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Middle age, African-American woman, 44 years old, looking around a corner

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Sunday marks the 10-year anniversary of my grandmother’s passing. She was a petite, God-fearing woman with a slick mouth, a gang of kids, and a big heart. Most of all, she didn’t tolerate messiness and division within her family. If there was strife brewing between loved ones at 8:00 am, Grams snuffed it out by noon and had those relatives hashing out their issues with one another by 2:00 pm and hugging and making up by dinner time.

While my Grams was certainly one of a kind, the role she played in our family is far from unique. The Black matriarch or mother figure — typically the grandmother, mother, or eldest aunt — often acts as the glue that holds her family together. She is viewed as a source of wisdom and a holder of truth. For this reason, she maintains a position of power within the familial structure. And while it’s unrealistic, unhealthy, and unfair to expect one person to solely bear the burden of keeping an entire family together, many matriarchs play a crucial role in doing so. However, it’s particularly disturbing to witness women who vie for this role in a family — most likely because of the reverence that comes with it — only to turn around and do the exact opposite. Instead of promoting harmony or taking advantage of opportunities to keep conflict to a minimum, they’re often the driving force behind divisive campaigns and messy, meddlesome antics, like the ones below that women shared with me.

“My sister-in-law can’t stand me. She is always talking crazy about me behind my back. Ironically, I wouldn’t know half of the things she was saying about me if her mother — my mother-in-law — wasn’t running back and telling me,” one woman anonymously confessed.

“Shortly after moving into my first home, I was in the process of writing out thank you cards to everyone who attended or purchased gifts for my housewarming. I thanked everyone in person, but I thought a handwritten card would really communicate my gratitude. Before I could place them in the mail, I found out that my aunt was going around asking everyone who bought a gift whether or not I had thanked them. She had apparently forgotten that I thanked her to her face and instead of coming to me about it, she was trying to rally an angry mob of relatives to make the case that I was unappreciative. I was so hurt when I found out about it,” another woman shared.

Respecting your elders is paramount in many Black families, but what happens when said elders are habitual line steppers, boundary stompers, or plain old messy? For years, so many have repeatedly subjected themselves to emotional abuse in the name of respect and family. However, times are changing. Many Black women are boldly setting boundaries in their personal and professional lives in pursuit of peace and positivity — and learning you don’t have to be disrespectful to do so. If you find yourself dealing with messy matriarchs (or patriarchs, for that matter), here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Go To The Source

When you’ve been personally offended by an elder, it can feel intimidating to address that person directly. However, a direct conversation with said offender is crucial if things are going to change. Let the person know how they’ve offended you and how their actions made you feel. You’d be surprised to learn that some people are truly unaware of how their actions impact others.

Be Mindful of Tone and Voice Level

When having conversations about emotional matters, it’s easy to begin speaking in a raised voice or agitated tone without even realizing it. This can easily be interpreted as disrespect, which is not the goal. Also, the last thing you want is grandma calling around telling folks you yelled at her or even worse, that you cussed her.

Be Direct

It’s very easy to want to shrink in the presence of a matriarchal figure. This can result in you beating around the bush and never actually getting your point across. Choose your words wisely. It may be helpful to rehearse the conversation beforehand. A simple, “Hey Auntie, when you did x,y,z it made me feel x,y,z,” should suffice. It’s been said that you teach people how to treat you. Making people aware of what makes you uncomfortable is the first step.

Establish Consequences

For some people, all you have to do is clearly communicate what behaviors are bothering you and they will stop. Others require consequences or those boundaries will continue to be overstepped. Consequences can be as small as ending a phone conversation or leaving the person’s presence when the boundary is violated. An example could be, “Hey mother-in-law, I love you, but if you continue to tell me negative things that your daughter is saying about me, I’ll be forced to end our conversation.”

Know That You Deserve Better

You don’t have to subject yourself to emotional abuse or manipulation from anyone — family or otherwise. While it’s definitely not desirable to break away from loved ones, in some extreme cases, that is all you can do to protect your peace.

Follow Jazmine on Twitter @JazmineDenise and visit her blog, Black Girl Mom

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