It’s a common notion that blood is thicker than water. Family is family. You’re stuck with them forever. But are you?
A lot of people — though they’re perfectly bright and independent — tend to accept this idea without protest, even though they’ve been plagued with family stress for years on end. I accepted it too… until I realized I didn’t need to.
I spent years tiptoeing around my relatives even though they were initiating conflict. And for what? It actually became something I couldn’t stop thinking about on a day-to-day basis because it fascinated me so greatly. Why must I band together with a predetermined group of people simply because we share genes? Why should I stick around in relationships that aren’t mutually beneficial because “blood is thicker than water”?
After many years of wrestling with my conscience, I realized the answer is simple: I shouldn’t.
It was an epiphany that changed the way I view life and relationships as a whole. It gave me a new sense of ownership over my existence to continue telling myself: It’s my time. I’ll choose who gets it.
There were many types of toxic behavior I used to put up with. Whether it was a passive-aggressive comment or direct confrontation, it weighed just as much on my mental health each time. Some iterations are:
- I’m “too busy,” and I really need to make more time for them.
- I don’t call enough, but they aren’t calling me either.
- I’m “too this” or “too that” in general.
- When I’m truly myself, there’s a problem.
- Someone asks me questions and isn’t happy with my honest answers.
These examples might make more sense with a bit of background:
As I grew up, my ideology inched farther and farther away from that of most of my family. Does that mean I couldn’t be close with them anymore? Absolutely not, but each time they brought it up, the imaginary needle in my head leaned closer to “yep.” They would ask for my opinion on political or religious issues, then make snide comments about my perspective. They would chalk up any disagreement to me being young and immature, even though I never initiated the exchanges. Also, I’m “too black and white” and “very opinionated for my age.”
On top of that, I’m your textbook introverted busy bee. I become consumed by my work and personal passions, and I keep my circle small. Sometimes I forget to return trivial text messages, and I decline invitations to social gatherings if I have something more pressing going on. It’s one of the ways I keep my mentality stable — and it has also yielded some passive-aggressive responses.
Like I said, I tolerated this behavior for years, even though I thought to myself I shouldn’t. It just took a little outside perspective to give me the confidence to put it into action. I was talking to my boyfriend when he mentioned a member of his family he simply doesn’t respect, and then I responded with what I thought was a colorful statement, to see how he’d react: “I just don’t see why we’re expected to be around those people.” I paid close attention to his facial expression, waiting for him to say, “Well, they’re family.” But he didn’t. He said, “Right, just because they’re family doesn’t mean I have to put up with it.”
For once, I made an argument I assumed was controversial and he supported me without a thought. From then on, I decided to change my thinking, and do a few things:
1. Set Clear Boundaries
Though I’ve heard it hundreds of times, I finally realized communication really is key. It sounds cliché, but I learned it can solve problems early. I decided if I want to keep someone in my life but I also want change to happen, I need to be honest and clear. I should tell them what they’re doing, how it’s affecting me, and what I’d like to happen moving forward. If they reject what I’m saying, my answer is easy: I don’t need them in my life.
2. Use the “Friend” Test
During the wrestling-with-my-conscience years, I came to a sudden epiphany about family conflict and how to react. I asked myself, “Would I be friends with this person if we weren’t related?” Of course, the answer was no at times, and it gave me something to think about. If I were to have the same problems with a coworker or a friend of a friend, would I go out of my way to spend time with them? Nope. Time to move along.
3. Remember That I Come First
My biggest takeaway from this life lesson was that my mental health is more important than anything. Yes, even my family members’ feelings. It’s more important than responding to a passive-aggressive text message. It’s more important than attending a gathering with relatives who make me uncomfortable. At first, I thought that asking someone to change their ways or cutting them out altogether sounds like a prime source of anxiety, but then I realized I’d be putting myself on a path to cut the stress off at the source. It was worth it — big time.