Do you dread holiday celebrations?
Ever create excuses to skip the annual family get-together?
How often do you avoid that family call, telling yourself you “don’t have time” to talk at the moment?
The call may be avoidable, but the family relationship influence is not.
When we evaluate the influences in our lives, we must look at family relationships.
Without a doubt, these influences can be some of the most painful to evaluate, assess, and fix. No one wants to admit that time with Aunt Janet drains every ounce of energy. And, listening to the political aerobics of Jeff, John, and Susie at each gathering makes you want to tear your hair out and run screaming into the nearest bramble bush. Anything to get away.
Then there’s Abby, who has an opinion about every subject. And Cheryl, who never says a word but stares at you long enough to make you wonder what’s hovering just above your head. Bill seems to resent every moment he’s with the family.
You wonder if anyone else’s family feels this awkward and dysfunctional. But after marrying into your husband’s family, you’ve seen your family isn’t the only one.
Even a family relationship that seems healthy has some dysfunction.
We’re human. Therefore, we have issues. Every family has chaos, oddballs, brokenness, and weirdness. We can’t help it. And these family relationships influence our behavior in more ways than we are aware.
How do you navigate, cope with, and learn from these family relationship influences?
Ask God to show you the truth.
Whether your family of origin falls in the good, bad, or ugly category, clearly seeing your family dynamics for what they free you. I’ve been with folks who think that Dad never makes a mistake, or everyone knows Kim is lazy and will never amount to much. Neither of those statements is true. Only God knows the condition of our hearts. You and I can’t decipher another’s motivation. And sweeping generalizations are rarely accurate. Therefore, ask God to show you what is real and what is family lore.
Ask your husband about your family.
While opening yourself to his honest critique might be scary, he can probably see what you can’t. As one who hasn’t grown up in your family, your husband’s input can be valuable. Think about how you view his family. What do you see that he doesn’t see? Dave and I have honest conversations about our families often. We openly discuss the blessings, bothersome idiosyncrasies, and boy-I’m-glad-I don’t-live-with-that-anymore issues. We’ve tried to continue those habits that enrich our lives but discard anything that detracts from the life we believe God desires.
Accept the weirdness.
Your family and mine are unique. No family has the corner on odd behaviors. Accept it. You don’t have to live the same way as your weird uncle, cousin, sister, or aunt, but you do need to treat them with respect. That’s not always easy, I know. I had one of those family members. I accept that, and then I ask God to give me an extra measure of grace for the family member who irritates me just by their presence.
Acknowledge the unhealthy behaviors.
No person practices healthy behaviors at every moment. See it for what it is. When I’m nervous, I tend to blurt out something before I think the comment through. Embarrassing! Thankfully, I do it less than I used to. Those unhealthy responses stem from something or some experience. So, instead of judging that other person who just made a fool of themselves, why not ask God to help you see beyond that unhealthy response to what might be going on beneath the surface? Maybe they need reassurance that their existence matters. And you can do that by giving a quick hug, a smile, or even a high-five.
This acknowledgment goes for your spouse too. They have unhealthy behaviors and responses also. Why do they do what they do? Don’t always take it personally; maybe they are trapped in the Cycle of Shame about that very behavior that you can’t stand. Perhaps they can’t stand it either but aren’t sure how to break free. This was true for my husband and his addiction to pornography. Over a decade later, he is in recovery and doing great, and we talk about this cycle and the unhealthy behavior it produced. I wrote a blog about it here if you’d like to learn more about it.
Apply disarming tactics.
We’ve all been there. Two people in a conversation allow their emotions to take over, so they begin attacking each other instead of the topic. Things get heated quickly. Soon, most of the family stares at those involved—some hiding laughter or derision, while others are so uncomfortable, they don’t make eye contact with anyone. Scripture reminds us that calming words disarm potentially volatile situations. Instead of trying to calm them down, maybe you can change the subject, draw their attention to some amusing thing the little ones are doing at the moment, or suggest a game of catch.
Adjust your emotional response.
Practice emotional intelligence. Family relationship dynamics are hard to break. When we get together, often, we fall back into former patterns as we interact. Yet, you are not that 9-year-old annoying little sister anymore, and your older brother has changed, too. Extend grace to each other, and remember that you are different people. As you improve your emotional intelligence, you become less concerned about how you come across. Switch your focus to how you can bless other family members.
