Q&A (11): How to deal with tricky family members

Dear Sarah,

My son-in law Mark, displays selfish and immature behaviour (vies for attention, goes off topic, plays video games on his phone, pouts when someone says something he doesn't agree with) at family gatherings which all the other family members clearly see. Mark obviously has some issues to work out, but it grieves me to hear my other children and their partners complain and criticize him behind his back (even though it is warranted at times).

We had a family meeting (without Mark and my daughter Jo) and decided we would try to work more cooperatively as a family to support both of them. It is easy to get together as a group to moan about him (when he isn't around), but it only creates a worse problem when Mark starts to feel isolated by the other family members.

Mark and Jo are seeing a marriage therapist, but it is clear we will need to be patient. In the meantime, all of us feel huge sympathy towards Jo and would love to jump to her defense when we see her doing all the child care and household chores. Should we? I realize this sounds complicated, but maybe you can make some sense of it and offer some general advice that all the family can begin to implement.

Love, Louise*


Dear Louise*,

Thank you for your question. It sounds like this issue with Mark is weighing heavily on your mind and it must be difficult watching your daughter struggling in her relationship with him and the impact he is having on the wider family.

Most families have tricky members but when those tricky members are in-laws it can be even harder somehow because we aren't related to them and didn't choose to have them in our lives ourselves. Your daughter did however choose him and it sounds like that she is trying hard to make her relationship with Mark work even though it isn't easy.

I think it is wonderful how you have rallied the wider family and encouraged them to be more supportive and positive. As you say, criticizing and complaining behind his back isn't going to help resolve the problem - in fact it is likely to make you all feel a lot worse.

So, what can be done? It sounds like you are already on the right track. Here are a few other general ideas for dealing with tricky family members. Hopefully, they might be of help.

1. Get curious. We all have a longing to be accepted, loved and understood. I am sure Mark is no exception. His outward behaviour is making it hard for people to do that but it is worth persevering. Try to spend time getting to know him for who he is (not who you would like him to be). Find out about what makes him tick, his interests, his opinions, his dreams and his experiences.

What was his family life like growing up? Perhaps he struggles with the love and closeness of your big family. Perhaps he feels insecure or unsure around you all. Spend time going deeper with him and show him that you care about him. It won't be easy but as he feels your genuine interest there is a chance that he will be more willing to lose some of his tricky spikes, drop his guard and allow you to see the real him. Perhaps as a family, you could take turns getting to know him on a one-to-one or having him and Jo over to a meal.

2. Look for the good. Criticism and complaints tend to make people run for the prickly coats but genuine praise and encouragement are more likely to open them up. How could you encourage him? What could you praise in the way that Jo and Mark are working at their relationship?

3. Be firm. If there is behaviour that you really can't tolerate - then I would suggest sharing this directly with Mark (and not the other members of the family). Be kind and explain what it is that you are not happy with and make a suggestion for how things could be different. You don't need to be intense - keep it light hearted but be firm. Mark can't mind-read so if there is stuff you don't like him doing - let him know.

4. Model love. Perhaps Mark didn't have great role models growing up of what loving relationships look like, You and your family have a wonderful opportunity to model that love to him. What does it look like to accept people as they are? How can we deal with different views and opinions without being threatened? You are I am sure already showing him so much just by the way that you are. Keep it up and model what it means to love, accept, understand, connect, apologise and forgive.

5. Avoid opinions and advice. As far as you can it is a good idea not to take sides or to offer advice (especially unsolicited) to your daughter. Love her, support her, encourage her and pray for her but don't speak badly of Mark to her. She needs to make her own decisions and to know that you will all be there for her whatever happens. 

I hope that is of some help and I hope that the relationships with Mark improve soon.

With love Sarah x

*Name has been changed
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