Redefining Dysfunctional Family Relationships

Krista LambertFor Those Seeking Hope3 Comments

This article by Krista Lamber, M.A., appeared first here on her website and is used with permission.

The TV binge of choice for my husband and I typically must involve some level of mystery.  We escape from the demands of our life together by chatting about “whodunnit.”  But, like many other Americans, we can’t help having a secret affection for “This is Us.”  It filled the gap in our hearts once filled by “Parenthood.”  It’s the hour a week to “feel the feels” and talk about issues of marriage and family.  We can’t help but speculate about what the appeal is to these shows, and often circle around to “things our hearts most desire.” We aspire to be Jack and Rebecca, overcoming obstacles together and sharing precious moments of romance amidst the chaos.  We want to be the Braverman’s, lovingly pushy in one another’s lives and laughing at big family meals.  Sure, they have struggles, but they always seem to come together, admit their mistakes and ask for forgiveness, and to stand up for each other.

I don’t know about you, but for us, there are those in our family with whom we do share the strength of unrelenting love that pushes through disagreements toward understanding, that encourages when we need it, that shows up to do the hard things others just won’t do. We are stable in their love and they in ours.  At the same time, there are other family relationships in which we just can’t seem to have peace no matter how hard we try.  We experience the angst of knowing they are family and wanting to love unconditionally yet feeling constant hurt and disappointment.

Almost every person I work with in counseling has, somewhere in their life, a tension around one or more members of their family.  One has the angry dad, another the controlling mom.  Maybe it’s a sister who manipulates by being “the victim,” or the college aged child who is disrespectful while ranting about how her parents don’t respect her.  Even if this person has nothing to do with the main reason the client came for counseling, at some point they will surface because the client feels so hopeless about the relationship.  What typically emerges is what I refer to as “the gap.”  It’s the gap between the way we wish things were and the way they actually are.

For example, say you wish you had a dad like Jack Pearson.  He always works hard for his family.  He shows up at all of Kevin’s football games, calms Randall during bouts of anxiety, and encourages Kate’s musical dream. Okay, maybe he has his struggle with alcohol, but he goes to AA and gets clean because he loves his family so much.  Your own dad may be the guy who struggles with addiction but refuses to own up to it, so instead of getting clean he causes drama.  Maybe he’s demanding and pushes you too hard, and you feel like you can never measure up to his expectations.  Maybe he’s basically absent, and you can never count on him to be there for you.  The gap between who he actually is and who you wish he was is where the tension in your relationship is.

So what do you do with your gap?

1. Identify What You Feel the Relationship Lacks

I think grieving is the absolute most important step if you want to move forward in your relationship with whomever in your family you experience the gap with.  You have to recognize who they actually are and stop wishing for them to be someone different, and then grieve whatever it is you have lost by owning that they may never change.  This means you have to name what it is you can’t have in this relationship.

Common relational deficits:

a. Honesty

With some family members, we can’t be honest and authentic because we fear they will punish us.  Granted, this fear could be your own issue- you’re fearing a negative response without any facts to support that you might get it- but it also may be based on multiple failed attempts. When I say they “punish,” that could mean they lash out in anger, they blame-shift so that whatever you’re feeling means you have a problem and they don’t, they withdraw or become passive aggressive, they throw a tantrum, or make themselves out to be a victim.

b. Trust

Some of our family members are simply not people we can trust. Maybe we share something with them and they use it against us later, or gossip about it to others in the family.  Maybe we help them with things but when we call on them to reciprocate, they consistently drop the ball.

c. Relational intimacy

Maybe you wish you could talk to your family member about deep things, about what you’re feeling and thinking about life. Perhaps you try to direct conversation toward such things and they always change the subject, shut you down, or minimize your feelings.  You wish you could ask for their advice and they would be helpful rather than judgmental. You wish you could have a conversation that wasn’t all about them all the time.  Maybe you wish there was more freedom to be affectionate, to hug, to say “I love you,” but you’ve tried over and over to initiate those things and they don’t respond well.

d. Problems That Can’t Be Changed

These include things like a family member’s addiction, mental or physical illness, wounds of their past, or their bad habits.  Granted, some of these things can be changed or at least improved upon, but not by you. They have to recognize that they need help and seek it for themselves. If we try to change another person, we’ll be fighting a losing battle. The only person we can change is ourselves.

