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Difficult Relatives

by Dr Simon Longstaff AO
29 November 2017
Every family has them: certified party poopers who suck the Christmas cheer right out of you. Simon Longstaff asks some questions to help you make it through your next relo bash. This is an extract from his latest book, Everyday Ethics.
Each year I hear stories of people anxiously preparing for family gatherings, often associated with a religious or cultural festival. There is a common pattern to their stories – relatives who are obnoxious, relatives who overstep the mark and try to discipline others’ children, relatives spoiling for a fight over an ancient grievance that everyone else has let go but that defines their sense of identity.
Alcohol can add fuel to the embers of family resentments and tensions, but even the most sober can self-combust in the hothouse of a family gathering. In some cases, the pressure to consume at a particular time and in a particular way is awful. Just one spark can ignite a fireball that scorches at least a few people who are otherwise enjoying their favourite festive fare. For the most part, though, people with ‘difficult’ relatives grit their teeth, smile, hug and hope for the best.
Of course, there are also families for whom seeing relatives is a delight and who come together with effortless pleasure. They might be the lucky few because, as the saying goes, we don’t get to choose our relatives (or their spouses and children) – only our friends.
So what should we do when a relative behaves odiously? Should we make special allowances for them for the sake of blood or family harmony or should we call them to account?

The questions

Families, however they might be constituted, are an essential institution in all societies. Yet they are often made up of individuals you might never choose to associate with if given a choice. How do we manage difficult relatives while being true to our own values and principles?
In particular:

  • Do you and your immediate family derive advantage from being part of your larger, extended family? 
  • Is your relative’s behaviour merely annoying or does it violate your central values and principles?
  • Is it possible to manage your relative’s behaviour without causing a scene? For example, can the person be placed in the company of a family ‘peace maker’ who can prevent or limit the potential damage?
  • Is your relative even aware of the effect he or she is having on others?
  • Is your relative’s behaviour harming others who cannot defend themselves?
  • Will intervention be futile? Is the person unable or unwilling to change?
  • If the person is the spouse of one of your blood relatives, would your blood relative be offended if you called either of them to account? 

Simon Longstaff is the executive director of The Ethics Centre. This is an edited extract from his latest book, Everyday Ethics.

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