How To Deal With A Dysfunctional Family As An Adult

By Anni


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 - Some thoughts on how to deal with relatives who are a negative influence in your life based on my own experience...

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

Then what?

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.

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About the author 

Anni

Hi! I'm a life coach, a Certified MBTI® Practitioner, and a mentor for stressed out introverts and highly sensitive people. I used to be one myself! My mission is to help you discover your true self and create a life you ACTUALLY like.

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  1. Thank you so much for this insightful, caring post. I’d love to hear more about your strategies for detached contact. I don’t believe I can ever have a healthy relationship with my mother, but, as she has mellowed with age, and after putting certain boundaries in place, she is capable of being a positive influence in my children’s lives, so I don’t want to cease contact completely. Sometimes we have to find the balance between what’s best for us, and what’s best for those we love…

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Anne! That’s an excellent point about taking your loved-ones into account. It would be a good question to add to my list: Does this person have a mostly positive or mostly negative impact on your spouse and/or children?

  2. This is an amazingly accurate article! I agree with you wholeheartedly on all aspects. My normal choice is the detached contact which I can normally carry off without (seemingly) any further damage to me.

    Obviously, it depends on who the dysfunctional person is. The closer the family member (spouse/children/parents) the more difficult it may be, and the more courage you’ll need to muster up to limit their impact on you!

    I’ve done the “No contact” option a few times as well – it suits my INFJ personality (Myers Briggs). No greater sense of calm and peace though when you cut toxic individuals from your life. Sometimes your life and sanity may depend on it!

    1. Thank you so much, Natalie! I totally agree that who the person is makes a big difference, as does the degree of dysfunction.

      By the way, one of my very favorite things about having this blog is “meeting” fellow INFJs. It’s such a rare occurrence in the real world, so it’s nice to get evidence that other INFJs DO in fact exist. 🙂

  3. Perfect article to read just after a miserable Christmas with a dysfunctional brother and another dysfunctional brother telling me to ‘not waste his time with my BS” just yesterday. Actually, all 8 siblings grew up in a dysfunctional family and have different coping mechanisms. There are absolutely no boundaries.

    We have a brother in the hospital suffering from pituitary gland problems (from previous radiation) which led to some significant health problems. These two particular brothers are experts on everything and simply will not accept my or anyone else’s opinions. One argued all through Christmas dinner about everything and I lost it. The other will NOT listen to advice on how to deal with the brother in hospital. He provokes him, makes jokes about things he says, wants everyone to think he’s the only one who will help him, although the ‘help’ he wants to give is overstepping his boundaries.

    I feel so alone and helpless because I have absolutely no support from 4 of the brothers here. Then again, I should be used to it. It’s been going on my whole life (and I’m nearly 71). I realize they have their own issues, but I felt guilty yesterday for ‘causing’ another rift. They can upset me so quickly because they know exactly what to do or not do.

    I think after 20 years of Christmas dinners with this brother and the quiet brother that maybe it’s time we did something different next year. Three of us have had Christmas Dinner together since our mother died 20 years ago. One or two of those years might have been a bit more peaceful, but for the most part not. Again, guilt and feeling bad that they have no one to cook for them. Dumb!!

    I need to not feel guilty about this new rift and avoid them for the most part. I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in March 2017 and I cannot do this stress any longer or suffer the consequences. So, it’s better for me to distance myself in order to stay healthy. I need to read this article more than once and read the other articles that go along with it. Thanks so much for posting them.

    1. Hi Lynn, thank you so much for reading and for sharing your story! You are so right – you don’t need to feel guilty for not tolerating other people’s bad behavior. You need to do what you need to do to stay healthy. I was borderline diabetic for years too and reducing stress levels is the one piece that finally normalized my blood sugars. In the end, it made a much bigger difference than meds or diet.

  4. Anni – I am so grateful that I came across your website today during a pivotal time in my life. I am on a journey to end the cycle of dysfunction in my family. It must stop with me. Because my husband and son deserve better. I DESERVE BETTER! 🙂
    So far, I am three articles in (“Signs of a Dysfunctional Family,” “How to Overcome the Effects of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family,” and “How to Deal with a Dysfunctional Family as an Adult”) and can’t wait to gobble up more. Your words resonate closely with my own feelings and experiences. It’s nice to feel less alone in this journey. Thank you for sharing your experiences and tips. I really believe that you just lit up the pathways in the journey ahead. I can see the pathway to abundance, peace, and joy. And I can see the worn path that leads to nowhere. All because of the light you have provided with these articles. Thank you.

