How to deal with a dysfunctional family as an adult. I’ve addressed some tough topics on this website, but this one just might take the cake.
The people pleaser still living inside me is scared to ruffle feathers and this post might do just that.
I anticipate that some people just won’t get what this post is about. For some people, what I’m about to say might sound extreme. “But they are your family…” they might say.
For some people, the fact that family can be a source of extreme pain and hardship is completely unfathomable.
Good for them, right?
But for some of us – those of us who can fathom – extreme hardship sometimes requires an extreme response.
In previous posts, I talked about recognizing the signs that you grew up in a dysfunctional family and overcoming the physical and psychological effects of your upbringing.
So let’s say you recognize how your family was screwed up and how it has affected you. Let’s say you are well on your way to personal healing and growth.
But you are still left with the matter of how to deal with these people today. What if they are still a significant part of your life and what if they are still a source of pain?
How do you put a stop to the pain? How do you protect yourself and put a stop to the negative influences that have been dumped on you in the past and continue to be dumped on you to this day?
Dear reader, as much as I want to help you, I can’t tell you exactly what to do. Your family is unique. You are unique. Your situation is unique.
There is no one right answer. You need to do what is best for you in your particular situation.
However, what I can do is walk you through my own process. I can share with you what I have needed to do in order to fully move on from my own dysfunctional past.
In order to put a stop to the pain and move on, I needed to change the way I think about family and love. I also needed to make some tough decisions about the kind of life I wanted and who had a place in that life.
How To Deal With A Dysfunctional Family As An Adult
1. Reconsider Your Definition Of Family
There are many ways one could potentially define “family”.
Some people associate family with entitlement. They think that being related to someone by blood or by marriage entitles them to do whatever they wish to the people they are related to. Violence. Manipulation. Verbal abuse. Betrayal. Emotional withdrawal. Passive aggressiveness. Neglect. Whatever they wish. Free pass.
Others associate family with obligation. They think that being related to someone by blood or by marriage obligates them to tolerate whatever behavior the people they are related to wish to engage in. They think it obligates them to go along, be flexible, forgive and forget, show up, cover up, fake it, tip-toe, placate, please. Unconditionally. No matter what.
Wanna know what I think about these definitions? I think both of these definitions suck. I think that “being related to someone” has absolutely nothing to do with family. Being related neither entitles you nor obligates you. It means nothing. Zero.
For me to consider someone family, I no longer think about whether I’m related to them at all. In order for me to consider someone family, I look for two conditions to be met:
- I have to feel “at home” when I’m around them.
- I have to feel both physically and emotionally safe when I’m around them.
This is what I want from family and I won’t settle for anything less. This means that the vast majority of the people I’m related to are not my family. They are not entitled to me and I am not obligated to them.
They are simply people I once knew.
2. Reconsider Your Definition Of Love
There are also many ways one could potentially define “love”.
Some people think of love as a feeling. A feeling of affection toward another person. A feeling that you might express by saying “I love you”.
While I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying “I love you”, to me, these three words alone mean nothing. They are just hollow words.
To me, love is an action. Or rather a series of actions.
It is seeing another person for who they are.
It is accepting them for who they are.
It is respecting them.
It is supporting them.
It is encouraging them.
It is being there for them.
It is being kind to them.
It is showing interest in them.
It is opening up and being vulnerable.
It is connecting.
It is owning up to and apologizing for your mistakes.
When I think about whether someone is a loving presence in my life, I no longer pay any attention to their words.
I don’t want to hear hollow words.
I want to see action.
3. Declare Independence
Once upon a time, I wrote an article titled What To Do When You Hate Your Job But Feel Like You Can’t Quit.
Sometimes your dysfunctional relatives can be kind of like that hated job. You are sick and tired of them, but you feel like you can’t quit them, because you are dependent on them for one thing or another.
They may be a sucky support network, but maybe they are the only support network you have. Maybe they let you borrow their car when yours is in the shop. Maybe they watch your kids. Maybe you are young enough to still be on their health insurance.
Whatever it is, this dependence needs to be turned into independence. Regardless of how you choose to deal with your dysfunctional relatives in the end, you do want to have the freedom to choose. Feeling trapped is not a good basis for any relationship, but especially not a dysfunctional one.
So just like you would with a nasty job situation, you accept that you may be stuck today, but you don’t have to be forever.
You can create a plan.
You can list all the ways in which you feel dependent.
You can list all the obstacles that stand in the way of independence.
And then you can ask what needs to happen in order to overcome these obstacles.
What needs to happen in order to set yourself free?
What are the steps you need to take?
4. Know Your Options
Let’s say you are healing like crazy and your self confidence is starting to really skyrocket. Let’s say you have found alternative ways to meet your needs and you have declared independence from your dysfunctional relatives.
What do you do then? Do you just keep showing up for Thanksgiving dinner like you always have with a 9X13 of sweet potato casserole in your arms and an extra dose of Xanax in your back pocket? Just in case.
This is where we get to the “I really can’t tell you what to do” part. But I can tell you that you have options. They are as follows:
Option #1: Change Nothing
Option #2: Attempt to Repair The Relationship
Option #3: Detached Contact
Option #4: No Contact
Let’s talk about each option in a bit more detail.
Option #1: Change Nothing
You can obviously just keep going the way you have up to this point and change nothing. Show up for Thanksgiving. Pick up the phone when they call.
This is often the easiest choice in the short term, because – let’s face it – change of any kind is hard. Confronting people or going against the wishes of people – especially dysfunctional people – is hard.
In the long term, though, this option comes with the highest price. You pay for it with your life energy.
