Maintaining your sanity in difficult family relationships

God created us free with our own wills but He did not give us the control to choose our family. Most of us have a family member with whom we have a difficult relationship. Dealing with people outside our family tends to be easier, and when things go badly, we can more easily take space, communicate, or i need be, stop being friends with them.

What to do when family feels like foe? 

There is something very important to realize: you have the right to control your life! Guilt can very easily creep in, especially if our family tries to make us feel guilty for our feelings or boundaries for example, this cripples any attempt to exert more control over our lives. Sometimes unhealthy habits in family such as being manipulated which coincide or follow the “guilting.” It can be especially challenging to accurately assess ourselves when we’re with our family, surrounded by our family, or in a high-emotion family situation. When we are away from the issues, perhaps you’ve had that “Eureka!” moment when you realized that they were trying to guilt you or manipulate your decisions because you were being…you! Or not responding as they’d hoped. If you have, the next question becomes “How do I handle this without destroying my relationship?”

“How do I handle this without destroying my relationship(s)?” 

It is difficult to modify relationships with the people we have known since we existed. Due to the closeness of these bonds, family can at times feel entitled to knowing things about your life or to having a role in it. When we try to change these dynamics it throws a monkey wrench into the relationship and it feels extremely uncomfortable, like a loose tooth. First: do not make the mistake of interpreting that feeling as an indicator that you are doing something wrong! It’s uncomfortable because you are trying out a new way of being with your family, and you’re not quite sure how to do that yet. Second: you are not destroying your relationships; you’re just making them something that you can actually live with without storing up resentment like barnacles on a boat. If things unravel for a time because you are asserting your right to live healthily, even if it is a life separate from family, their feelings are not your responsibility. They need to deal with their emotions!

Reality Check

“So then what you’re saying, Dr Kovacs, is that if someone—anyone—poses a problem in a relationship, I am justified in cutting them out of my life?”

Sorry—not so fast! All of these convictions to live healthier in relationships presupposes a work of discernment. This discernment must end concluding that you have done what you reasonably could to communicate, that you have taken responsibility for any way in which you might be contributing the unhealthy dynamic(s), and worked at steering the relationship to clearer waters. Once this things have been done or are being worked on—no small feat—if the other party has not listened and responded reasonably, and if the problematic dynamic continues, then you might need to think about taking some more meaningful steps toward keeping yourself sane.

Practically, then, how do you change problematic relationships?

1) Roles – We all play roles in our families. Some are the peacemakers, always trying to smooth things over and help everyone get along. Others are scapegoats, taking the blame for the strife in the family. Whatever your role is, try to identify it (therapy can be very useful for doing this), see if it is healthy or not, and then try to avoid that role if it is contributing to the problem.

2) Establish better boundaries – Once you identify the role that you have been in, boundaries can make you feel safer in circumstances you feel you have little control over. Where do you feel your family intrudes the most? Identify the people/situations that you try to avoid the most. These are great clues to the areas where you likely need better boundaries. For example, if you are the “peacemaker” but always feel you are being pulled into all the family drama, a healthier boundary might be to express your concern that “taking sides” might have detrimental effects to your relationships with the parties involved, and refusing to be the family arbiter.

3) Rise above the smoke – You understand your family and have insight into your family that no one else has! If you had an alcoholic or abusive parent, or if there was simply an unhealthy dynamic in some way, you can use this knowledge to understand the problematic family member(s), making it easier to see what he or she is doing and why, and how to disentangle yourself from it. Empathy can also make the load lighter, increasing your ability to deal with the issues, if even just by a little bit.

4) Communicate what you’re feeling. It can be difficult to talk about a relationship when it’s strained, but it’s better to clear the air by being honest about what you’re feeling than continuing to pretend everything’s peachy. You cannot but feel what you feel, but we oftentimes we fall into the trap of thinking we should feel a certain way. Honesty leads to freedom and freedom gives you the space to be yourself and be resentment-free.

5) Have Hope. Family life is never easy, but there are ways to free yourself from the tangled web of emotions that often makes it seemingly impossible to move those relationships to a more meaningful and fulfilling place. The path is often convoluted, but figuring yourself and your family out is well worth the work in order to be at peace with yourself and with your family.

True peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.  -Martin Luther King, Jr.

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