What are your tips for not reacting to family members that annoy you?
December 27, 2019 7:06 AM   Subscribe

I was rude to a relatively new family member and don’t want it to happen again. Apologies for the long explanation to follow.

We planned a large family lunch Christmas Eve several weeks ago and everyone had accepted the invitation. Four of the fifteen (an adult child, their fiancé, and two teen grandkids) were traveling over 100 miles and planned to stay with us two nights. Two days before Christmas Eve, the fiancé called to say they wanted to make Christmas night dinner. My spouse politely requested a low-key Christmas day because we would all be tired, the house would be full of food, and, though he didn’t say it, the real reason was that he’d experienced a grand performance by the fiancé last year that he didn’t want to endure again. Our loved one called an hour later to say they would leave Christmas morning then. It felt like blackmail, but we really wanted to see the grandkids and our loved one. So we agreed that they could make the dinner. This made us both somewhat dread the whole thing now, when we had both been happily looking forward to it before that.

All went well during the Christmas Eve feast. Then, hours later, a conversation started that had a political component but was definitely not at the level of Red vs Blue. And here’s where the trouble really started...I blurted out a rude response to the fiancé. This is not an unkind person, and indeed seems to adore the one bringing them into the family. But I, and my spouse, find them very immature for being in their mid-fifties and their constant need to drop names and put on airs gets extremely tiresome. Nonetheless, I was in the wrong.

My spouse continued a ”spirited” debate with the fiancé. But my behavior really hurt our mutual loved one. Yes, it was the holiday but no alcohol was involved. In spite of that, all seemed well and forgotten throughout today. Then, in the afternoon, the fiancé suddenly announced they were leaving to go home. On the porch, as they were departing, we tried to apologize but were assured that it was our loved one that was upset and actually was the one that had asked them to leave.

A very emotional conversation followed in which I apologized to our loved one for my bad behavior, who acknowledges that their fiancé can put people off and is socially awkward, so there’s a huge amount of defensiveness at play.

I most likely won’t ever like this person much, but I do need to find a neutral ground because I really don’t want to hurt our loved one that way again. As it is, I’m afraid something has irreparably changed for the worse. Other family members don’t much care for the fiancé either but see them far less than we do.

TL;DR I blew it and would love to hear your tips for not reacting when a family member consistently triggers you
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Start by not thinking of it as "triggering" – a word borrowed from pop psychology that suggests you have encountered something that takes away your agency over your response. You always have agency.

The classic means are to change the subject or to get up and clear plates or the like. They still work. There's no magic to it.
posted by zadcat at 7:16 AM on December 27, 2019 [27 favorites]

In the interest of mastering your annoyance, here are some guided meditation .mp3s from UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center, ranging from 3 to 20 minutes in length. You would run through them in the days before you have to deal with the fiancé and if you have success, try to summon the same state of mind in the face of frustration.

You can also skip about 23 minutes into the Youtube video in this decade-old FPP for a ~45-minute-long session with more exposition, led by Jon Kabat-Zinn (a medical stress reduction researcher) at Google.

(No need to wait, either, you can try out mindfulness meditation for day-to-day annoyances and stress too!)
posted by XMLicious at 7:23 AM on December 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry your celebration went weird - I know how hard that can be. I find myself sorting through your story and not finding a clear, simple answer. I think you have some rather complicated family dynamics going on, of the kind that are best sorted out in clear communication and/or some counseling.

It's really hard to judge the severity of your rude response. In any case, I doubt that was the one thing that made them want to leave. I suspect you might be taking too much on here by pinning it all on the straw that broke the camel's back, when there's a clear history of strained relationships and indirectness here.

Some thoughts:

You mention a "real reason" for declining their offer based on an interaction last year - was that ever resolved, or did it just fester for a year?

What in fact was the "grand performance" last year? What does that mean?

You declined their invitation to cook, which could have been seen as a generous bid to contribute and create good feeling, and take some stress off of you. There would have been a way to have both a "low key" dinner and allow them to take charge of it. Outright declining probably felt like a rebuff to them.

