Tools for Healthy Relating to Difficult Family



We can care about our family deeply and see that they have many wonderful qualities,  and also sense something missing, a lack of depth or reciprocity in the intimacy that we long for. We may find that our attempts to connect go sideways or blow up, and often we blame ourselves for this outcome (and they may blame us too).      


The truth is, may people lack the tools and resources for deep and intimate connections, we can love them, but we can’t fix this.  Fulfilling relationships require reciprocity, and sometimes people can not, will not, or do not know how to be vulnerable enough for this type of depth.


We may (probably do) share some of these characteristics, after all, this is our family. It can be confusing when these difficulties only show up in some areas/topics/context (common places are religion/politics or places where we/they are wounded/insecure) and thus your mom/dad/sibling is perfectly reasonable in many situations, and impossible or cruel in other contexts. 


Some example of (emotionally immature) behaviors that can impede a reciprocal relationship:


Emotionally Immature Behaviors

  • avoid discussing authentic feelings (may not know how)

  • intolerant of negative emotions in self or others

  • annoyed by differences

  • low stress tolerance (avoids any topic that might be uncomfortable)

  • needing to be right

  • uncomfortable/unaware of complexity (oversimplifying complex problems)

  • black and white thinking

  • quick to arousal (temper, overreaction, stonewalling)

  • focusing on “shoulds”

  • discussion/arguments feel win/lose instead of about mutual understanding

  • lack of emotional complexity (only one emotion at a time)

  • lack of empathy for self and others

  • doesn’t own or apologize for mistakes

  • expects to be prioritized/soothed

  • fear of exposure (I’m bad, unlovable)

  • self-referential (turning every subject back to self)

  • rigid

  • single-minded

  • impulsive

  • defensive

  • blame others

  • lack of self-reflection (seem unaware of insecurities, defensiveness, self-preoccupation)

  • uninterested in others (especially emotionally)

  • triangulating (talking to others about their problem with you)

  • kill joys (dismissive, skeptical, negative about good things in your life)

  • unable to consider or absorb feedback (deflects: “you did {something worse}” or amplifies: “I’m am the worst”)

We can all exhibit these behaviors on occasion, but if you see these themes showing up again and again (and again and again) in your conversations with family here are some tips to deal. 




1.  Ask yourself if you are stuck in a “healing fantasy”, a hope that if you just bring up your pain in the right way your family will hear and see and understand and accept you.  Finally!  If you’ve been stuck in this pattern for a while, now may be the time to grieve the loss of the deeper relationship you hoped you could have with them.   You don’t have to cut them out of your life (though some people may need to) tips below for new ways of relating. 


2. Find people who do hear and see and understand and accept you, heal yourself in the context of these relationships. (and maybe therapy!)  Common experiences that may need healing:

  • feeling as though your core emotionality/enthusiasm is a problem


  • your feelings of isolation may not match your family’s stories of togetherness


  • feeling valued only for what you do, not what you are


  • feeling lonely, unlikable, unlovable


  • Desire to be likable all the time so as not to annoy the people around you


3. Work on your own emotional skills (as related to the above list) so you do not recreate the loneliness and invalidation you have experienced.


4. Move from “Relationship” mindset to “Relating” mindset.  Relationships are reciprocal, if your family has demonstrated that they can not meet your emotional needs in some areas,  you can continue to relate to your family and even enhance your “relatedness” in ways that benefit you all.  

  • Use an “Observational mindset” (put on your metaphorical lab coat and get out your metaphorical clipboard). Instead of responding emotionally to a dismissive comment, simply note it on your clipboard and say “interesting”.  


  • Set clear boundaries, internally and externally.  Don’t give them more time and effort than you want to give, this breeds resentment.  Once you know what you want to give, give that and no more.  


  • Predict their responses based on past behaviors (see list above)


  • Express your feelings and then let go (“That hurt.” or “Hum, that feels harsh.”) (they probably won’t validate your experience, as you have predicted in the step above)


  • Set communication goals (“Let’s set a time for movie night.”) 


  • If things go sideways redirect conversation to those goals. (“Hum, that feels harsh.  Now what time is the movie again?”)


  • Focus on outcome not relationship.  


  • Emphasize shared interests or activities (directive activities can keep the focus on outcomes)


  • Relating is about managing not engaging.  You may not feel deeply connected or emotionally/spiritually stimulated, but family relationships can be a valuable asset and are often worth the effort. 





Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC specializes in women's issues, faith transitions, sexual concerns, LGBTQ+ journeys, trauma, anxiety disorders, body image concerns, and depression. She offers both coaching/consultation and therapy services to individuals, couples and families.

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