Option #2: Attempt To Repair The Relationship
Sometimes it’s possible to repair a dysfunctional relationship. Sometimes people do change. Sometimes people gain wisdom and maturity with age. Sometimes people overcome problems like mental illness or substance abuse that have made it difficult for them to maintain healthy relationships in the past. Sometimes people are able to acknowledge their mistakes and do whatever it takes to repair a relationship.
In an ideal world, this would be the outcome in every case of family dysfunction. Unfortunately, this isn’t the ideal world. Many people aren’t willing or capable of change. Many people aren’t willing or capable of seeing how they have hurt others. Many people aren’t willing or capable of putting in the hard work it takes to fix a broken relationship.
Option #3: Detached Contact
Sometimes it’s possible to maintain a civil relationship with a dysfunctional relative without being sucked into the dysfunction. This is called detached contact. It entails:
- Accepting that dysfunctional relatives are the way they are and no longer waiting for them to change.
- Setting and enforcing clear boundaries in terms of your time commitment and how you are willing to be treated. (If boundaries are not your strong suit, check out How To Set Boundaries In Relationships.)
- Not engaging with dysfunctional relatives if they say or do things to provoke you.
- Keeping in mind that their perceptions are not in line with your reality and not letting them affect how you feel about yourself.
Detached contact can work great for some people and may be the best there is for people who truly don’t have any other choice, such as divorced parents who have to stay in contact with their ex.
I have personally practiced detached contact quite a bit. Doing so has been a concession to my people pleaser side – in the short term, it’s often been easier to “go along” and not make waves than to confront the issues head-on. Because I have worked hard on growing self love and developing self confidence, I can be in pretty much anyone’s presence without them being able to really get to me. They might momentarily shake my core, but they can’t topple it.
With that being said, I have started to move away from detached contact as a viable option for me. This strategy has never worked for me in the long term and I can tell you exactly why. Detached contact tends to fall apart for me, because I’m an introvert Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) with trauma in my past.
For me, most relationships are at least somewhat draining. Relationships with dysfunctional relatives are A LOT draining. Detachment may help keep my core intact, but it still requires a shit ton of effort. There’s the constant positive self talk to keep myself calm, the constant monitoring of my body to keep my physical stress response at bay, the constant visualizing of a protective bubble around myself.
It’s a lot of work and it’s work I’m becoming less and less willing to do.
There are too many things I actually want to work for. Too many things I’m actually excited to put my energy toward.
As a wife and working mother of three who takes self care very seriously, I only have so many hours in the day and so many units of energy to work with.
Why would I put all this effort into people who don’t treat me the way I want to be treated or love me the way I want to be loved?
Which brings us to…
Option #4: No Contact
The final option is simply ending your relationship with a dysfunctional relative or relatives.
Yes, it’s drastic.
Yes, it’s hard.
But sometimes it’s the only way to achieve the peace you are looking for in your life. And in my experience, it’s only hard for a moment. After that moment, there is just sweet relief.
5. Make A Decision
Again, I only know what’s best for me. I don’t know what’s best for you. But I’m going to share with you a set of questions and a visualization exercise that have helped me sort out how to proceed in my own case.
Questions To Ask
If you are dealing with multiple dysfunctional relatives, it might be good to ask these questions about each individual separately.
- For how long has this person been dysfunctional? Has this person shown any signs of changing? Do you think this person is capable of changing?
- Has this person acknowledged how you have been treated and how it has affected you? Has this person shown any remorse? Has this person shown any willingness to work on improving the relationship in the future?
- Would you feel safe educating this person about how their behavior has affected you? Would this person be capable of understanding and sympathizing with your point of you?
- To what degree does maintaining this relationship and being around this person stress you out? Knowing that stress affects your health, are you willing to suffer those consequences for the sake of this relationship?
- Thinking about the people who pressure you to participate in family functions, have they ever shown interest in you as a person or do you think they just want you there for the sake of appearances so that they don’t have to explain your absence to other people?
- Your dysfunctional family might include relatives who have not directly hurt you, but who wish to keep participating in the dysfunctional family dynamic. Is it desirable and possible to maintain a relationship with them without having contact with the main culprit(s)? If this is not possible, is the relationship with them so important to you that it makes enduring contact with the main culprit(s) worth it? Or is it not worth it to you?
- And most importantly: What kind of life do you want? What kinds of experiences do you want to have? How do you want to feel? How does being around your dysfunctional relatives contribute or take away from the kind of life you want to live? Your Time = Your Life. How much time and effort are you willing to commit to dysfunctional relatives?
A Fork In The Road
At the risk of sounding unbearably cheesy, I’m going to confess that I like to think about life as a journey. On this journey, there are many possible paths to take and many forks in the road.
You might be standing at one of those forks right now.
In one direction, might be a path of newfound abundance. An abundance of calm, peace, meaning, energy, and joy. Connection. True connection with people who are traveling in the same direction as you.
You already know where the other path is going. It’s the well-worn rocky road that leads to nowhere. It’s running the same old circle over and over again.
So there you are standing at the fork, knowing full well which path you want to take. But there are people hanging on to you for dear life, which makes it hard for you to move. Hanging on to your arms and legs. Weighing you down. Trying to hold you back. Insisting you can’t go. Insisting you are not allowed to go.
But they really can’t hold you back. Not if you don’t let them. You can invite them to come with you on the new path if they want. But if they refuse, you can go on your own.
You can make your own choices.
Whatever path you choose, I want to remind you that this is your life’s journey.
You are the boss.
You are allowed to do whatever is best for you.
You are also allowed to change your mind. You are allowed to switch paths.
As many times as it takes.
To find the right path for you.