Dear Carolyn,

I always end up dreading the Christmas holidays. I’d just like to enjoy my family, particularly the children, but there is this one relative (my mother) who tries to manipulate the situations and create divisive undertones. This person gossips within the family and says negative things about me to the others, regardless of the truth. The “grandmother” likes to be the one everyone likes, but wants most everyone else to dislike each other. She likes to create favorites. For example, she might tell my daughter (her granddaughter) that she is her favorite grandchild, then “bad-mouth” my daughter to the other granddaughter (my sister’s daughter). And then, to boot, she tells my sister’s daughter that she is the favorite granddaughter. I always fear what negative statements are just going to “pop up.” My mother judges everyone about everything. She isn’t interested in my point of view on anything, only hers. Do you have any hints for dealing with this, particularly at Christmas lunch?


Carolyn Answers …

Your situation is not uncommon. Your mother has what I call “toxic person syndrome.” Toxic people defy any logical explanation and seem to relish dealing with confusion and chaos. The toxic person strives in stress and complexity. There is quite a bit written on toxic people, particularly the rather well known book How Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Toxic People, by Dr. Travis Bradberry. You should get this book. As a joke, you could even give it to your mother for Christmas, but I will assure you it will not give her any insight. She is not looking for insight, and she truly loves the problem you described, probably because she thinks it gives her control.

When I went through my divorce, I started thinking and studying the issue of toxic people. If you are both emotionally intelligent and in tune to the topic of toxicity in people, you probably will always have a list of the five most toxic people in your life and take affirmative steps to avoid the toxicity. I identified toxic people who affected my joy and took steps to set boundaries and limit my exposure.

This is not only a personal choice, it is a healthy choice because there are significant health risks associated with constantly dealing with toxic people. The stress created by toxic people has a potentially long-lasting impact on the brain. Reports show that the hippocampus part of the brain is involved in stress, and memory and reasoning can be harmed. If there is long-term stress, such as months, the dendrites of the brain can be destroyed. While I do not purport to understand all of the medical consequences, I’ve read enough to know that toxic people stress is dangerous to you both mentally and physically.

So what are some practical suggestions for dealing with toxic people? The suggestions for dealing with toxic people in business is somewhat different than dealing with toxic people in your family. These practical suggestions are designed for dealing with toxic family members.

First, you have to identify a person as a toxic person to you. This may be hard, particularly if the person is a close blood relative that you almost are required to interact with.

Second, if you must interact with the toxic person, please get plenty of rest and sleep the entire week before the encounter. Also, limit your caffeine the week before, as caffeine can cause the fight or flight syndrome.

Third, set boundaries to avoid one on one interaction. You will have to do some planning to accomplish this that is tailored to the unique family gathering.

Fourth, do not punish or judge yourself for having to employ these rules. That would be self-defeating.

Fifth, your happiness is your responsibility. Take that responsibility seriously. Your joy is from within. Do not let this person limit your joy.

Finally, don’t let your guard down. Don’t forget how bad the toxicity is. Forgive, forgive, forgive, but don’t give the wrongdoer another opportunity to suck you into her toxic web.



Dear Carolyn,

I am a male who never wants to be charged with a domestic violence order. My ex threatens me all the time: “I’ll just go get a domestic violence order against you.” This particularly worries me at the holidays. I went to the bank the other day and I noticed that my ex now works at the branch of the bank where I bank. When I went in to cash a check, I stayed away from her. I am going to change branches to avoid her. We have a child together, so staying away from her is not a total option. Do you have any holiday suggestions to keep me out of harm’s way? I don’t like the threats.


Carolyn Answers …

Unfortunately, I think what you described is more common than warranted. A lot of what I said in the answer to the previous letter applies to your situation. Your ex is a toxic person to you, and you need to follow the same steps as the first answer, except hopefully you will not be in a family gathering together. Your job at setting boundaries should be fairly easy. Do not engage your ex and limit communication to written communication related only to your child and the minimal communication necessary to exchange your child. Take someone reliable with you for the exchange of your child. Set very clear boundaries.

Domestic violence has a very specific definition under Chapter 50B. A recent Court of Appeals case examined a situation similar to yours and looked at the part of the 50B definition that requires the “defendant to place the plaintiff in fear of continued harassment that rises to such a level as to inflict substantial emotional distress.” In Hartford v. Hartford, the parties had a consent order to stay away from each other. The former wife took a job transfer to the bank where the husband banked. The husband went to his bank twice, and then changed banks. The wife had the husband charged with domestic violence. The Court of Appeals did not buy it, so that is good news. The trial court granted the domestic violence order, but the Court of Appeals reversed the order.


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Note that answers are intended to provide general legal information and are not specific legal advice for your situation. The column also uses hypothetical questions. A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need. Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by Ask Carolyn.