In theory, your engagement and wedding planning period should be a fun time. You get to book a venue, try on dresses, taste different wedding cakes. What's not to love? But wedding planning can be stressful, especially when family members are involved. Some give unsolicited opinions; others might put pressure on you to do things a certain way. It can be hard to know when there is normal wedding planning angst from family members or when someone is really being nasty and toxic. And if it's the latter, what do you do?
For help, we turned to Landis Bejar, a licensed New York State Mental Health Counselor and owner of AisleTalk. She talked us through ways to determine if a family member is toxic, as well as strategies to address the situation. With this advice, you can eliminate much of the negative and move on to focus on your joyful time.
Meet the Expert
Landis Bejar is the founder of AisleTalk, a company that provides therapy and counseling services specifically to brides and their families.
Signs of Toxic Family Members
There is a difference between a family member being annoying or unpleasant and toxic, says Bejar. "A person or a relationship is toxic when he or she cause you serious harm or emotional pain on a regular or recurring basis. It’s usually not that the person is toxic, but rather, the relationship between you is toxic. Or their behavior is. Or both."
If your interactions with a person always leave you feeling worse, rather than better, you might be dealing with a toxic relationship, explains Bejar. "You might notice you have strong negative, emotional reactions to their behavior or conversations with them, that you feel small, belittled, or insignificant," she offers. "You might feel like you are always walking on eggshells or that you feel manipulated." If that person makes you doubt your own reality or your own opinions, that's also not a good sign.
Another key indication that a relationship is toxic is if you've told the person you are uncomfortable with their behavior, and they can't change. "We all have ups and downs with people we are close to, but you know it’s outside of the norm if it’s happened on several occasions and/or that the person is unwilling or incapable of changing their behavior when you’ve tried to express how they make you feel," she says.
If a person is moody (you never know what you are going to get with them), disrespectful of your boundaries, or intent on controlling you and your decisions, those are all warning signs.
How to Respond to Toxic Family Members
Step one is to address the abuse with the person directly. "Reflect on feelings and experiences you have felt as a result of their specific behavior and address it with them," shares Bejar. It might be an easy fix. Some people are clueless about the impact they have on others and pointing things out can solve the problem. "The first step towards healing the relationship can be giving them the benefit of the doubt. If they know how they have hurt you, and if they care, they will apologize and change."
Set Firm Boundaries
Sadly, addressing an issue doesn't always work. "If they minimize your experience, get defensive about their behavior, or manipulate the conversation to change the topic or 'play the victim,' this is a result of (more) toxic behavior," says Bejar. "It is an indicator that you should set firmer boundaries."
Setting boundaries doesn't necessarily mean shutting them out of your life or cutting them off completely. "The main objective is to create distance," she says.
Some ways to create distance include not answering every call or text message; decreasing your time with them; sticking to topics or activities that don't trigger you; only spending time with them with someone else who can serve as a buffer; and blocking them on social media.
Bejar also reminds us that you don't have to engage with a toxic family member if you don't want to. "You don’t have to argue with them when you know it’s not going to lead anywhere," she assures. "You also don’t have to engage if they’re yelling at you or causing you pain. You can say 'I can’t talk to you when you yell like this.'" She recommends having a script ready in your head to use whenever you are close to that family member so you are well prepared and never caught off guard.
When to Cut Ties With a Toxic Family Member
If you've tried the strategies above, and they haven't worked, it might be time to cut a family member off, admits Bejar. "If you are still feeling the same level of stress, anxiety, and emotional dysregulation after speaking with them directly, distancing yourself from them, and setting firmer boundaries, you might need to cut them off completely," she says.
There are different ways to cut ties with someone. One of Bejar's favorite strategies is to write a letter or email to that family member so you can clearly explain the reasons you don't want to be around him or her anymore. "Highlight the specific behaviors that have elicited pain," she says. "Speak to the specific feelings you have experienced as a result."
You can also explain why you need to take a break and say things like, "I need to prioritize my mental health and the positive relationships in my life right now." In the letter include the steps you have taken to improve the situation in the past before moving to this more drastic option. "State that it's difficult for you to come to the decision, but you feel confident it is the only option at this point."
It's important to stick to your decision even if the other person tries to convince you to change your mind. Remember that you've tried to make this relationship work, but now it's time to do what is best for you and not for someone else.
Where to Get Support When Dealing With a Toxic Family Member
Dealing with a toxic family member can be emotionally and physically draining, and it's important to find ways to get support during this time. Don't forget you are also planning a wedding on top of dealing with this family member.
Bejar recommends leaning on family members and friends who get you. "Surround yourself with people who know how hard this was for you and will provide supportive and unconditional love and understanding.
If you are overwhelmed it is never a bad idea to reach out to a professional for help. "I am a supporter of reaching out to a professional when you feel any kind of distress, not just hitting rock bottom," offers Bejar. "Through your therapeutic work, you might gain insights and skills that can help you discern whether it's a toxic relationship or just one that would benefit from some better communication or other relationship skills."