“A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden.” ~Buddha

Family is often considered the cornerstone of our lives, providing support, love, and a sense of belonging. However, not all family dynamics are healthy, and breaking free from toxic patterns can be crucial for personal growth and overall well-being.

Unhealthy family dynamics can manifest in various ways, including emotional manipulation, control issues, and unhealthy communication patterns. In addition to causing pain and unhappiness to those affected, very often, the behaviors that create an unhealthy dynamic are passed from generation to generation, as children learn what’s “normal” from their parents.

When dysfunctional behavior is your “normal,” it can be difficult to recognize the need for change and even harder to make those changes. But if those changes aren’t made, the result is often continued unhappiness, a trail of broken relationships, and perpetuation of the dysfunction cycle.

How to Recognize Dysfunction in Your Family

Your family’s perfectly normal, right? After all, every family has problems.

That’s what I thought too.

It’s not an accident that I’m in the mental health field helping people fix psychological problems. I had to escape just such a family. And in the process of doing that, I decided to show others how they could become more than the family they came from too.

I assumed the way my family interacted with each other was the way all families interacted. My dad was emotionally volatile, and my mother was emotionally absent. There was anger or nothing in my house growing up. My family was purely functional (task and survival focused), not experiential (sharing the emotions that come along with life experiences).

This left me significantly lacking in emotional intelligence. And the first thirty-plus years of my life showed the consequences with failed relationships, employment, finances, and happiness.

So, while it’s true enough that each family has its own problems, the way family members interact and communicate with one another can heavily influence the problems encountered and how they’re resolved. This means the family experience can vary widely, and sometimes those experiences can be dysfunctional or even traumatic, making even “normal” family problems more severe.

One of the biggest obstacles to creating better familial relationships is seeing the signs that the ones you have aren’t operating in a healthy manner. As I mentioned, this isn’t always easy to do.

The first step is recognizing how dysfunctional relationships present themselves. Some of the most common manifestations of family dysfunction are below.

It should be noted that volumes have been written about each of these dysfunctional behaviors, the many ways they can manifest themselves, and why they occur. For the purpose of discussing the importance of breaking free from these unhealthy dynamics and how to do it, I kept the descriptions below brief.

Enmeshment

While this term pertains to family dysfunction, it may not be familiar; however, the type of relationship it describes will be. Enmeshment is an unhealthy lack of emotional and psychological boundaries between family members.

Family members may become overly involved in each other’s lives, often experiencing collective or paired emotional reactions, micromanaging one another’s actions, and losing any sense of autonomy.

Think of married couples who seem unable to make decisions independently of each other, or adult children who need a parent’s approval to make life choices.

Left unresolved, enmeshment can prevent people from forming healthy, independent relationships outside the family.

Codependency

In codependent relationships, there’s often one person who feels an excessive need to care for others and put their needs above their own. This goes beyond what’s accepted as loving and selfless and becomes a defining characteristic in a person’s identity.

In codependent relationships, the caretaking individual often enables destructive or even dangerous behaviors in others. My own mother fit this description.

Think of the mother who’s constantly making excuses for her child’s failures or buying beer for her alcoholic husband. Or the husband who’s aware of his wife’s affairs but refuses to believe he needs to take a stand or leave.

Emotional Abuse

Any type of abuse constitutes dysfunction, but emotional abuse is insidious because it can quietly insert itself into a relationship and masquerade as love.

Emotional abuse in relationships can involve manipulation, verbal abuse, conditional love, constant criticism, controlling behavior, and more. It’s often hallmarked by using love as leverage and explained as “for your own good.”

This was also a big factor in my own story.

If any of these have an uncomfortable familiarity on any level, you’ve likely experienced dysfunctional family relationships.

Now what?

Personal Reflection on Your Family’s Dysfunction

Making changes can’t be done with a shotgun approach—it must be targeted to what’s happening in your relationships. To make the most effective changes, you need to narrow things down to those behaviors that are specifically dysfunctional in your relationships and yourself.

Begin this by identifying the problematic behavior patterns in your family relationships. These might originate in the following areas.

Childhood Experiences

Because many dysfunctional behaviors have deep roots, evidence of these patterns can often be seen in the earliest childhood memories. Reflecting on these memories can help provide perspective on your emotional state, reactions, thoughts, beliefs, and how you relate to others, and can help you identify what you want to avoid when it comes to your children.

Communication Patterns

Nearly all relationship problems have a communication component that needs to be addressed. Poor communication habits are like the highway on which dysfunction travels. These habits are often characterized by yelling, silence, avoidance, and inability to constructively express emotions or resolve conflicts. When you can see where communication has failed, you can better determine what needs to change for it to be positive and successful.

Family Expectations

Unrealistic expectations of family members can lead to frustration, disappointment, and anger. Feeling that you constantly disappoint those you love will have a detrimental effect on your self-esteem. Conversely, if you’re the one placing excessive pressure on family members to live up to unrealistic standards, you’ll need to relearn how to appreciate people for who they are and what they offer.

