"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
July 02, 2015
Living Near a Difficult Family
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Editor's note: Cyndie Swindlehurst is unavailable this week. She has asked that we rerun this column from September 26, 2013:


We have recently returned to my husband's home town to be near his family. I am very uncomfortable interacting with his family because of their negative relationship patterns. Nothing illegal, immoral or abusive is happening, but unkindness, snobbery, gossip and manipulation are all part of the family package. As an in-law, I have little impact on the family group.

I have tried the “just be nice policy,” but it is wearing thin.

Any suggestions?


Why, exactly, did you want to live near these people? It seems like living far away from them would have been the better choice. Unkindness, snobbery, gossip and manipulation are all, in fact, immoral and abusive.

If you are going to live among them without getting dragged into their baloney, you are going to need a serious backbone. You cannot just be “nice.” You need to be good! You need to have a plan for dealing with your in-laws in a constructive way, and you need to stick to it. Getting tired of playing nice is not an option.

Here are seven ideas you could incorporate into your plan.

First, do not expect them to ever change. (This is always the first rule for dealing with difficult people.) Don’t waste your time comparing them to other families or cataloging their faults or wishing they behaved better. It will do no good. They will not change just because you think they should.

Second, actively build a positive relationship with the members of the family. Don’t shut yourself out of the group because you are uncomfortable. Instead, find positive ways to interact with them and get to know them.

Since their group interactions are particularly hard for you, you might try talking to people individually. Volunteer to help someone with something (dishes!) and talk while you work.

Most people’s faults do not seem as severe once you know the person and can appreciate both where he is coming from and his good qualities. And everyone likes to be liked. So find something to like about everyone.

Third, be aware of what sets them off. Then act accordingly. If you know the family gossips about how much money people have, keep your financial information private. If you know they are food snobs, don’t say you ate McDonald’s for lunch. If you turned down their invitation to dinner, don’t bring up the movie you saw instead.

This is not deceitful or cowardly. This is realistic. If you do not want them to discuss you, don’t give them anything to discuss. If you don’t want to hear a rant about a particular topic, don’t bring it up.

Fourth, make your own friends! Have your own life! If you fill your life with supportive people and activities you enjoy, your in-laws will recede in comparison. You will not mind them so much because they will not be your primary social circle or support system.

So do your visiting teaching, serve in your calling, go to work, and volunteer at the school. Read, sew, jog, or just sit at home and enjoy the solitude — whatever makes you feel satisfied.

If your neighbors and ward know that you have a lot of family in town, they might assume that you are always doing family activities, and they might not invite you to do things. So take the initiative and invite them to do things with you.

Fifth, control your schedule. You do not have to attend every family event. You should fit the extended family into your schedule, not the other way around. Your life does not have to revolve around a brimming calendar of family events. You need to decide how much family togetherness you can handle.

Plan to attend truly important events (like Great-Grandma’s 100th Birthday Party), but decide which of the non-essential activities you will and will not attend. You can stay home even if you don’t have other plans!

If you and your husband cannot agree on which events to attend, take turns deciding. Then, stick to your guns. Make yourselves impervious to pleading and guilt trips.

Sixth, always be good. Do not participate in bad behavior.

Believe it or not, you probably do have an effect on the family group. If you are consistently kind, consistently unwilling to be a snob, consistently unwilling to gossip, it will have some effect over the long run.

So plan in advance how you will respond to unkindness, snobbery, and gossip. Whether you respond with humor, silence, or a simple observation of another point of view depends on the situation, the people involved, and how strong your relationship with them is.

You might decide to look uncomfortable, to disagree, to change the subject, or to excuse yourself. The better your relationship with them is, the more options you will have, and the more insight you will have on what to do.

Do not resort to insults, snappy retorts, or lectures. Those are rude.

It is particularly important to defend people who are not there to defend themselves. “I like Melissa,” you could say simply. “She is my friend.” Or, “I think that’s unfair. Charlene has been on bed rest for two months — of course her kitchen is messy.” Or, “I think you are completely wrong about Tasha. I have never once heard her complain about her husband, and we spend a lot of time together.” Whatever you say, say it simply. Don’t be huffy!

Seventh, help your children recognize the bad behavior for what it is. Some children will quickly recognize bad behavior as bad behavior. But others will assume that if Aunt Delia does something, it must be okay, because an aunt, by definition, is a reliable example of acceptable adult behavior. You need to teach your children that bad behavior is bad no matter who does it.

Imagine, for example, that your daughter has adopted some of Delia’s undesirable vocabulary. When you correct her, she responds, “Aunt Delia says it all the time!” You must teach her that the vocabulary is wrong. You might respond with something like, “Yes. That’s true. Aunt Delia says that. But it’s unkind. And you should not say it.” You should be serious, and not use any derisive tone or expression about Delia.

Your daughter may respond with, “Well, I like Aunt Delia! She’s more fun than you, and she has a lot of friends, and I don’t think it’s nice of you to criticize her!” You will remain calm, and perhaps raise your eyebrows. “Aunt Delia does have many friends,” you will say, “but calling a girl Wildebeest behind her back is never a kind thing to say, no matter who you are. And you shouldn’t say it.”

Finally, a thought. It is possible that this family’s behavior is not as bad as it seems. Perhaps it is simply different from the behavior you grew up with.

For example, if you come from a family where interrupting is not tolerated, it would be hard for you to accept in-laws who interrupt each other all the time. To them, interrupting could be a way of showing they are interested in what you are saying, and want to discuss it with you.

Similarly, you might perceive repeated urging to attend a party as manipulation, but your in-laws might think they are simply showing you that they like you and will miss you if you can’t attend. If you can identify and understand any such patterns in your in-laws’ communication, you will have an easier time relating to them.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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