But it's all about boundaries and you were entitled to make this boundary, if it was very important to you. You get to decide whether that boundary is flexible or not.

It felt like blackmail....So we agreed that they could make the dinner

Hm. So you let them run over your boundary. Well, you declined their offer, and maybe they felt that was unwelcoming. So I can understand that maybe they'd have preferred to head back home where they could make and enjoy their own dinner. Sometimes setting a boundary has real consequences, and this was one of those times. You had the option to accept that decision with grace, if a little sadness. You had already said you didn't want dinner, so they may have been asking themselves what they were sticking around for? Especially with teenagers, who are not great when at loose ends. Sometimes when family is stressing you out, retreating to the safety of your own home is a good choice.

I bet, of all people, your own child is the one who really did want to leave, because they are at the center of this maelstrom carrying everyone else's stress and expectations: parent, partner, kids. That's exhausting.

It sounds like you really don't like the fiance, and they are both aware of it. Have you discussed this with your child? If you have, and they do not see it your way, your only real choice if you want to be a supportive parent is to be as accepting as possible and not indirectly haze this person by chilling them out and dropping unpleasant remarks.

So I'd suggest this is all about some bigger stuff that biting your tongue when someone says something you don't like. It sounds like there's some real relationship repair and communication work called for. You might try some journaling first to work out what is bothering you - about the incident, about the fiance, and about your relationship with your child.

I'm sorry - Christmas tends to expose relationship fault lines. Hope you can get on a better footing with everyone over time. Good luck.
posted by Miko at 7:32 AM on December 27, 2019 [13 favorites]

I have opted to no longer discuss politics with my wider family for this very reason. The most heated discussions we've ever had have been about politics, and if I see a conversation going this way, I'll subtly leave the discussion and do something else, or even overtly state that I don't like to discuss politics in this setting. I'll often say it tongue-in-cheek to lighten the mood, and simply accept the fact that we have different opinions. This is much safer than risking a negative engagement with loved ones.

In situations where I've really been biting my tongue for whatever reason, I usually just walk away. This may seem rude at the time, but much less rude than verbally attacking the other person.
posted by MrWonton at 7:32 AM on December 27, 2019

"Oho, I'm bowing out of this discussion. Come on {spouse}, let's get some cookies!"

Your spouse needs to be on board with this, too. This sounds like it might be your future child-in-law that you're talking about. I've found through experience that the generation above mine has a different definition of "spirited" than I do and if your spouse continued to debate with this person while in the "power" position of parent-in-law/host, I can see why your adult child's feelings were hurt.

Also, maybe they volunteered to make dinner because they or the grandkids didn't want a Christmas Day dinner that consisted of Christmas Eve leftovers? For some people, Christmas Day is the BIG DAY. I don't think that was an unreasonable ask.
posted by kimberussell at 7:54 AM on December 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

The thing that has helped me the most in getting emotional distance from my buttons is daily meditation. I'm much more able to see the thing, have the feelings, but not have to react.
posted by spindrifter at 7:58 AM on December 27, 2019

Yeah, I (rarely) get legit triggered at Xmas because I was raped and abused at Xmas as a child and what you're describing doesn't really fall into that category, which makes your question no less legitimate.

You don't really like this person or their politics. That's okay! You may not want to plan extended visits for a while, and look for other ways to bond with your grandkids like taking them on an overnight trip at a less stressful time of year.

I personally agree with people above that saying no to the dinner, without having insight into the previous year's dramatics, was a very firm boundary set and could have been read as aggressive. (Tired, maybe but I'm not sure how a lunch the day before necessarily results in tired. Food in the fridge...that's prioritizing control over your leftovers over the desires of your family. The dramatics, hard to say (personally, when other people are cooking in my kitchen, I go for a walk.)

However, like Miko said, you get to set that boundary! That's totally acceptable!

However, your family members deciding they would then set off early was their own boundary-to-the-boundary. That's not blackmail...blackmail would have been not coming at all. So this is where you can change things going forward. When you set a boundary, give them the space to set theirs! Then you can both enjoy high-quality shorter visits rather than fraught longer ones.

