Zero sum games amongst relatives

It is simultaneously true that everyone in the world is a better person than your relatives, and everybody is somebody’s relative.

I used to think that my family was uniquely bad. However, talking to others has convinced me that we are, in fact, much better off. I have a friend who wishes that her relatives don’t come to her wedding. Another who hasn’t talked to any of his relatives for seven years, although he lives within driving distance from them. A third is scared of marrying his girlfriend of seven years because he knows that his relatives will judge him for marrying someone of a different nationality. Disliking relatives seems like a pretty universal phenomenon.

There are two lenses through which to look at this phenomenon: competition and expectation.


Relatives compete with each other for status, wealth, academic achievement, whatever. You want to be the richest, most respected member of the family, and you want your kids to have the same kind of reputation. The competition for status, unfortunately, works by either pulling yourself up, or pulling others down. If you have a relative who is much richer than you, you can attack their status by detailing their drinking habits, the one time you asked them for money and they refused, etc. The competition for status is a negative sum game: no one wins, and everyone hates everybody.


Relatives are expected to do certain things for one another. You’re expected to look after ailing parents, be welcoming hosts for those visiting from out of town, give nice gifts to everyone, etc. Of course, whenever you have high expectations, the easy option is to default from those expectations. Don’t want to look after your parents? Push it on your siblings. Don’t want to give your relatives a gift? Recall that one time when you needed their help and they didn’t respond. Don’t want to fulfill your obligation to an uncle? Note that your brother is not fulfilling his obligation either, and you don’t want to be the only idiot in town.

Is there any hope?

Is there any way to actually make relative ties less toxic? I can only think of a few, relatively unhelpful points:

  • Be more likable, so that relatives will feel bad that they’re pushing you down
  • If you’re not likable, be okay with not being liked. It’s not your fault you were born obnoxious and ugly.
  • Set expectations early on, so that people can’t abuse their privilege over you. This is not always optimal: although you may save yourself from being exploited, you will also never get that close to some otherwise good relatives. Maybe be “bad” to the bad ones?
  • Every person has a good side, which comes out when you bring up a few topics, and a bad side, which comes out when you touch others. Want to have a nice conversation with your aunt? Bring up the incident in which you had a great laugh together after a mishap, instead of sitting in silence and waiting for her confrontational side to break out naturally.
  • Read this much superior article on dealing with relatives.

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Graduate student

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