealous or rude friend. But we have an extremely difficult time accepting that people who encouraged us to continuously grow and change as children (think learning to talk and use eating utensils) would not be supportive of our adult growth.

Yet it happens. You’ll do best if you gather some essential tools to deal with this situation gracefully:

1. Find a supportive family member

Someone in your family is beaming because they’ve seen how hard you’ve worked to get your act together. They’re probably standing somewhere quietly in the room, smiling with pride, even as the other members of your family make rude or negative remarks.  You haven’t noticed them because you’ve been too busy paying attention to the naysayers.

Find that person-there is almost always one in every family. AND they are almost always overlooked because they are not the type to be loud, offensive or particularly opinionated. If you’re lucky, you’ll find more than one, right there in your own blood line!

Focus your attention and your energy on these people, especially during family functions. You’ll be surprised at how much support and love these wonderful people will generously give you and you’ll be better able to deal with the others.

2. Make a plan for when the going gets rough

You’re pretty sure your mother is going to tell you all of the negative things she’s noticed about your girlfriend, although you’ve continually asked her to stop doing this. Your dad will probably going to be cold and distant to the new man in your life. Your bully of a brother is going to keep talking about your divorce and conduct an inquisition about how this new relationship could possibly fare any better than your last.

You already know what’s going to happen because it happens all. of. the. time. That’s the nice thing about Frenemy family members. Their behavior is often very predictable. So make a plan for when the going gets rough. How will you respond to the mean comments, the inappropriate questions, the rude behavior? What’s your strategy?

Going in with some type of plan can help reduce your anxiety.

3. Memorize a set of vague, non-offensive comments you can make in response to Family Frenemies*

One of my favorite sayings is from Byron Katie. It goes something like this: It’s so interesting that you made that observation.

Watch how this can work with Family Frenemy behavior:

Jealous sister: Really, Janice? You’re serious about this guy? Already? You just got divorced three years ago. What makes you think you can even make a marriage work? And with all of the layoffs at your work, I mean, how do you even have time to date anyone? You should be working late every night so you don’t get fired!

You, looking genuinely inquisitive: It’s so interesting that you made that observation.

Jealous sister: Well, I mean geez! And look at him! He’s not even that cute. At least Robert was cute. So yeah, he had a gambling problem but at least he was easy on the eyes.

You: It’s interesting that you say that.

Jealous sister: Well, he’s not attractive! Does he even have a job? He’s not going to be like the last guy you dated, is he? Only making 40 grand a year? You’ve got a house now and two kids to support, remember?

You: All of these questions are really interesting.

Jealous sister: What do mean all of these questions are really interesting? Have you even thought about all of this?

You: I think what you’ve said is interesting.

Jealous sister, losing steam because you refuse to add fuel to the fire: Yeah. Well, go think about this okay? Because it would be really embarrassing if this relationship turned out like the last one.

Jealous sister, stomps away. You stand there, looking triumphant.

Isn’t it interesting what happens when you refuse to defend your choices and instead play the part of an observer?

4. Remember your sense of humor

No matter how bad Family Frenemies may be, their bad behavior usually makes for some great, funny anecdotes you can share with others. If you are able to see the humor in the situation (even if it is well after the fact), you haven’t let the Family Frenemy get the best of you. It worked for David Sedaris and it can work for you, too.

*For more great tips on how to diffuse a conversation with a Family Frenemy,  I recommend Suzette Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.

Posted in: Change, Frenemies