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Heavy Meddle: How To Deal With A Family Bully?

(kohlmann.sascha/flickr)
(kohlmann.sascha/flickr)
This article is more than 6 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I have a close relation who is, well, mean, often and in public, and primarily to me. At family events where there is alcohol, this person over-imbibes and then becomes loud and denigrating, so I have learned — over the course of 10 years or so — to be polite but keep my distance.

Here is the problem: this individual has a new partner, and the new partner uses family events to shower family members with lavish gifts like jewelry, fine soaps and imported tobacco. I am not comfortable being on the receiving end of these public displays for a couple of reasons. First, accepting the gift requires that I get closer than 10 feet to the offending family member, which frankly scares me. Even a polite thank you is likely to elicit a verbal jab.

Second, I feel like the gift-giving is a bit of a power play: it's hard to justify distance when someone — particularly a new someone who wants to make a good impression — is overflowing with generosity. If I refuse, I look grudging or ungrateful, which may also elicit a jab. I am so apprehensive about the next family event that I have considered staying away — but I like pretty much everyone else. What should I do?

PHOTO

Signed,
Rude to Refuse?

Dear Rude,

I have to be honest: I’m a little confused by this question. I get that you’ve got a close relative who makes a habit of antagonizing you at family gatherings. I get that you keep your distance from him or her. I get that he or she has a new partner who gives out lots of gifts. And I get that you might be expected, as the recipient of such a gift, to spend time in the orbit of this antagonist.

What I don’t get is why this person has singled you out for abuse. Do you have any idea? Have other family members witnessed this cruel behavior? If they have, why haven’t they intervened on your behalf? I ask because you mention being “scared” to be within 10 feet of this person, which sounds pretty dramatic. Also: if his or her new partner is so eager to make a good impression, why would he or she tolerate drunken, abusive behavior? I’m also confused as to why you’re being so vague about gender and about the nature of the relationship. Both seem quite relevant.

I’m not really sure how to answer this question, because I’m missing too much information. But I’ll give it a try.

The ideal scenario would be to speak to this “close relation” directly, in some more neutral setting, without booze around, and to let him or her know that you feel mistreated and want it to stop. I realize this is easier said than done, but oftentimes bullies target people who they sense are conflict-averse. If you feel uncomfortable talking to this person on your own, I wonder if there’s someone else in your family who has witnessed this dynamic and who your antagonist is more deferential towards. It may be that your antagonist is unaware of how upsetting you find his or her behavior, at least consciously. Or perhaps he or she feels you’ve done something to deserve this antagonism. As a rule, it’s better for this stuff to get talked about out in the open — if that’s possible.

I don’t mean to minimize your concern, or your feelings. But it seems awfully self-punishing to allow one inconsiderate jerk to control your life in this way.

On the other hand, it may be that you’re simply not comfortable speaking directly to this person. You may feel that this is going to exacerbate the situation, or that you don’t want to get any more involved with this person than necessary. I certainly get that.

But here’s the thing, Rude: this person already appears to have gotten into your head. Heck, you’re “so apprehensive” about the next family gathering that you’re ready to bail.

One thing to think about is why, exactly, this person disturbs you so much. After all, most families have at least one drunk jerk. And the receipt of a gift isn’t some formal ritual that requires you to stand there for half an hour absorbing verbal abuse. Why can’t you just smile and say thanks and then keep your distance?

Your antagonist sounds like the kind of sad person who gets off on dispensing verbal jabs to relatives. But why are you treating these jabs like roundhouse punches? Why give this not-very-nice person so much power over you?

I don’t mean to minimize your concern, or your feelings. But it seems awfully self-punishing to allow one inconsiderate jerk to control your life in this way.

Good luck,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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