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Stop Running Away From Your Family Problems

It's time to learn how to stop dysfunctional family interactions.

A letter to the newspaper advice column Annie's Mailbox on 7/12/12 brought up an issue frequently seen in such columns: how to respond to relatives who seem to go out of their way to make you miserable:

My mother and I have had a poor relationship for years. She is self-absorbed, demanding and consistently hurtful. She seems to find great amusement in upsetting me and takes every opportunity to do so … This kind of behavior is typical of her, and I am tired of it. I have tried to discuss it with her, and she refuses to accept that she has done anything wrong. I finally decided to sever all contact. ... The problem is that the rest of my family berates me for being 'mean' to her. They expect me to maintain this destructive relationship. How can I explain to them how horribly she treats me?”

The response of the Annies generated a lot of heat from readers:

We can see that your mother is difficult, but instead of cutting her off and being the family black sheep, we recommend finding a better way to deal with her. You seem very sensitive to her comments and behavior. The best way to convince her to treat you better is to respond differently. Get some counseling and work on this. If you can change the dynamic between you, you will be less resentful and hurt.”

Here are some of the reader comments that followed, some of which addressed the writer of the letter rather than the Annies:

1. Are you serious? Get counseling and try to change the dynamic? Are you two for real? This woman has been emotionally abused for what seems to be her entire life, she decides to take care of herself and sever contact and that's what you tell her to do? … Honey, you did the right thing for yourself and your mental health… If your family can't accept your decision, then that's their problem.

2. The Annies sometimes offer good advice, but they are so far off-base this time, I'm surprised they still have an advice column. Perhaps they should rename their column "Bend over and take it, honey, then get some counseling to ease the soreness."

3. Your mother enjoys belittling you and hurting your feelings because you're such an easy target. Grow a spine and stand up for yourself for once in your life ... all you have to do is stand firm and ask her pointedly, "Are you feeling okay mom? You seem to be acting crazy?" Then carry on as if nothing happened. If she continues to act out, then inform others present nonchalantly that you're concerned that your mom might be demented.

4. If this level of behavior upsets you enough to cut your mother permanently out of your life, what are you going to do when you get out into the work world with that fresh new college diploma and meet the obnoxious co-worker, the overbearing boss, the VP who never says thank you for a job well-done, the surly bus driver, the waiter who forgets your order every day? What will you do when your spouse says he/she doesn't care for your spinach lasagna, or suggests that suit you're wearing is, ahem, a bit too tight and out of date? What will you do when your kids tell you're clueless, that they hate you, and storm out of the house? I don't often agree with the Annies, but this time I really do … seriously, you need to develop a thicker skin or you are never going to survive in the world.

5. You're doing the right thing cutting her off. Ignore the Annies (they are idiots anyway), and your " family" who defend your mother's nastiness. .. "Grow a thicker skin?" Really [writer of letter #4 above]? That's the saying of a bully who needs a well-turned phrase to justify their cruelty.

6. I DO agree with the Annies that counseling is in order for the LW, if only to help him deal with the hurt he is feeling because of his mother's rude behavior. However, possibly severing all contact with her may be a little over the top. It COULD mean severing all contact with the rest of his family also, since they seem to be siding with her.

As you can see, the Annies' recommendation that the writer find a better way to deal with Mom rather than cut her off outraged many readers. Some instead recommended a “toxic parent” strategy, otherwise known as “divorce your family!” Permanently. Why should you have to put up with maltreatment? Life is too short.

It seems that a lot of folks think that there are only three possible solutions to cope with repetitive dysfunctional family patterns:

  1. Cut the offending family member and his or her family allies completely out of your life.
  2. Grow a spine and fight back.
  3. Try to let it go in one ear and out the other.

Solutions #2 and #3 are in essence saying, “Put up with it.” Oh yeah, really? Easier said than done! Try ignoring a torrent of hateful behavior directed at you by intimates for any length of time. I dare you. You could see a cognitive therapist from now until doomsday in order to learn how to think "rationally" about the abuse, but it will still make your life a living hell.

So what’s wrong with solution number one? Well, for one thing, we are all emotionally attached to our families of origin whether we like it or not—or whether we like them or not. This is easiest to see with children, who will often cling to abusive parents, if given half a chance, rather than to a loving foster family. With adults, whether they admit it or not, members of dysfunctional families long for the loving mother or father they never had.

Second, unresolved dysfunctional family patterns quite frequently affect one’s relationships with one’s own children. Some abused children, for instance, become abusive parents themselves, while others go to the other extreme and end up smothering their children with disabling helicopter parenting. The latter pattern sometimes results in a generation of, say, alcoholics begetting a generation of uptight teetotalers who then beget another generation of alcoholics.

Are these really your only choices? Continue to take abuse, constantly fight, or pretend you don’t give a darn? To those who think so, I can certainly understand why you might think so. But I have three words for you: You are wrong.

Effective problem-solving in such families is understandably thought by many to be impossible. With good reason. But it is not. While it is true that you have no power to “fix” another individual, you do have power within your own kin group to fix your relationship with another family member. It is not easy, and often requires the assistance of a therapist trained in dealing with dysfunctional family members. It is well worth the effort to find such help.

Quit trying to run away from your family and its problems! Take the bull by the horns. If you are an abuser yourself, it is time for you to fess up to what you have done instead of hiding behind denial that everyone knows is as phony as a three dollar bill.