2. Grieve the Gap

After you identify what you need to grieve, there are many possible ways to actually grieve it. You can pray for the person and your relationship, pouring out to God what your “gap” is like.  You can write a letter to the person that you will never send, expressing what you wish you relationship could be, your emotions about the fact that it isn’t (anger, sadness, etc), then expressing acceptance for what it actually is as well as acceptance of them for who they are.  You won’t send this letter because you want it to be authentic and honest, expressing what you really think and feel, and those things aren’t always helpful to the relationship, especially the type we’re talking about.

3. Accept who the person is and what the relationship is right now

Grieving the gap and accepting the person and relationship “as is” is where most people stay hung up.  With friendships we reach the point where we decide it’s not a good relationship and are able to let it go or create distance, but with family we want so very desperately to have the ideal.  We push and strive and cry and argue and agonize over how to do it differently or better.  We desperately wish for change so that we can have the closeness we desire.  The thing is, once we can accept that it’s not the ideal and grieve the gap, we are free to love our family members as they are and free ourselves from the effort and tension.

You may have to decide how to interact with them in the future in more helpful and less hurtful ways, but if you’ve released the idea of changing them and embraced that all you can change is your own responses, your mind will be clearer to respond in healthier and more ultimately loving ways, and you will guard your own heart from becoming angry and resentful toward them.

4. Understand Your Heart’s Desires

Part of changing how you respond is dealing with what the gap leaves behind in your own heart, which is where we come back around to where we started, our desires.  James 4:1-3 says “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You desire but do not have, so you kill.  You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.  You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Maybe we aren’t literally killing a person, but we kill (or at least damage) the relationship.  There are selfish things we want from relationships.  We want others to meet our need for approval and when they don’t we’re wounded or irritated.  We serve or give to them but then expect to be served back, and when they don’t we feel taken advantage of.  So is that really serving?  One man said “My dad says ‘I love you’ all the time.  Most people would love to have that.  But the thing is, he says it so he can hear me say ‘I love you too,’ not because he actually means it.”

We want a reciprocal relationship and if they are unable to give it it’s easy to make them the problem rather than to be curious about why we want it so much.  (Not that they aren’t the problem, but if you can’t change them, why focus so much energy there?  Change you!)  Is it a healthy, God given desire or a desire that’s self-centered at it’s core?  If it is a God desire, am I seeking to have it met outside of His will or timing?  Am I making this relationship an idol?

5.  Seek God’s Design for Your Desires

Determining if our desires are Godly or not requires us to look to His Word.  Determining how He may want to meet them requires seeking Him in prayer, and usually a lot of patience.  Sometimes He may provide a person to fill the “father” or “mother” voids in your life.  Sometimes He will change the heart of that family member, and you will ultimately receive what you have wanted.  Sometimes he may change your desire altogether. Or He may meet it within Himself, through your relationship with Him.  Always, if you let Him, He will grow you.

Recognizing the desires and releasing them to God, seeking to have them met in Him and in ways that are within His will for us leads us to greater contentment.  When I’m more content and satisfied in God, I have peace.  I interact with difficult people in healthier ways because I no longer “need” anything from them.  I can simply love them.

What step are you on with your family member, and what do you still need to grieve or release today?

“Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” – Psalm 37:4

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners love those who love them…But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend without expecting to get anything back.  Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  – Luke 6:32, 35-36

If this resonates with you but the pain of the gap is deep and difficult to resolve, reach out for help.


About Krista

I am wife to an awesome man and mom to three exceptional boys that we are raising in the Chicagoland suburbs.  I love to counsel women, families, children and teens and share with them my experience in finding God faithful.  I counsel in BCC’s Schaumburg office and via Skype. Learn More.

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3 Comments on “Redefining Dysfunctional Family Relationships”

  1. I think it depends on who you’re asking! Sometimes broken people in our lives simply can’t ever understand things from our perspective. Instead, we have to lean on God and on healthier relationships in our lives, including those in a church family. Counseling can help, as well- part of what we do is seek to understand and meet people right where they are, and equip them to better handle the gap. Prayers going out to you!

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