Second, the political discussion. My spouse and I have a phrase that we use to shut each other up, and it would have been deployed in that situation. This is (for me) what bathroom breaks are for; I frequently end political discussions by going and doing a brief meditation (2 minutes) in the bathroom.

Finally...I think there's a lot of language in your post around two things. One is "tiredness," you say that you would have been too tired for a fancy meal on Xmas and also that you find their behaviour tiresome. I think meditation and exercise can help with that kind of low-level irritation at other people not behaving, because it helps to renew your own energies and also helps to set the line between you-and-the-rest-of-humanity.

The second is an implication that the fiance is posturing and dramatic or name-dropping, and you kind of say that your child backs this up with this socially awkward thing and you use the term immature. I would flip that around a bit...it's possible the fiance is just a jerk you will never get along with, but for brief periods of time, why not see it as someone who is stressed out and trying to bluster through? Kill 'em with kindness and understanding. I know how irritating this is, I have in-laws that sound similar but for the last few years I have taken a radical empathy approach and just sat back and let them bluster and posture and legitimately felt warmly towards them that they have a need to do that. It's just a few hours of your life, you don't have to win the discussion.

I'd wait a bit, apologize directly to the fiance (I couldn't tell if you had), and then reach out for a low-stakes, short brunch-length activity in like, Feb/March.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:24 AM on December 27, 2019 [13 favorites]

I don’t think you have delved deeply enough into what really bothers you here, maybe because it is uncomfortable, and thus things are festering. Your question is somewhat evasive about the dynamic, so I might be seeing in it things that aren’t there, but it reads like the (very common) issue of a new partner and parents rubbing each other the wrong way: new partner is trying hard to be liked and acts defensive and over the top, parents read this as trying too hard and find partner annoying, new partner feels rejected and hurt, parents are further annoyed by the “interloper” in the family making everything different from how it was. At the center of it all, the child who’s brought the new partner into the family feels angry that all the people they love can’t seem to be their best selves and get along.

Are you truly trying hard to be charitable and accepting of the new family members? Even if you think they are a snob or name dropper? You aren’t taking even a little pleasure in rolling your eyes or being passive aggressive? Realize you have a lot of power in this situation. Not the power to reject the person from the family—because that is not your choice (do you feel resentment about that?). But even if new partner rubs you the wrong way, realize that all the things they are doing are to try and impress you and fit in with you. There isn’t a diplomatic way to say “if you really want to impress me, chill the f out and stop acting like a show off.” That comes with time. But making the new partner feel as uncomfortable and rejected as possible is definitely not going to solve the problem.

How often do you give in to the impulse to reject the new partner even in small ways (like immediately saying “no” to their cooking offer, or making conversation contentious)? Do you think you’re doing this as a way to show off your own desire to reject them? Are you sure?
posted by sallybrown at 8:32 AM on December 27, 2019 [16 favorites]

Without knowing more of the details, I could be way off base here, but consider the possibility that them preparing the Christmas Day meal was their own way of dealing with some of the awkwardness by giving themselves something to do, while their decision to go home in the morning was them feeling like an entire day of low-key togetherness was going to be too much face time between Fiance and people who obviously don't like Fiance.

Overall, it feels like you have an unliked-person eating crackers thing going on with this person, where nearly everything they do is probably going to end up annoying you. Your best bet is to reframe your thinking -- it is possible to find people's little foibles like name-dropping endearing rather than annoying. The first step is to start telling yourself and other people that you really like this person. When people ask you about Christmas, "Oh, LovedOne came with Fiance. I was really excited to see them both!" When someone asks you about Fiance "Oh, they're kind of adorkable. A little awkward but they make LovedOne so happy."

Saying these things out loud will literally help you like this person more, because your brain will not want the cognitive dissonance of you saying you like a person you really don't like.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:48 AM on December 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

There are so many questions I have. Have you ever asked fiance or your child what would make Christmas feel like Christmas for the fiance? Every family has weird traditions and when no one asks about yours, that feels really exclusionary. For instance, my family always opened presents Christmas morning, in our pajamas before anything else. My partner's family likes to have breakfast and then open presents. I can't stand this. They traditionally do charcuterie for Xmas Eve, whatever, that's fine, and luckily we all agree that a feast on Christmas for dinner is the way to go.

