Posted by: counselorcarmella | September 13, 2011

Troublesome Loved Ones

I recently read an article on the PsychCentral website called “Can You Step Back From A Hurtful Family Relationship?”  by Erica Crull.

The article was good, but the comment section was what really got my attention.  Page after page of  readers telling their stories of dealing with   very hurtful family members.  Parents, siblings, grown children, in-laws… The list goes on and on.  I hear these stories in my office all the time, too. What’s  this about?  Its obviously not a rare problem.

Bill Klatte and Kate Thompson, The authors of It’s So Hard to Love You: Staying Sane When Your Loved One Is Manipulative, Needy, Dishonest, or Addicted, call these people TLOs = Troublesome Loved Ones. A TLO is Defined by problematic behaviors that they won’t or don’t change and that upset and frustrate the people who care about them. As a result, it is hard for loved ones to feel good around these people.  They cause stress and drama.  There is always the chance that things will turn ugly. They don’t learn from their mistakes, blame others for their problems, and expect family or friends to  rescue them. They lead chaotic lives.  They aren’t financially,  occupationally,  relationally, or emotionally stable.  TLOs often have  substance abuse or legal problems.  TLOs are not dependable or trustworthy.

Some TLOs have problems that  are not their fault, such as brain damage, troubled childhoods,  mental illness, physical problems, etc.  Whatever the  cause,  the issue is the TLO’s behaviors, not  what caused the behaviors.  It is about how their actions negatively impact other people. Just because they have special challenges doesn’t mean they should be allowed to act however they want. These are factors not excuses.


Knowing how to handle a TLO depends a lot on how   severe their behaviors are or  how frequently they engage in  extreme behaviors. Each person and family has to decide about  limits, boundaries, distance, and cut offs. Many people go to extremes of either trying to save the person from themselves (enmeshment) or severing all ties entirely (emotional cut offs).  Middle ground of loving detachment may be possible. This may mean making  a plan to  spend limited time around  the person,  reducing exposure, and  deciding what kinds of contact is safe or reasonable.

Be as honest as possible with yourself and others about what you  can reasonably expect from this person. What is their motivation level? What is your gutt sense of this person’s ability or willingness to change?  What does your intuition tell you?

Redefine success.  Focus on what goes right in your family or between you and the TLO. Success is when you feel good about how you handled a situation. Sometimes, a zero tolerance policy is necessary. When it isn’t, though, appreciate times when things are “better,” even if they aren’t perfect or as good as you’d like them to be.   

Put Behaviors Into Perspective.  Is this  behavior  a really big deal?  Use a one to ten scale to rank it.  One is  a very minor  action while  ten is  something  really major that is an important health or safety issue or  boundary violation that can’t be condoned.  For behaviors that are ones or twos,  try and think of  the TLO’s behavior as static on the radio or  someone kicking the back of your chair at a movie theater.  Annoying, but not that big a deal. 

Be proactive  about how you will handle certain behaviors your TLO  usually engages in.  Plan for how to handle predictable situations, such as when your TLO  talks down to you, asks for money,  or  threatens to harm self or others.   Will you  put distance between yourself and the TLO by ending the conversation or walking away?  Will you  try and use humor to  defuse the situation?  Will you  simply change the subject or  will you be more assertive and warn the TLO of the action you plan to take if the behavior continues? How do you plan to stand your ground if the TLO doesn’t take you seriously?  Can you stand by “No”  if you say it? Picture yourself engaging in a chosen course of action like a movie. Role play the situation with  a friend or other family member to gain confidence. Understand that it may be difficult the first few times you  put your new plan  in place, but it will get easier.

Hopefully, other family members will  be on the same page with you and support your efforts to set limits.  Maybe an agreement can be reached as a family about how to handle problems with  the TLO.  Many times, this is not possible, though.  Other loved ones may  have very different ideas about what is “fair” or “helpful.”  You may be accused of being cruel or  hateful, or of not loving  the TLO.  This may be hurtful, but you have to do what you think is right and  healthiest for yourself and your household.

Some TLOs are especially toxic or dangerous. They have problems that involve physical or sexual abuse,  domestic violence, exploitation, criminal behaviors, etc).  Some people  won’t get help  and need to be allowed to experience the consequences of their behaviors.  If associating with someone could be dangerous,  it is adviseable to avoid that person or  to limit contact to public places or by phone.  Children should be protected, no matter who’s feelings may get hurt. There may be times when someone outside the family needs to be brought in to help.  This  may be   clergy, the  judicial system, counselors, doctors,  or  other local agencies.


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