Complicated family dynamics are something most of us can relate to. Healthy family relationships come with conflicting feelings, but when those relationships are dysfunctional, unconditional love is accompanied by a confusing mix of compassion and disdain. Addictions, mental health problems, or simply a contrast in core values can cause stress and even abuse between family members.
As we grow older, we learn how to manage relationships with difficult family members and discover ways to deal with their behavior. Learning to forgive someone who’s caused pain can be incredibly healing, but it’s never easy. Forgiveness is an important practice for moving forward in life, so what are some practical ways we can grow in forgiveness when it comes to relationships with family members who are stuck in their ways and causing problems in family dynamics?
I asked licensed counselor Julia Hogan for her advice on forgiving a family member who won’t change. Here’s what she said.
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting
It turns out the famous saying, “Forgive and forget” isn’t actually advice to live by. In fact, Hogan clarifies that forgiveness isn't forgetting. It’s common for family members to pretend that nothing happened after another family member hurts them. This can harbor feelings of unspoken resentment that can actually negatively impact you in the long run, though. Hogan explains that when you really forgive a family member, you aren't saying, "It's okay that you hurt me. I'll just ignore it and pretend like it never happened." You're actually saying, "You hurt me, it was wrong, and I've been deeply affected by it. But I am choosing to not wish revenge or retribution on you."
Limit time spent with that family member
Hogan also recommended limiting time spent with the family member who’s hurt you (or is continuing to hurt you). She suggested being mindful of the setting you interact in — for example, meeting only in public areas or when other family members are also present. If there are certain conversation topics or environments that typically bring up the tension, make an effort to avoid them. Talk about something that is positive and that you both can agree upon. If the conversation starts heading towards an area of conflict, try not to engage in an aggravated exchange. If things become hostile, calmly remove yourself from the conversation.
Hogan recommends setting boundaries by being clear about what behavior you are not willing to be around. She said, for example, if your relative is drinking and unwilling to get help for their addiction, set the boundary that you will not be around them when they’re drinking. This is necessary for protecting your own emotional health. If you ever feel like your mood is contingent upon another family member’s mood or behavior, it may be a sign that you haven’t set boundaries. Remember that they have no power over your happiness. Don’t allow their bad day to ruin yours. Setting these boundaries will help you reclaim a sense of independence and regain control of your emotions.
Seek therapy and spiritual direction
You may be thinking, “It’s my family member who needs help,” but don’t forget that you would probably benefit from seeking therapy and spiritual direction, yourself. Therapy can be beneficial to anyone and everyone, especially if you’re dealing with complicated family dynamics. Consider talking with a professional who can provide insights and real-life advice on how to manage difficult relationships. “Therapy can be extremely beneficial in helping you to explore your wounds and to find healing,” Hogan said.
See their pain
When a family member causes you to suffer, it’s hard to see anything but a betrayal of trust. The ones we are closest to should project and love us. That’s why pain inflicted by a parent, sibling, aunt, or grandparent often cuts the deepest. But it’s important to remember that when someone causes you pain, it’s usually coming from their own pain. They might be suffering from past traumas, addiction, or other mental health issues you may or may not be aware of. Acknowledging their shortcomings and personal battles might help you to feel compassion for them, ultimately releasing you from bitterness and resentment.
If you’re struggling with certain family members, take heart in knowing that all relationships require work. It may seem like everyone around you comes from a perfect family, but most people are dealing with wounds you can’t see on the surface. The majority of us learn that a shared family tree doesn’t necessarily mean parents or siblings will act in a loving manner. Forgiving those who caused you pain gives you the freedom to let go and pursue healing for yourself while also inviting your family to heal.