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How to Be Free of Your Dysfunctional Family

You didn't choose those difficult family members, so now what?

Before all else, we are daughters or sons. Our relationships with our parents—and with other members of our first family—are the most influential in our lives, and they are never simple. Family connections tend to be intense, even when they appear calm.

Families are not fair, and we don’t choose the one we’re born or adopted into. Once upon a time, the word family evoked an image (however idealized) of a safe haven of nurturance and unconditional love. Today, a family is what many people are “in recovery” from. For some lucky folks, family is the place we can always return to, no matter what, for a sense of comfort, security, and belongingness. For others, the details of family life are wrenching. You've probably noticed that every family has at least one or two totally impossibly difficult people, and those people are never us.

There is no “ideal” family that can provide the perfect emotional climate for the unfolding of our so-called true selves. As adults, it’s up to us to decide how we will conduct ourselves with those difficult folks the universe has dealt us. Here's the challenge: We can take the hard route and work toward being who we are with family members, without trying to change or convince them to see things our way. We can learn to ask clear questions about our family history and take a calm position when differences arise, without getting defensive or attacking. Doing this is one royal road to happiness, because when you navigate family relationships with maturity, curiosity, and calm, other relationships will be a piece of cake.

When things get intense in family relationships, it typically looks like this: First, we confront family members by telling them what’s wrong with them and how they should think, feel, or behave differently. We confuse our anxiety-driven confrontations with some act of higher virtue on our part, and we blame the other party for being defensive and unable to hear us. We then conclude, with God or our therapist on our side, that our mother (or father, or sister, or Uncle Charlie) can’t change and it’s best to give up on them.

Heck, that’s a lot easier than figuring out how we might behave differently, or approach a difficult subject with a bit more timing and tact, or see things from a different angle.

Of course, distancing can bring short-term relief by freeing us from the intense feelings that are stirred by closer contact. At particular points in our lives, seeking distance can even be essential and life-preserving. But it doesn't bring us real freedom or happiness. if our only option is to stay cut off forever from key family members, they may become an even larger presence in our unconscious. Whatever goes unresolved and unaddressed with our family of origin will go underground and then pop up somewhere else, especially if we start a family of our own. People, like other growing things, do not hold up well in the long run when severed from their roots.

Working on family relationships is one royal road to freeing us from the anxious and intense emotional climate of family life. It’s not that we have to like all these folks, or to reconnect with any one of them before we are ready. But if we can learn more about who these people are, and the forces that shaped them, we’ll begin to navigate family relationships with greater maturity and balance. It's important to protect yourself first, but that said, aim to move in the direction of more family connectedness over time.

In our society, much is made about the importance of achieving independence from our family of origin. Achieving independence is a way of achieving emotional freedom. But what does this word, independence, mean? It means that we can stay connected to other family members while remaining ourselves. It means that we can take a clear position on emotionally important issues without having to change, convince, or fix others who see things differently.

If we can learn to view our parents and siblings a bit more calmly and objectively—and observe and change our own part in escalating family patterns that keep us stuck—even a small change can make a very big difference.

It’s the largest of all human challenges—this business of maintaining both the “I” and the “we” without losing either when the going gets rough.