    1. Hi Erin, thank you so much for reading and for the kind words. It really means a lot to me. And yes, you DO deserve better! 🙂

  5. I found this to be very, very helpful to me and exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you for sharing your experiences to help me and others live a better life <3

    Ginger

  6. Wow Anni, just wow. You have opened my eyes. I’m going through an unnecessary stress in my life with a couple of dysfunctional relatives who have attacked someone else in my family who I love dearly, and since I stood by and supported them, I became a target myself! Reading this has truly given me the strength to do what I always knew I would eventually have to do, especially being married and having two small children of my own. I refuse to expose my children to this toxicity. This read was truly inspirational, and thank you for sharing.

  7. Thanks for this. I have gone through all of the options above and then two years ago I decided no contact was the only option left. I have Complex PTSD due to the trauma experienced and it was change something or not survive, It amazes me that nothing changes in my family the silence just gets more silent and the stone wall larger. It is hard to have to lose all of my family including parent, siblings, nieces, nephews. It is hard to know that even my own adult sons don’t fully get what i needed to do and what it has cost me. I am however so much happier and stronger knowing I stood up and made a call. Best wishes to all of you guys out there.

  8. Thank you so much for these amazing and beautiful insights. I have a dysfunctional family and hangers on who try anything and everything to hold me back from the light of happiness. They bring me nothing but hurt, unhappiness, kill my joy, break my spirit, jealousy, and try to project all their hate onto me. I am a very empathic person, work hard, enjoy being around my friends. Sadly, the dysfunctional family just hates me being happy, I will keep up my boundaries my protective fences to keep them out! I choose life and happiness 🙂

  9. Yup, you have reached exactly what I thought about eveything you listed.
    For me in the end it is detached contact and no contact. Trying to change them what’s an utter failure since they are beyond saving sick fuck. Aside of my mother I can seemely speak to since she is an feeble pathetetic and ignorant women slave to her man and in total self denial that our family is distorted. I already put my family in the case of strangers. The kind I d rather die to continue mingle with and aimed to build a true family with no hollowness away from them. And for forced get together I comport myself as I see a pebble, ignore it and not consider their lives after overcoming the repulsionabd disgust I have for them.

  10. I came across this article by accident while trying to find a way to get away from my family. I had no idea until reading it that I came from a dysfunctional family. The only indicator I knew of was substance abuse, but out of your whole list the only things my family has never exhibited are that and sexual abuse. Although it felt almost world-shattering at first, this was really eye-opening. Thank you!

  11. I want to thank you so much for an article that was so helpful. I was able to finally move to no contact with someone after far too many years following the other options. It has been extremely difficult but I feel better and more at peace. However, other family members won’t stop telling me to let it go and so on. It’s as if my feelings don’t matter and how I was treated repeatedly should be forgotten. I keep hearing that she’s family. I think they expect me to just go back to being a people pleaser and be quiet and not make waves. My dysfunctional family uses my sensitivity against me to excuse their behavior. You have given me the insight and strength to move forward which I never thought possible. I’m grateful that I came across your website as I was at a loss for what to do.

    1. Hi Jill,

      Thank you so much for letting me know the article was helpful! It sounds like you are now dealing with the “enablers”. These are the people who want everything to appear normal, but instead of going after the real culprits (who they feel powerless against) they go after the sensitive victims (who they are used to being able to manipulate in the past). In my experience, the enablers will eventually stand down if you just stay firm. They’ll learn that you are your own boss now and can’t be guilted into their unhealthy games anymore!

      Take care,
      Anni

  12. Thank you for this well reasoned and sensitive article that came up in a desperate search for answers, yet again.

    I’d just got dragged back into the dysfunctional side show that’s my family and it didn’t take long for things to deteriorate. I needed some validation for a total disconnect and yes, the process is a lot like jumping through flaming hoops. At first you get singed a bit, but then you’re on the other side and safe again.

    Thank you, as well, for the validation as an HSP. I like the term despite my discerning that the majority of people are ‘de-sensitized’ by a constant stream of violent, negative and depressing imagry supplied by the entertainment industry, news and social media. I find myself a lot less stressed when I avoid those outlets and people who feed off of and from them.

  13. Hi Anni,

    About a month a go i had a talk with my best friend and she kinda lifted the curtin and made me realise that i was unhappy with my life. And i wanted to find out why and i googled and it took me to your website and it’s the best thing that happened to me in a very long time :). I’m an INFJ myself and before i discover this blog and subscribe to your life improvement class i thought that was something wrong with me. Because of my visions, the insights, the ability to feel other people’s feelings and read other people’s minds i was feeling like a weirdo and i was always struggling to fit in and never actualy did and now i know why. And i want to thank you for that, your articles fuel me with motivation and positive energy and hope .

