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Family Dynamics

5 Steps to Healing if a Family Member Won't Change

1. Mourn the lost fantasy of what change would have meant.

Key points

  • No amount of talking, begging, or threatening can force a person to change who is not ready to change.
  • Staying grounded in your reality and finding new ways to interact with that family member can bring peace.
  • It's important to continue building other family and non-family relationships.

We cannot make others change, even when their behavior is harmful, mean, passive-aggressive, or racist. This is particularly devastating for those hoping that their parent, sibling, or extended family member will listen to reason and do better.

My clients often sit with the reality of unchanging family members, recounting the times they have begged for change, to no avail. And so we begin the slow work of healing around the difficult family member rather than with them.

1. Mourn the lost fantasy of what that change would have meant. When you begin to come to grips with a family member’s inability or unwillingness to change, grief may bubble to the surface. That grief comes from mourning the lost dream of what your relationship could be if only that family member changed their behavior.

You may mourn the closeness you imagined blossoming and the quality time you envisioned sharing with them once they shifted their behavior. You may mourn the role you hoped this family member would play in your life or your children's lives. Giving up this fantasy, grieving, and moving into a place of acceptance is vital to finding a new equilibrium with that family member.

2. Change how you respond to the behavior. While your family member will not change, you can change how you respond. Instead of becoming reactive, you learn to respond in ways that align with your values.

The next time your mom starts yelling the way she always does, you can sit quietly instead of matching fire with fire. The next time your uncle spouts racist vitriolic nonsense, you can leave the room instead of laughing along. Showing up differently changes your experience of the interaction. It can lead to increased feelings of calm and a sense that at least you did not sink to that family member's level.

When you opt out of old cycles and find calm ways of responding or stepping away, it also deflates arguments that your actions are the true root of the problem. Your new responses may even create a domino effect with other family members.

3. Stay grounded in your reality. One tough feature of having a consistently difficult family member is the feeling that you are the only one who notices it or feels hurt by it. Can you really be the only person who feels put off by Cousin Allison’s cutting sarcasm? Or Dad’s angry outbursts?

Probably not. In all likelihood, others around you are feeling at least somewhat frustrated as well. Others may have simply decided that in order to preserve the relationship, they are willing to ignore or go along with the behavior.

But if that doesn't work for you, you may feel alone in your indignation and hurt. Instead, you are left to hold tightly to your internal sense of reality. Staying grounded and calmly assessing your perceptions and tapping into your self-trust will help you feel stabilized when it feels like you’re the only person in the room that feels angry.

4. Build other family connections where you can. It may feel tempting to avoid family gatherings based on one family member's behavior. The struggle is that other meaningful connections and interactions become collateral damage in the task of avoiding that one person.

Instead, find opportunities to spend one-on-one time with cherished family members and continue cultivating those relationships. And when family gatherings crop up, learn who will be there and make a plan to direct attention to healthy and easy activities.

Can you spend more time playing with your nephew while avoiding your brother and sister-in-law? Can you watch the football game and avoid the worst of the Thanksgiving conversations? You may find small ways to insulate yourself from the pain of an unchanging dynamic while having a genuinely good time with others present.

5. Build relationships outside of the family. When family feels complicated, it helps to build a network of chosen family. Reach out to friends, find a therapist, join a religious community, or take on a new hobby to meet new people. Forming new connections and nurturing existing ones builds a supportive network that can ease the pain of familial disconnection.

None of these steps is as satisfying as seeing a family member realize the harm of their actions and change. But since we cannot control others, we can do the next best thing. We can find ways to heal our own pain around it and focus on things we can control. Done well, these measures help a person with a challenging family member move forward in peace.

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