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Feasting with Unruly Relatives

The following article was first published on November 17, 2010.

Dear Crucial Skills,

With the holidays quickly approaching, I have found myself caught in a sucker’s choice with my family. My wife and I have made it a tradition to travel to my parents’ home seven hours away for Thanksgiving. This year, my parents informed me that my sister will also stay there. My sister is a drug addict and has been in and out of jail for thirty years. Every time she gets out, she claims to clean up her life and my parents roll out the red carpet to help her. When she returns to her destructive patterns, they turn a blind eye.

For years, this has caused all kinds of problems between my parents and five siblings. I would love to keep my tradition of spending Thanksgiving with my parents, but I don’t feel comfortable staying in the same home with my sister. It’s a rural area so there are no hotels or other arrangements available.

I see only two options: either continue with the tradition and hate the experience (which could also be potentially dangerous), or forgo the tradition and hurt my relationship with my parents. I can’t find a win-win here. Please help.

Signed,
Stuck

Dear Stuck,

If you’ll give me some latitude, I’m going to wax philosophical and share my perspective on the purpose of life. My goal is not to persuade you that my view of life is right, but simply to share one perspective that gives context to my suggestions.

In my view, life is about achieving intimacy with those we’re inseparably connected to. Family is first and foremost in that category.

Now, how is that relevant to my dialogue with you? Because I walk in your shoes. I have dear ones who also struggle with addiction. Some of the most searing pain of my life has been watching them destroy months of progress—only to land once again in jail or on the street. Almost equally painful is watching those who care about them behave in ways that positively enable their self-destruction. It’s agonizing. And my natural reflexes toggle between an overwhelming urge to either take control of the situation or to distance myself from it.

And yet, neither impulse is consistent with my view of the purpose of my life, which is to develop the character to achieve intimacy with imperfect people. When I try to take control or distance myself from my struggling loved ones, I find that my life is the poorer and my character weakens.

When I find myself in your shoes, the question now becomes, how can I remain close in a way that exerts positive influence on those who are the most troubled?

Enough with the philosophy. So what about your situation?

First of all, you made a reference to danger. If by that you mean you might take children into a situation when your sister is using, I would decline and explain this concern to your parents. And when doing so, cleanse yourself of any intention of using this decision as a threat to get them to exclude your sister. Simply explain that you can appreciate their desire to include your sister—and hope it is a good experience for them and her—but that your children give you other considerations. You may even want to make a call on Thanksgiving Day and wish your parents and sister well so they don’t misinterpret the decision.

If you choose to participate in the Thanksgiving tradition, there are a couple of crucial conversations you’ll need to have:

1. Motives. You need to change your motives. This year may not be about peace and harmony in the home. It may be filled with uncertainty and awkwardness, but it might still be meaningful. In fact, it could be more meaningful than many others. Your goal will not be to fix your sister or to correct your parents. It will be to improve your relationships with all of them—to try to achieve greater intimacy. Doing so may increase your positive influence in the future in all their lives.

2. Boundaries. You can’t control your sister or your parents, but you can control yourself. Decide in advance what kinds of situations may play out. Then ask yourself, “If what I really want is to be a positive influence on my sister and my parents, how will I respond?” Don’t wait until the resentment of the moment hits to make this decision. Think it through in advance.

Then discuss these boundary conditions with your parents. Let them know you love them and want to be part of this holiday, and that you have your own view of how to deal with some of the potential challenges. You don’t ask that they agree with you, you just want to explain your intentions so they can understand your motives in case you behave in a way they find jarring.

For example, if your sister uses, you may choose to leave or you may call the police. Before you arrive, discuss these boundaries with your parents and see if you can come to terms on them. If you disagree in important ways, you may elect not to participate. If that is the case, do not announce that decision in a punishing way. Don’t use your decision as a way of provoking your parents to concede to you on these points. Honor their right to disagree. Affirm them. Express your love. Ask if it’s okay if you arrange another visit with them when things are simpler.

If after working through these two conversations you find yourself at the family gathering, be as good as your word. Take small steps to show love to your sister. Expose yourself to the discomfort of possible disappointment or rejection. You may well find, in some future situation, that your improved relationship with her puts you in a position of influence to help her take a steadier step toward sobriety. It may be one step forward and two steps back (it certainly has been with some of those I love).

