ASK MIMI #3: Family Squabbles? To Apologize or Not to Apologize

As most of us prepare for Christmas, we’re thinking about gifts, travel, hosting family, and baking cookies. This year, of course, there is the added fun of COVID and lockdowns in some places. (Ick, ick, ick!)


However, most people will be seeing family, even if in smaller groups. And family gatherings often bring with them the coveted angst of being with family we don’t get along with. “Oh no. I gotta see that guy? Ugh. I can’t stand Uncle Cranky Ass.” Or maybe it’s Missy Stuck-up Sister In-Law, Auntie Judgy Pants, or Deadweight Cousin who only calls when he wants money.


We all have at least one, and that’s why I chose Kara’s question:


Hi Mimi, I lost my dog last month and have struggled with the loss, as he was my first dog and it happened quite quickly.


I was talking to my brother about him, because I know my brother loved him as well, but I lost my temper with my brother after he told me he didn’t want me to mention my dog to him anymore. I wasn’t nice ’cause when I lose my temper I lose it big. Since then I have spoken to my brother but never for long, and neither he nor I have attempted to apologise. My other family members say that I’m in the right, as I’ve always had my brother claiming my dog in a passively aggressive way due to my dog actually being offered to him before I took him home.


My question is should I apologise first?



– Kara, Birmingham, UK



Dear Kara,
This is a great question! How do we mend fences with family members when we don’t feel we’ve done anything wrong?

I’m sure we’ve all been there. I know I have, so I’m going to answer this in two parts, based on my own experiences. Oh, yes. I’ve had my share of squabbles, some that lasted years and where I was TOTALLY right. (And the offending family member did something really messed up. Unforgivable, really.)

So first, I’ll say: No, you should NOT apologize. Or, to phrase it another way, you shouldn’t have to.

Losing your temper is normal when someone in your family, who is supposed to support you and have your back during tough times, stomps on your tears and then spits on them (metaphorically speaking). So, really, fuck them. Not cool. You should give them a piece of your mind.

But…(here comes part two), when it comes to family, being right isn’t always “the right” thing for everyone. Sometimes we have to suck it up and mend fences for the greater good of the family, even when we’ve done nothing wrong.

Yep, I said it. You may have to apologize anyway, simply because you are the bigger person, which means you likely value what’s best for your entire family over his inappropriate response.

Because clearly, without knowing him, your brother sounds like he’s not the bigger person. (A) He still holds a grudge about you getting that dog, and (B) he couldn’t put your feelings first in order to be supportive. (Sorry, bro, but it’s “Sisters before Whiskers!”) And I do get that maybe it’s a painful subject for him, too, but you’re the one who cared for your dog and made it part of your family. So, therefore, your sense of loss is infinitely greater. He should have put your feelings first. Not his.

Still, all this points to the burden of fence-mending lying squarely on your shoulders. (Unless another family member feels like stepping in and tells him to apologize.) So smile, feel proud for acting like an adult with priorities, and then let him know you’d like to apologize for the argument.


However, I will add the following caveats:


  1. When you apologize, call him or pick a time/place “off the field” when it’s just the two of you. Don’t try to address this over Christmas dinner after five glasses of hard punch. (Or it might lead to hard punching! Ha. See what I did there?) Do it before you see him again in a family setting to avoid sinking everyone’s fun-ship.
  2. ONLY address the part YOU could have handled differently. I.e., “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I was upset and should have walked away.” Don’t apologize for anything else, and don’t apologize for his behavior. He can’t feel like he’s allowed to behave poorly and you’ll take the blame. Nope. Besides, maybe he’ll learn something from your mature example.
  3. Make sure he understands your expectations going forward. In families, we make a lot of assumptions around what WE think everyone should do/not do in times of trouble. But because we rarely verbalize those assumptions, until someone’s pissed you off in violation of the rules, sometimes there’s a misalignment they’re simply not aware of.

I recently experienced this with my own family, when my father was not doing well earlier this year. I just assumed that certain family members would step up and show support because that’s what we/I would do for them. Nope. Huge misalignment. And, sadly, letting them know my expectations did not go well. But at least they know where I stand, and now I know what to expect/not expect from them in the future. I don’t have to like it, but at least I know. We just don’t have the same definition of “family first.”

Anyway, making your brother aware of your expectations falls into the same court. He may not like them, and you might not like his response, but at least you’ll both have an understanding of where there’s a misalignment (or alignment).

And, this is just me, but I always prefer to be direct: “Hey, you’re my brother, and just like I will be there for you, I expect you to be there for me. Family first, you know? But if you can’t do that, then I understand, and I will not lean on you for support in the future. Regardless, you need to treat me with respect. Always. If I bring something up at a family gathering, and you cannot be supportive, okay. However, you do not have the right to kick me when I’m down. You got a problem? Okay. Feel free to tell me, but pick the right time.” And then, silently in your head, add: you insensitive asshat.

Then proceed to yell at your parents for not raising him right. (Kidding.)

  1. Finally, and this is a hard one, if the family member is just an asshole, plain and simple, cut ties or reduce contact as much as possible if they repeatedly cause you emotional pain (and you’ve repeatedly failed at talking with them and/or creating boundaries).

I think too many times people allow family members to make them miserable for the sake of keeping the peace. Well, if family is so important, then why don’t they behave with respect or kindness? Why doesn’t the family stand up and lay down the law in your defense? Keeping the peace can’t depend entirely on one person.

Either way, at some point, being the bigger person may mean advocating for yourself and your own peace of mind. It certainly doesn’t mean allowing the people who are supposed to love you (family) to repeatedly treat you like garbage.

I know I’m oversimplifying this, because every family is different and comes with its own complexities, but I believe in giving yourself permission to live your best life. If that means putting your foot down, do it. You deserve to feel loved and supported by those in your life.

So let us all know how it goes, Kara! It doesn’t sound like #5 applies to you, but 1-4 might.

And I’m so sorry about your dog. I love my fur babies almost as much as my human family, so I can only imagine how hard it was to lose him. Wishing you a peaceful and joyous holiday!

With Love,
Mimi

WANT ADVICE?

Each week I’ll pick one question, or a few, from readers and aspiring authors about:

   – sex, relationships, & family

   – the writing process & business (trad. and indie)

   – unicorns, Big Foot, the Chupacabra, & traveling mermen

   – the Universe and random crap

   – all of the things I am not an expert in, but have an opinion on! (That pretty much covers everything above.)

SUBMIT YOUR QUESTIONS HERE: mimi@mimijean.net (Specify if you want to be anonymous or if I can use your first name. Include your hometown or state/country.)

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