Healing Family Relationships: How to Get Started, and When to Step Away

This article was written and published by The Fix


People tend to put up with a lot of unkind or unacceptable behavior just because it’s coming from family members. Buck that trend by defining boundaries.

With vaccinations on board and safety measures in place, more of us are cautiously getting together with our families, celebrating postponed birthday parties and weddings. When you discuss these plans with friends or colleagues, however, you might notice a trend. Although most people have some excitement for family gatherings, there’s also an ever-present current of dread. For every sweet moment, there’s an awkward or irritating conversation with a family member — or, even worse, a sense of things left unsaid. These moments can be amplified in families that are touched by substance use disorder or mental illness.

It’s easy to fall into a cycle of ignoring family dynamics, thinking that they’re never going to change. However, that doesn’t have to be the way. Addressing negative family dynamics can change the patterns among your loved ones and make for more meaningful connections. Here’s how to get started.

Identify the issue you most want to address.

When it comes to family, there are probably plenty of things that annoy you. Unfortunately, this isn’t the time to come in with a laundry list. Think about the one thing that would make the biggest difference in your relationships with your loved ones. Maybe you want to ask them not to make comments about your substance use or recovery. Perhaps you’d like to break the cycle of talking about other family members behind their back. Whatever it might be, take time to identify what would be most beneficial to the relationship.

Once you have that in mind, talk with your loved one. In most cases it’s best to have a one-on-one conversation, but in some families a ground dynamic is better. Bring up your request gently, without blaming your loved one. Emphasize that you’re looking to move toward a better relationship.

Make amends.

Many recovery programs emphasize the need to make amends and heal past wrongs. This can be particularly important if you’re early in recovery, perhaps having just gotten through your first sober holiday. Again, it’s important to keep it limited. Think about the thing that you’ve done that’s eroded trust from your relationships. Next time you’re together with your loved one, apologize for that action.

It’s important to make amends without expectations. You can’t assume that because you’ve said sorry your relationship will instantly change. You have to resist the urge to expect your loved one to apologize in return for the hurt they have caused you. Remember, they might not be doing the same personal work that you’re doing, so making amends should be something that benefits you in and of itself, regardless of whether your loved one responds in an ideal way.

Define your boundaries.

People tend to put up with a lot of unkind or unacceptable behavior just because it’s coming from family members. Buck that trend by defining boundaries. This is something you must think about on your own before you get together with family. Once you’ve defined your boundary, decide what the consequences will be if someone violates it. Next comes the hard part: communicating the boundary with your family member and sticking to your resolve if they violate it.

Your boundaries are entirely up to you. Maybe this year you’re unable to be around people who offer your drinks, those who have different approaches to COVID precautions, or those who make off-color comments. Let your loved ones know, and be prepared to leave the gathering or otherwise respond if they don’t respect your boundary.

Know when to stop.

Sometimes, family dynamics are so toxic that they cannot be fixed. For some people, cutting off contact or having limited contact with family members is the healthiest option. This is most often the case when your loved one has repeatedly violated your boundaries.

There is a huge stigma around family estrangement. But an estrangement that is thought out and not made out of anger is a healthy choice, not a failure. If your family members continue to impact your health and wellness in a negative way, it’s entirely fine to distance yourself.That might mean skipping the post-quarantine dinner, or going no-contact.

Family relationships can be a lot. Remember that no one has the right to negatively impact your health and wellness, even if they are your family. Taking steps to heal relationships, putting boundaries in place, and possibly distancing yourself from family can make for a happier and healthier recovery.

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