While these situations are complex and difficult, I can tell you that this Thanksgiving, one of the blessings I will feel most intensely is the intimacy I now have with one who looked the most helpless for the longest time.

I hope I haven’t been too presumptuous. If I’ve misunderstood your situation or imposed my own views inappropriately, please forgive me and don’t let my imperfection drive distance between you and me.

Sincerely,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

21 thoughts on “Feasting with Unruly Relatives”

  1. Thank you! My family needed this article. We also have a family member with an addiction problem and it is so important to my Mom and I to have everyone together. You never know who will be there at the next holiday so it’s important to us that we are together.

  2. My question in reading this is, are you creating your sucker’s choice, Stuck? I know “rural” and understand it well, but wonder if there still wouldn’t be alternative sleeping options available if you really looked at it…Meaning, even if a motel were 20,30,40 minutes away, it would still negate the either or option you had outlined. You would have an option/reason to escape the toxic situation if you needed/wanted to, but would still be proximate enough to spend the time with your family. The way things are presented, the story I create while reading is that you are looking for a way out. If it’s to the point where you truly don’t want to be there, then what is at risk by being open an honest with your parents and outlining that for them?

  3. I have a feeling this will open up an interesting discussion, springing from differences about our purpose(s) in life. We all have relatives who are difficult to deal with or with whom we just cannot get close to or perhaps just do not have much interest in because of time/distance. But the issue of someone who appears seriously flawed adds another dimension.

    I look forward to the discussion.

  4. “Uncle Fester “/”Here Uncle Fester” let me fix you a plate/sounds like from that cough there’ll be no hugging &kissing this Thanksgiving /I can tell you I’ll miss that/ Have you seen your doctor ? I appreciate you getting out of your sick bed to join us for Thansgiving!

  5. I am an RN working in psychiatry with a history of involvement in treating addiction and a bit opf a wild youth of my own. The young lady in question is exhibiting her own history of maladaptive behavior and it has causes. We can hope for and encourage change, but we can not force it. The only control we have is, as Joseph so aptly puts it, setting and enforcing boundaries.

    I agree with Wondering: look again to your heart. If you are motivated mostly by wishing this would all just go away and leave Thanksgiving in some more ideal state, then revisit radical acceptance (http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/radical_acceptance1.html). If you are motivated by an emotionally charged judgment of your sister, then look to why you feel so strongly – after all, it is her life and not yours that is experiencing the direct effects of poor judgment. You are not required to be co-dependent! Or, if there are real direct impacts that need to be protected against, I would join so many opinions above and focus on praCtical solutions.

    At the very least, I’d look very closely at Joseph’s advice to clearly and non-aggressively outline your goals and boundaries – and concerns and love – rather than simply ride the momentum of old habits. In my experience, outcomes are better when calm, assertive honesty is the rule of the day.

    D

  6. Being a grateful member of Al-Anon I can totally agree with Joseph’s sharing on the question. Planning ahead and having the escape route is very helpful. Boundaries are helpful to know when to retreat for some healing. But altimatums are never helpful to me and only divide relationships. Peace, Serenity, and intimacy that is the goal in life! Difficult to achieve and maintain, but Al-Anon has helped me get closer, thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks, Joseph, for the CC approach and for sharing a bit of your personal understanding of/experience with those who battle addiction.

  8. Thank you Joseph for a very thoughtful response. The connection to our deeper purpose and values as a context for responding is so important. It keeps us in integrity.

  9. My heart goes out to you. Please consider it a compliment that your parents expect more from you than they do from your sister. You have a responsibility to protect your family from hurt, so do that first. You also have the right to a girls-gone-wild fre Thanksgiving. I would consider drafting the text of a phone conversation with mom and dad explaining why you will be spending less (or no) time with them this holiday, practicing with your spouse and than phoning them. Maybe it would work if you spend only a few hours, one, day, etc with your family.

  10. Absolutely beautiful response. Thanks for the reminder that to plan ahead for difficult situations so that we can respond with integrity rather than react out of emotion. May you have many blessings for which to be grateful this Thanksgiving! You’ll definitely be on my list!