Unrealistic expectations can also lead to feelings of conditional love. Feeling like failing to achieve specific goals will mean the family (or family members) won’t love you is an extremely damaging dynamic.

How Your Family Has Influenced Your Self-Perception 

Part of how we view ourselves is based on how others respond to us. People we love and value in our lives act as a living mirror. For example, this means when those people treat you with disrespect or disdain, as though you’re a failure or unworthy of love and affection, you’re very likely to have a negative view of yourself.

By reflecting on patterns within your own experience, you can better see how they’ve affected current relationships and identify the specific areas you need to address to make positive change.

I won’t sugar coat it—this can be a difficult process.

Looking at your family and your own experiences through a brutally honest lens can bring a lot of repressed pain to the surface and leave you feeling raw, resentful, and depressed—which is exactly how I felt when I went through this process.

As I worked to accept that my family wasn’t the norm, I began to feel even more angry. I’d been robbed of a loving and supportive family experience. What would my childhood have been like if my dad said he loved me, ever?

But even as the anger surfaced, I could see that allowing it to consume me was pointless. It wouldn’t change the past and wouldn’t change my parents. Ignoring anger and resentment is a bad choice, and so is getting too comfortable with it. But this was hard, and a process, because I’d held on to both of these feelings for so long.

I learned that I had to let myself feel these feelings and then find a way to move on and break the cycle going forward.

Creating Happiness by Breaking the Cycle of Dysfunction 

Positive change in relationships doesn’t just happen. It requires intention and effort. This means you’ll need to embrace your personal responsibility in making these changes.

Once you understand what dysfunction looks like and how it manifests in your relationships, you can take the next steps toward change.

While those changes will look different for everyone, certain steps are common to most efforts and essential for creating and maintaining happiness.

1. Focus first on what you can do as an individual, whether your family members are open to change or not.

Because you can only control your own actions, understanding what you need to do personally is crucial. Sadly, family members often aren’t ready to admit the need for change, or participate in it even if they do.

To start, practicing active listening, which is seeking to understand what the person is trying to say, not just listening to respond. Doing this can help you better see the broken parts of a family member’s emotional state and make you more empathetic. It can also help reinforce the understanding that the dysfunction you’re experiencing isn’t your fault or yours to own.

Next, cultivate healthy relationships outside the family. When you can see and experience healthy connections with others, it can be eye opening and create perspective. Yes, there are other ways families function than yours. Outside relationships also allow you to practice and improve your own communication skills. Those will eventually translate into your new approach with your family.

Lastly, be willing to step away from a toxic situation. Sometimes, the only avenue to achieve change is breaking ties, at least for a while. Your mental health and ability to create healthy and successful relationships must be prioritized. If your family is standing in the way of those things, you may need to step away.

2. If your family is open to making efforts toward change, commit to the following together.

Regular family meetings, where everyone can express themselves and contribute to decision-making.
Establishing clear, healthy boundaries, which involves setting limits on behavior, emotions, and interactions within the family. For example. if you have a family member who yells at you (like my dad did to me), your boundary might be telling them you want them to stop yelling at you. And if they don’t respect this boundary, you’ll end the conversation and walk away.

3. If it seems like you’re not making progress, consider professional help.

Everyone’s idea of change, which changes are needed, and which will be most effective can be different. This means that, especially in a family, finding common ground on what should be done to make a difference in the dynamic can be tough.

If, as a family, you can agree that something needs to change, but you can’t agree on what or how, then this would be a good time to seek counseling.

An experienced family counselor can be instrumental in helping everyone see eye-to-eye and create better communication habits. A counselor can also offer an objective perspective, provide tools for addressing deep-rooted issues, and offer a point of accountability so you can all break dysfunctional patterns and learn healthier habits. Don’t expect things to change overnight, however.

Breaking the cycle of dysfunction is a gradual and ongoing process. Patience, empathy, and a willingness to learn and grow as individuals and as a family are critical components of this transformation. It will also involve adapting these steps to the specific needs and dynamics of the family.

In the case of me and my family, this process took time. An important lesson I learned is that I control myself and my behaviors when it comes to my family, and that has to be enough for me.

So, change yourself, even if you can’t change your family.

Rather than mindlessly going through my life repeating what my parents modeled for me, I decided I wanted to put a fork in the road of my family tree and choose a different path for myself and my future family.

Today my relationships don’t follow the dysfunctional patterns I grew up with—it’s my choice and I chose change. I broke the cycle.

Maybe you’d like to do that too?

About Dr. Kurt Smith

Dr. Kurt Smith is the Clinical Director of Guy Stuff Counseling & Coaching. He’s an expert in understanding men, their partners, and the unique relationship challenges facing couples today. Dr. Kurt is a regular contributor to publications such as HuffPost, PsychCentral, and The Good Men Project.

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