Are one or more of your kids completely out of control? When you spend time with your parents or even talk to them on the phone, do you feel like you've just spent hours listening to a bunch of people simultaneously scratching their fingernails on a chalkboard? Do you find yourself hurting the ones you love, or letting them hurt you? Do you feel that your family members are better off without you? Were you a victim of childhood abuse? Do you constantly subvert your own chances for success in love and work? Are you chronically anxious and depressed?

Well, you come from a wild and crazy family. But guess what? That's OK! You do not have to beat yourself up about it. It's not all your fault, although you do contribute to the problems despite your best efforts to avoid doing so. All families have issues and conflicts, although some are far worse than others. Hating yourself or your family, and/or feeling guilty about everything not only makes you miserable, but it also makes the rest of your family miserable as well.

The good news: It is never too late to stop the intergenerational transmission of dysfunctional family patterns.

The bad news: Although medication can ease distress, you cannot buy your way out of this with pharmaceuticals. Many people these days are going to their doctors and demanding medications to sedate themselves into oblivion, and unfortunately many of my colleagues in psychiatry are only willing to oblige them. Worse yet, people try to blame their children’s problems on non-existent or extremely rare mental disorders like childhood bipolar disorder, and then drug their kids to keep them quiet.

Despite the discomfort it will invariably cause you, step up to the plate and repair the relationship with your parents and save your children and their children. Otherwise, you and your children may be caught in an endless loop.

Good psychotherapy is available.

There is, as usual, a major caveat: Going to certain common types of therapists will not solve the problems of which I speak. If your therapist seems to blame your problems on your having regressed to childhood, or tells you that your thoughts are all irrational and unfounded or that you are no more complicated than a rat in a maze responding to food pellets and electric shocks, find another one.

Find a therapist who knows about genograms and /or mental schemas. Find one who can help you to discover the nature of the repetitive interpersonal behavior patterns you and your family engage in, and to understand what purpose they serve. Such therapists can be difficult to locate, but it is unquestionably worth the effort.

[Marketing alert, but only in a good way: Look for the type of therapists that I described near the end of my post, "Finding a Good Psychotherapist."]

And stick with it! When you talk about the relationships that make you depressed and anxious, there is no way to avoid temporarily feeling even more depressed and more anxious. I wish I knew a way around that, but I do not. I do know that most of you can take it. You are more resilient than you think. Although therapists should be empathic and non-judgmental, a therapist who treats you with kid gloves is not helping you. After all, if a supposed expert on the subject thinks you can't handle the truth, it is easy to believe that you are weaker than you really are.

I recommend trying to find some way to get around one's family's natural defensiveness in order to discuss the family dynamics and to alter dysfunctional relationship patterns (metacommunication). If you change your approach to family members, it can force the others to change their approach to you. Family systems theorists liken the family to a mobile—if you tug at one hanging part, it reverberates throughout the whole piece.

But it's a bit more complicated than that. Family members have numerous and powerful tricks to counteract changes that you try to make. The target of your meta-communication may counterattack with their own complaints about you, some of which may be valid, without ever addressing your complaints about them. Seldom-seen family members may come out of the woodwork to express the sentiment, "You're wrong, change back!"

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for discussing family interactions, since each family has there own unique dynamics and sensitivities. A therapist should tailor their advice to the sensitivities and proclivities of each individual family member.

Nowhere is stepping up to the plate more important than for parents who had physically, verbally, or sexually abused their children, or severely neglected them, when their children were growing up. You know who you are. No matter how terrible what you did was, you can make things better for yourself and everyone else from this point in time forward. All the denial in the world will not change the fact that both you and the person or persons you abused know exactly what you did.

Parents who push their adult children away through cruel or unpleasant behavior because of a sense that their children are better off without them not only punish themselves, but do their children no favors either. By the same token, trying to make your children hate you through constantly accusing them of lying or by minimizing the significance of what you did will not make them feel better, but far worse. It accomplishes nothing but making them feel almost subhuman.

And you know, down deep, how much you really want them to love you and forgive you. And your children really do, deep down, want to forgive you. Please let them.

'Fess up to what you did directly to them and stop making excuses. Tell them how sorry you are even if that seems to make them angry or if they refuse to accept your apology. Tell them that you would like them to forgive you but you know you may not deserve it and you will certainly understand if they feel they cannot do so.

Try to explain to them the experiences that you had growing up that may have led you to do the foul deeds, but without using those explanations as a justification for your actions. There is no justification. Again, in order to do this right, you will probably need a therapist to teach you the best approach to your victims.

You have three choices. First, you can deny what you did and continue to lie to everyone including yourself, but you will always know that it is true. Second, you can continually beat yourself up about it as if your shortcomings are written in stone and any harm you may have inflicted on your children is unforgivable and irreversible. The result of this course of self-damning action is continued guilt, which leads to more and more unpleasant feelings, which in turn lead to desperation, despair, and hopelessness.

Those two choices will not only make you feel worse, they will not help your children feel any better about you, your relationship with them, or their childhood. As I mentioned, it usually makes them feel much worse. A much better course of action is to forgive yourself for your human frailties, learn from your mistakes so that you do not repeat them, and talk openly with your offspring as best you know how about what had happened and why you felt and acted the way that you did.

It is time for you to do this. Do not procrastinate—you might change your mind. There will never be a better time than right now. The transmission of dysfunctional family patterns from one generation to the next can be stopped.

More from David M. Allen M.D.
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