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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Aunt Is A Passive-Aggressive Bully

Should I put aside her cruelty and make nice? Or, should I skip family gatherings altogether? (flickr)
Should I put aside her cruelty and make nice? Or, should I skip family gatherings altogether? (flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

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



Dear Steve,

My mother’s sister is a passive-agressive bully who I believe has been pitting our two families against each other for 40 years now, out of some kind of old-standing rivalry with my mother that dates back to childhood. For a decade now everyone in our family has been walking on eggshells to keep the peace, including giving in to my aunt’s near every demand around holiday time.

My grandfather is deceased and my grandmother is ailing, but as of this year my aunt and some members of her family are once again taking a confrontational approach, this time with me, accusing me of a whole laundry list of things that are either distorted or just completely fabricated, and trying to ruin my reputation with other extended family members and even my own grandmother by spreading malicious gossip.

Since this has been going on my entire adult life I feel that it’s time to just cut this toxicity out of my life. But my mother and older sister tell me I should stick it out for the sake of my grandmother who is ailing. Confronting them about it does no good, because they never take any responsibility for any of this. I have already been down that road.


Should I Stay or Go



Your aunt sounds really scary to me. Bullies are bad enough, but throw in the passive-aggressive part and I’m like: count me out!

But for you, this is all much more complicated. On the one hand, you’re sick and tired of this aunt’s shenanigans, which now involve seeking to have you ostracized. You don’t specify this in your letter, but I’m assuming the holidays will require a family gathering, or gatherings, and that these will bring you into contact with your aunt and thus cause you to be miserable. So you’d rather opt out. This seems like a completely psychologically healthy response to what you’re portraying as a concerted campaign of provocation and acrimony.

And yet …

Your mother and older sister feel you should put aside this aunt’s cruelty and make nice for the sake of your grandmother, who is ailing and doesn’t have many holidays left.

This, too, feels like a compelling argument, because you love the people in question and want to be able to put aside your rage and find the grace to endure your aunt and her minions.

Alas, there’s no “right” answer here. There’s just the decision you make and managing your own feelings around that decision.

My hunch, based on your letter, is that your aunt has focused on you precisely because you challenge her power and status in the family. If that’s the case, it’s worth thinking about why you feel compelled to push back against her bullying? Why get into a power struggle with a power hungry person? Why give her a foil? Grappling with these questions might yield some insights that are useful to you.

Unfortunately, they won’t solve the immediate problem of whether to engage in holiday traditions that will bring you into contact with your aunt. For that, you need to consult your gut. the end, you’ll do best by loving and connecting with those family members who can return that love, and ignoring the others who -- for whatever reason -- cannot.

It sounds to me like you’re in no state right now to ignore your aunt’s behavior for the sake of decorum, especially as she ramps up her assault. She’s officially under your skin. Being in the same room with her is not going to fill you with the holiday spirit.

So if you don’t want to have to fake it, don’t. Tell your mom and sister that you’re sorry but you’ve had enough, that you can’t put aside your own psychological health for the sake of preserving some fragile collective myth that you’re all one big happy family. That is so clearly not the case.

There may be some logistical limits that you haven’t mentioned, but if possible I’d try to find other opportunities to visit with your grandmother, ones that don’t require interacting with Aunt Toxic.

I’m not trying to suggest that any of this will be easy. But in the end, you’ll do best by loving and connecting with those family members who can return that love, and ignoring the others who — for whatever reason — cannot.

Good luck,


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.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is also the co-host of WBUR's advice podcast, Dear Sugar Radio.

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