  11. Thank you for the detailed response. My husband and I are trying hard to find a solution for an issue that has the potential to finally end any contact or communication with the remaining step-father. The family = a recently deceased mother and one angry alcoholic step-father, and my husband, the son/step-son. You speak of a perspective that is close to what we have been trying to maintain, but with a few more foot holds from which to work from. Thank you.

  12. A deeply touching response by Joseph.. as i write this, i find it difficult to stop my flow of tears… we in families where there is addiction are often found swinging from [ i hate you/ i love you] in other words; staying away or trying to control….so i can totally relate to ‘STUCK’ and offer my sincerest sympathies…[ i too have a family member in recovery and we live in the same house] and i agree with joseph that the only worthwhile way through is to start with heart, to establish respect and mutual purpose.. to create influence..be there for your sister and parents but establish clear boundaries to protect yourself… another very sound advice is to write a draft of what you will say to your parents before you call them.. roleplays help prepare for difficult situations. i know that this letter will help many of us, in our recovry group. And for those whose family members are addicted, do look up dr daniel amen’s brain scans and read the disease concept of alcoholism and adiction,[ also bipolar] books by melodie beattie, claudia black are very helpful] reading them will help abate some of the anger you are feeling] joining Alanon or a similar group would help you heal your pain..whenever we dont know how to handle a stituation… let us not seek serenity in suckers choices… let us instead seek more knowledge and skills.. and that is what you did when you wrote to vitalsmarts.. keep up your journey of discovery. God Bless you and your family. i hope to hear from you how it went and the progress you and your family made.

  13. A deeply touching response by Joseph.. as i write this, i find it difficult to stop my flow of tears… we in families where there is addiction are often found swinging from [ i hate you/ i love you] in other words; staying away or trying to control….so i can totally relate to ‘STUCK’ and offer my sincerest sympathies…[ i too have a family member in recovery and we live in the same house] and i agree with joseph that the only worthwhile way through is to start with heart, to establish respect and mutual purpose.. to create influence..be there for your sister and parents but establish clear boundaries to protect yourself… another very sound advice is to write a draft of what you will say to your parents before you call them.. roleplays help prepare for difficult situations. i know that this letter will help many of us, in our recovry group. And for those whose family members are addicted, do look up dr daniel amen’s brain scans and read the disease concept of alcoholism and addiction,[ also bipolar] books by melodie beattie, claudia black are very helpful] reading them will help abate some of the anger you are feeling] joining Alanon or a similar group would help you heal your pain..whenever we dont know how to handle a stituation… let us not seek serenity in suckers choices… let us instead seek more knowledge and skills.. and that is what you did when you wrote to vitalsmarts.. keep up your journey of discovery. God Bless you and your family. i hope to hear from you about how it went and the progress you and your family made.

  14. I don’t know who you are, but this is one of the most powerful articles I have ever read. Thank you for sharing. I was deeply touched … and … challenged. Enjoy your blog so much. Keep up your wonderful work.

  15. I learn so much with each newsletter. This one has encouraged me to look at my motives and also my tendency to want to “fix” things

  16. This newsletter instance by Joseph is absolutely phenomenal piece of writing. Shows the strength and wisdom in authoring as well as the command on the inter-personal relationship handing.

    Loved the structure and content of the first and the last two paragraphs.

    Thanks for the wonderful piece of advice.

  17. As a new step-mother to a difficult teenager, I’m dealing with a different yet parallel situation. Thank you for the wise insights, and for helping me see a way to work through the ‘Helpless/Victim/Villain’ story I’ve been stuck in.

  18. The response to the family member with an addiction problem in the family was excellent. As an Alanon member for one year, I have come to admit I am powerless over another, their addiction and their actions. In this admittance, I have come to believe I need help. I suffer from the affects of others addiction (to alcohol). In that I have sought Alanon. Alanon’s steps and traditions have assisted me in establishing boundaries, reducing resentments, seeking maturity in myself and importantly taking the focus off the addict/alcoholic and putting it on myself and my God. Joseph mirrored these steps and traditions in his response.

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