Dear Vicki: I am writing regarding a family problem in the wake of my mother’s passing one year ago. Mary, my mom’s younger sister, was incredibly close to mom and often acted like she resented that mom had three children and a husband to attend to. Mom adored us all, but our family’s relationship with Mary was often quite difficult. Since mom died, even though the three of us are adults with our own children, Mary seems to think she has to play the role of our mom now. She gets very annoyed if we don’t call her or get in touch. She always wants to know what we’re doing and has strong opinions about whatever it is. My sister and I can find a place to connect with her because we’re both artists, but my younger brother Frank feels very frustrated by her constant questioning of his life and the choices he’s made. He’s actually quite angry with her and just recently snapped at me, “We already had a mother; we don’t need another one!” If it helps, Mary lives the artist’s life nearby and doesn’t need work beyond that because she parlayed an excellent investment into a permanent income stream for herself. None of us really enjoy Mary, but she is the only member of my mom’s family left and families should get along, right? Do you have any suggestions for how we can get on better with her? Signed: Pretty Fed Up
Dear Pretty Fed Up: Ah, the joy of family interactions, so often fraught with misunderstanding and tension! Please remember that even though you are all from the same family, that in no way guarantees that getting along will somehow be easier. In truth, the old saying about familiarity breeding contempt often applies to families. The more acquainted we become with a person, the more we know their shortcomings, making it easier to dislike them. But it doesn’t change the issue that Mary is family, and as you have discovered, there is rarely an easy answer regarding how to shift unwanted behaviors. However, we do have our trusty Five Elements model to help make sense of the relationship, so let’s see what we can work out to help you change what is going on with your Aunt Mary.
As a full time artist, Mary likely has a primary Water personality. Creativity and imagination sit in Water, as does a tendency to have poor boundaries. In nature, water conforms to any container offered, but lacking a container, it flows all over the place. Mary clearly has never had good boundaries regarding her relationship with your family. Our culture generally gives priority to marriages and the families they produce, but while your mother was alive, Mary apparently felt her sibling relationship with your mother should be the top priority.