    Your articles about dysfunctional families were very helpful and answered a lot of questions for me. Although i know you don’t give straight answers, I would like to have your opinion on something. So , i grew up in a dysfunctional family as well with emotional neglect, emotional abuse and conflictual relationship between my parents beeing the major lines. My parents divorced when i was 24 and since then i have a better relashionship with my father. A fair one. We call each other from time to time, i send him photos of my children and we see each other once in a few years ( we don’t live in the same country any more). And i’m ok with that, in peace and healed.
    With my mother however , it never stopped. We live in the same country and she comes to visit us every 2 weeks because she loves one of my kids (not both of them). But every time she comes, she continues to neglect me and criticizes everything i say and do, the way i raise my kids (I hate that) and i am so stressed and it hurst me real bad because it takes me back to my horrible childhood .So , it’s clear to me that the only optin i have is no contact. Detached contact will never work because she doesn’t respect me or my husband so she will never accept any bounderies ..So, my question is: how do i do that? I’m currently not speaking to her because the last time we saw each other she went very far, but how do i make that a permanent state? Should i explain her why i made this decision? ( beacause i’m a world champion in people pleasing, i never let her know how bad she was as a parent, how bad she treated me and my sisters , how bad she hurt us, all that because i don’t want to hurt her).. I know that even if i do so, she will never understand and agree, because she is ‘perfect, she is always right and everybody else is always wrong’, she is the kind of person that argues with the traffic lights when they turn red because she can’t accept that she is a bad driver with poor evaluation of traffic situations . So it’s the light’s fault. And now it will be my fault. And she will say that i’am mean, that i tell all this cheap lies to hurt her, to separate her from her grandchildren..I’am 100% sure that any explanation from my part it will turn out this way. But should i do it anyway? Do i owe myself that? I know that i don’t owe her that.

    Thank you very much and sorry for the long message.

    1. Hi Madalina,

      First of all, thank you so much for letting me know the website has been helpful. It means a lot to me! 🙂

      And second, I’m so sorry to hear about everything you’ve had to deal with. That’s a lot! Regarding how to end the relationship with your mother… You could just do nothing as long as she’s not trying to make contact. If she were to call, you could not answer the phone and hope that she’ll eventually stop calling. But I think trying to explain yourself is also an option if you think it would help you get some closure. You could always send the explanation in an email or letter to avoid subjecting yourself to the response. You are right in that she probably won’t understand, but you don’t need everyone to understand you or your actions. You just need to do what feels right to you.

      Anni

  14. Hi Anni,
    I want to thank you for the beautiful gift you are selflessly giving to people who, like you, and most definitely like me, are constantly being devastated by the people who I was taught, should be caring and close relatives. In my case it is my immediate family ; my father, and my two brothers ( my long lost anchor to safety, my very dear, late mother was called to heaven sooner than most people are, and I have no sisters ).
    I have only read your first passage regarding dysfunctional family, but this web location is now bookmarked. I will be returning here for more of your sharing knowledge. This first passage has ( amongst other things ) shown me that my instincts about removing myself from these people,is what is best for me.
    What a nice feeling. To say my family ( except my late mother ) has not been there for me is a gross understatement. The amount of pain they have caused me would truly fill a book. I can’t explain WHY these people are the way they are, but that is no longer a concern of mine. My health is my primary concern.
    To summarize, I recently phoned my father, who is 84, and said I wished to make peace with him. I couldn’t bear to think of him passing away with such a vast emotional chasm between us without making this clear to him. I have done that. But that is all. I’m not planning to have anything more to do with him…good or bad. As far as my two brothers go, they have spouses and children to help them, where I have only a few relatives and a few friends…so they will get by just fine without me in their lives.
    I want to be free. I want to feel happy again. It’s been too draining and has paid zero dividends for me to try and make these people be even DECENT, let alone caring family.
    So, thank you…I am finally poised to make my own happiness first on my list. I’ve chosen to cut them all out of my life. When my father passes away…hopefully not soon, but likely not far away given the reality of his age…I will not shed a tear for not trying any more. The phone call wear I made peace with my father, is really and truly being generous to him.
    But, I AM a very sensitive person. And I don’t think that is a bad thing.
    Wishing you a very nice day 🙂
    Darren.

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