Are you comparing fiance to a previous spouse of your child? Was the "grand performance" some kind of kitchen drama?

I also feel like maybe you're downplaying whatever thing you said. It's a problem that you didn't apologize in the moment and then only apologized later when it became clear that they weren't going to allow you to rug sweep your behavior. There's also nothing in your post about whether you hurt fiance's feelings, only your child's...

To actually answer your question: I second the idea of some mantras. Maybe something like "I trust LovedOne and LovedOne loves Fiance." I'd also recommend future holidays happen on neutral ground or at their house--that would help with the power dynamics involved.
posted by purple_bird at 9:10 AM on December 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

You were annoyed because you were unhappy with the deal. You have apologized profusely. That's it. Done. If you liked fiance you could probably have heated political discussions and call each other jerkholes and be friends, but that's not going to happen. Instead, remind yourself that this person is awkward, and will be around for a day or 2. Always have a list of conversational topics that are not controversial.
Have you seen Baby Yoda?
Let's sing carols, I have some lyrics printed.
Terry, there's a special gift I want you tro open this evening. (It's a game for the whole family.)

The current political climate makes neutrality nearly impossible. Mentally congratulate yourself for not dumping a bucket of water on fiance's head. Though that might not end well.
posted by theora55 at 9:23 AM on December 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

You decide how you'll react. You're in control of your own reactions and how you frame things. Nobody is forcing you to be annoyed, worried, or tense. If you don't want to react that way to fiance or your relationship with her, then don't. React how you want to instead.

When someone does something you don't like, there's that second when you have to decide how to react. Are you going to react with good humor and lightness, or are you going to escalate the conflict? Sometimes you might want to escalate, and that's fine! Maybe the conflict is genuinely important or the consequence of standing your ground are likely to be good or you just feel like it -- whatever. But regardless, take ownership of that decision and make it consciously, with the possible consequences in mind. Don't just react how you assume you're "supposed" to, think about how you WANT to react and then follow through.

Personally, when I feel myself getting frustrated/tense/worried, I zoom way out and consider, "is this actually a big deal? what are the actual consequences here?" 99% of the time, the consequences are super minor. Worst case scenario is stuff like, you won't get the exact meal you wanted or your Christmas celebration is shorter or bigger than you'd wanted or someone "gets away" with behavior you find irritating. Just not important in the grand scheme. So in those cases, I'm probably going to say, "naw, harmony and having fun and my relationships with my loved ones is more important to me than 'winning' this conflict." And then I just let the thing go and try to enjoy myself.

You can just choose to be in good spirits and not let things get to you. You can choose to let go of the stuff you can't control (what other people do or how things turn out) and be more purposeful about the stuff you can (your reaction and perspective). You can choose to enjoy yourself and have a good time.
posted by rue72 at 9:39 AM on December 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

So many good responses here and I’m still digesting. But just one clarification, this is our first “normal” Christmas since we lost everything in a fire. We’ve replaced our home and wanted to host the family for our first holiday here.

I can understand why this would have a particular flavour for you in that case, but it would be great to remember that for other people, it's still Christmas and they would (perhaps) be attached to their ways of celebrating, etc. You might get away with chalking some of the stress up to the ordeal you've had with the fire, in order to repair things with your child and fiance.

With all warmth and support though...just remember if you say "we're doing this my way [No Xmas dinner! Leftovers!] or the highway," some people are going to take the highway. :)

I didn’t witness the fiancé’s big performance last year but it was a two-hour long meal of hints of a European trip fiancé was taking child and two grandkids on as a Christmas present. We can’t afford this kind of thing and my husband already feels like he’s not doing enough for the family. The name dropping kinda rubs it in for him.

Okay...that's not drama by my family standards. Drama to me would be cooking in your kitchen and calling your cleaning a health code violation or setting things on fire, or insisting on serving allergenic ingredients to people with allergies.

