How do you deal with toxic relatives and frenemies? Forget Taylor Swift. George Eliot had the answers all along...

April 21, 2018
How do you deal with toxic relatives and frenemies?  Forget Taylor Swift. George Eliot had the answers all along...
Ravi Roshan
Green Tea with Morrocan MintBad Blood - Taylor Swift

Dear Erica,

I just went to see my cousin, who always manages to say something that makes me feel worse about my hair or my clothes or my job. But I can’t just avoid her completely, she’s family, after all. What can I do?

Unhappy in Utah

Dear Unhappy in Utah,

Your cousin reminds me of Rosamond in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. When the poor and plain Mary Garth makes a self-deprecatory remark about her appearance, her family friend, the very beautiful Rosamond, replies, “Oh no! No one thinks of your appearance, you are so sensible and useful, Mary. Beauty is of very little consequence in reality." Rosamond, then, turns her head to look in the mirror and views her own good looks with a smile.

We’ve all experienced those cutting remarks from a supposed friend or a toxic relative. Whenever I feel like you do, I always remember the words of Mark Twain. “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” Your cousin is simply small-minded, and wants to bring you down to make herself feel better.

The simplest solution is to cut people out of our lives when they make us feel bad about ourselves. Taylor Swift has created an industry bemoaning the "bad blood" between her and her enemies, as feuds break out between her and renegade members of her girl squad. But as you say, your cousin is family. And we can’t cut all the “haters” out of our lives, but must somehow learn to live with them.

A better solution is to consider George Eliot's other heroine, Dorothea Casaubon, and learn from her behaviour in Middlemarch.  When she walks in on the married Rosamond in an embrace with her own admirer, the young politician Will Ladislaw, she does not treat her with disdain or contempt. Although a snide remark(or two or even three) would have been well within her rights, Dorothea displays a kindness and compassion which leaves Rosamond, “so confident of herself and critical of others,” confused and alarmed.

As George Eliot writes, “The presence of a noble nature changes the lights for us: we begin to see things again in their larger, quieter masses.” Remarkably, Dorothea’s goodness brings out goodness in Rosamond and inspires her to behave in a way “which she had not known before.”  Sacrificing her pride, she explains to Dorothea that Will Ladislaw did not wish to embrace her, but was only comforting her, and asserts that he has always loved only Dorothea.

There are many situations where we can’t avoid people who hurt us and belittle us, and in those cases, I think it’s best to avoid bemoaning the “bad blood” as Taylor Swift does in so many of her songs, and rather understand why these toxic relatives and friends behave the way they do. Remember that your cousin is small-minded like Rosamond and you shouldn’t take her spiteful words to heart. And who knows, maybe, like Rosamond, she will learn from you and become a better person. Doubtful, but one can always hope!