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How I’ve Learned to Heal From an Imperfect Family

Published:
January 9, 2024
November 6, 2023
Learn how to love your broken family and heal from your past while still bettering yourself for future relationships.

Each year, the holiday season stirs up a myriad of emotions. For some, it is an exciting time of buying presents, seeing extended family, and getting into the holiday spirit with house decorations. For others, juggling holiday obligations and daily responsibilities brings added stress. Some are going through their first holiday season without a loved one, and others anxiously await strained family gatherings. Ultimately, these merry days are not always the blissful experience that the movies portray.

As an adult child of divorced parents, I fall into that last category. My parents split up right when I left for college so I was fortunate to have a childhood that was not shattered by this reality, but I have found that as a single young professional, I am still looking for the security that the holiday season promises. But each year has become an opportunity to bring that to the Lord and reflect on what family and the holiday season means to me. Rather than label my family as “toxic,” I have realized it’s better to take a more holistic approach towards my family of origin by learning to accept them as they are — while still wanting to do better for my future children and future husband.

If, like me, you are looking for a few ways to see your family in a better light, here are some suggestions based on my experience:

You know a tree by the fruit it bears

One of the best pieces of advice I have received stems from this Gospel reading: “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:18-20). It can be tempting to blame our parents or other members of our family for the hurt they have caused us, but I have met a lot of great people who have these wounds yet are some of the kindest, most empathetic people I have ever met. Children learn parts of their behavior and develop aspects of their personality from their primary caregivers. As I have sat in therapy and talked about how my parents raised compassionate and intelligent daughters with big hearts, I came to the conclusion that my parents deserve credit in being able to produce two girls, with completely different personalities, who know how to love the people around them well. