The Fallible Caregiver Series: When Family Hurts More Than Cancer
Last updated: February 2023
"I’m fuming right now. I’m so mad I just want to cuss up a storm. I’m going to lose my freakin mind."
Those were my wife’s words yesterday. She was on the verge of murder and waterfalls. She’d just had an encounter with a close family member… like a really close one.
I need to choose my words carefully because this person is also very nosey about our business–no, everyone’s business–and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this article is sniffed out, read, and then used as a dagger against us, as just one more little manipulative stab.
Some family just doesn't get it
Freakin family! You love them (somewhere deep in there), but often you just don’t like them, or at least some of them. It’s difficult and painful when you and your spouse are just trying to stay afloat above stage 4 cancer.
You’re simultaneously dealing with family members who either just don’t get it or are in denial about it, who fly through your boundaries, who meddle, who manipulate, who market (or fabricate) their own drama and feelings as the top priority, and are completely unaware of how they’re affecting you.
On top of all that, they’re the most skilled narcissistic ninjas at flipping it all back on you and making you feel guilty because they’re an ass. Welcome to Oz.
Do I sound a tad frustrated?!
I’m sure you can write a similar paragraph about your own well-intentioned dragons. That’s what we call them. They try to mean well (or at least say they do), but they end up doing more harm (usually emotionally) than they do good. With a smile, they sting you with their spiky tails.
Let’s cut to the chase here. What can we do about these dragons in the family? How can we protect ourselves and our spouses, or at least try to minimize the damage to our own sanity? Here are five tail-dogging tips you can use starting today.
Tips for dealing with family
Pro Tip: These five tips will need to be practiced over and over–and over and over–and reinforced the same amount cause dopey dragons at first seem to grow incensed and stronger when first applied.
1. Set boundaries
I know this can sound generic and like overused pablum. But seriously, you gotta do it. These are border lines you are not willing to cross and lines you will not allow others to pass over.
- Don’t call or text me early in the morning.
- Don’t show up at my house unannounced.
- Don’t make plans and throw them on me with a minute's notice and then make me feel like the bad guy when I can’t do it or don’t want to do it.
- Don’t make plans without me (but that includes me)
- Don’t gossip about my other siblings to me looking for sympathy or an ally in your drama.
You get the idea. To go deeper into this topic and learn how to really implement personal boundaries, see the well-known book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
2. Be a gatekeeper
I believe part of my job as a husband (and vice versa) is to help protect my wife from people, places, and things that can hurt her. This means I withhold some information I’ve received that I know will cause her to needlessly stress, go ballistic, or get swallowed by fear.
3. Just say no
Yesterday we pulled into the drive-thru at Taco Bell. Through the speaker box, the young guy said, “Please come inside to order today.” I said, “No,” and left it at that. After some silence, he said, “Okay, what would you like to order today?”
Family can be hard to say no to, especially if that one tiny word can ignite a forest fire of melodramatic, infantile weird-ass passive-aggressive retribution. What? I’m fine, really. But for the sanity of your spouse and you, just say no when you know you should.
4. Speak your mind
Trust me, I understand every situation, and relationship is different, and this is easier said than done. Start out speaking in baby steps. So often, we suppress our actual feelings–feelings that need to come out–for fear of rocking the boat and igniting that forest fire.
We’re in that same boat! I think we’re partly afraid because we see (in our minds) ourselves just exploding and unloading fury, which of course, will probably cause WWIII. The Bible has a tip here, and it’s speaking the truth in love. What if you take a few to calm down, compose, and speak your mind calmly?
5. Cut ties
Rebekah and I have had to do this with a couple of friends and even one family member because they were just too toxic. If you need to cut ties, but a situation just won’t allow it, do the next best thing (for you!) and put distance between the dragon and you.
An excellent little book to help you with understanding and implementing all these types of issues is also by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, called “Safe People: How To Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t.”
Advanced breast cancer is an isolating and lonely disease.