Allow for differing opinions.
Just because your brother looks at a situation differently than you, doesn’t make him wrong and you right. Unless it’s a clear God-given command like do not steal, you both have an opinion. Neither of you is right or wrong. Differences are good. They challenge us to see the world from a different angle or lens. While we think we prefer everyone agrees with us, how boring the world would be! Practice active listening. You might learn something new and mature. Or, you might have to agree to disagree without damaging the relationship.
Avoid internalizing unkind words.
Developing this skill is a biggie. How often do you hear something and accept a barb in your heart? Or worse: did you overhear part of a negative conversation and assume it was about you? Receiving that kind of wound is on you. Maybe that caustic remark had nothing to do with you. After all, you listened in on a conversation where you weren’t invited. Sometimes, you and I say things out of tiredness, anger, disappointment, fear, or jealousy. And those words are harsh and unkind. You know it and so do I. Wouldn’t it be a gracious gift to have the other person respond with kindness and forgiveness? I’m humbled by those who can diffuse the situation with grace, mercy, and love when I’m incapable at the moment. Work through those unkind words with the One who made you and would never be cruel. Or a neutral third party.
Alter your response.
You have complete control over which family relationship influences you accept and reject. Just because it’s always been this way in your family doesn’t mean it has to continue. You can be the catalyst for positive change. Perhaps, you need to forgive your cousin Jill for her offhand remark. In the past, you’d have shot back with another biting comment. Instead, you choose to laugh it off this time and change the subject. The stunned look on Jill’s face tells you she didn’t see that one coming. You broke the behavior pattern. Awesome.
The same goes for your husband. Unhealthy patterns in marriage can get ground in deep and often link back to the family influence. Change up your response to your husband. If he tries to “push your buttons,” you have the choice to let it go. If he won’t engage in a conversation and that drives you nuts, alter your response to the situation. Find a different way to engage him or pay close attention to outside factors—is he tired, stressed out, fearful, on the hot seat at work? Alter your response to the same old habits that usually make you mad. You control you.
Don’t start out thinking about the bad. The last five family get-togethers may have caused pain. This one doesn’t have to. What if, instead of anticipating the worst, you look for the best? Think about those family members you’re excited to see. Focus there. Maybe, for dinner, you choose to sit with the kids instead of the adults to avoid the typical negative conversations. You’ll have fun, and the kids will be delighted. My husband and I did this at one family event. Little did we know the positive influence that simple act would have on the kids, us, and other family members. And, we had a blast at the kids’ table!
Adopt a new understanding.
Look at the family influences with wide-open eyes. What can you control? Yourself. No one else. Let go of past patterns, behaviors, and expectations. Decide today to exchange the negative for the positive as much as you can. Look at your family, honestly. No one is perfect, so drop that thinking like a red-hot iron poker. Now, decide who you want your family to see in you this time. How can you exemplify and praise God when you hold onto old destructive influences?
Not every family relationship will exert a positive influence.
Face the truth. Identify those unhealthy relationships and, with God’s help and guidance, find ways to change the dynamics or minimize your exposure to that unhealthy person. But, pray for them regularly and respect them because they are human like you are. God will honor this type of prayer, humility, and grace lived out in your life.
Relationship influences can strengthen or weaken us.
If you struggle with extremely dysfunctional family relationships, it’s time to change your influence. You can choose not to behave as they do.
Look honestly at your family.
Take a piece of paper or open a new document on your favorite device.
Divide the paper in half. On one side, write: “Life-giving relationships.” On the other side of the line, write: “These relationships make me crazy.”
Now, honestly, jot down your thoughts about your family relationships. Do you need to strengthen some relationships? How will you do that?
On the other side of the paper, under “These relationships make me crazy,” record the names of those with whom you struggle. The struggle isn’t wrong; it just is. Why do you struggle with these family members? Do you need to lessen the influence of these relationships?
Now pray over both lists. This is private between you and God. Ask Him to show you how to heal past wounds, redraw boundary lines as necessary, and move forward in His grace and truth.
If you need to talk with someone about difficulties in your family relationship influences, I offer a free virtual, or in-person opportunity to connect. You choose what influences to accept and which to reject. I pray you choose to overcome the unhealthy influences and move forward.