This one is pretty much squarely on you and your husband. Maybe he needs to get more support with whatever is going on with him? I can see how say an Italian-inspired meal inspired by an actual trip to Italy might feel a little raw, but as someone who has family A LOT richer than her...you can either share in their joy, or be a Scrooge about it. I doubt that meal was created /at/ you, you were invited to share in the joy and future planning of your child and grandkids!
posted by warriorqueen at 11:05 AM on December 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

I get that you must have had a hell of a year and that there were many valid reasons to do the big production on Christmas Eve and everybody was on board with that and then your ideal was to chill, in the company of your loved ones. But apparently they wanted to continue to celebrate. And at that point it all started to go wrong. Could they have made the offer to cook earlier, sure. But they were trying to meet you halfway. They tried to respect your wish for a chill time by offering to take on the burden of cooking the next feast. When that didn’t work for you they offered to split the difference, stay the night as planned, spend the next morning with you, presumably share presents, a nice breakfast and then to leave you to chill while they got on with their celebrations at home. Nothing wrong with any of that.

Write this off as people who all had good intentions getting it wrong sometimes. Be nice to them when you next talk or meet. And perhaps try to be a bit more flexible the next time they try to make plans that work for all parties.

It seems the fiancé is here to stay. If spending several days together doesn’t work then don’t make plans to do that.

And find other ways to be connected with your grandchildren. Once I was no longer in the truly annoying teenager phase I enjoyed talking to my grandmother (at the time only remaining grandparent). She was my cheerleader and showed an interest in what I was doing right up to the end of her life. It never was about presents or money but about being non-judgemental, kind encouragement and showing an interest. I miss her to this day.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:50 AM on December 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Everyone has things they want and expect to happen at family gatherings. Even families who don't have difficult dynamics have to do some compromising because obviously not everyone is going to get everything they expect/want. Look at this as a negotiation not an all or nothing demand on anyone's part.

Decide in advance next time, what a couple of your main goals for the holiday are. You can make them broad things like

1) Enjoy pleasent time with XY and Z family member.
2) A couple days to rest and relax.
3) No travel at all, we want a staycation this year.

When plans start to be made, keep your goals in mind but also keep the order of importance in mind and know that you might have to give and take a little on some of those goals. Preparing ahead of time to be flexible and recognizing there is room to negotiate should help. That way when Loved One's Fiance wants to cook you can see how that does or doesn't fit into your goals and possibly make a workable counter offer. Be as upfront as possible about your goals and invite your relatives to be up front too. Of course, there may be some goals you can't say out loud ( "Goal one, not to be forced to eat Aunt Elmira's horrible meat loaf.") But be as upfront as possible. It will prevent confusion and misunderstanding and lots of unnecessarily hurt feelings.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 11:54 AM on December 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

If I were to imagine myself in fiancee's shoes, I'd be feeling hopeless. Last year I tried to treat my inlaws-to-be to a lovely homemade dinner and instead they felt insulted because....it was too fancy? You hated it so much you still make snarky references to it a year later. That much umbrage at a home cooked dinner would make me feel like nothing I did would ever be recieved graciously, honestly. I actually think you're lucky she's still trying to make it work with you.
posted by Ausamor at 5:21 PM on December 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

Write this off as people who all had good intentions getting it wrong sometimes. Be nice to them when you next talk or meet.

I came to say more or less this. The holidays are a fraught time for many people, and if the couple had never experienced this directly, they have no doubt heard stories about family members losing it and snarking at each other. It sounds like you apologized to both of them. Forgive yourself this time around, and be a little extra nice next time you interact with them.

Also, asking to cook a big Christmas dinner at somebody else's place when the hosts have already put on a big Christmas Eve celebration and want to chill out afterwards is a big request. Some might even say it was an imposition. If your relative chose to leave rather than honour your need for relaxation, that would have been on them.

Next time, take care of your own needs and don't let yourself be pushed beyond your limits. That's not good for anyone.
posted by rpfields at 7:39 PM on December 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

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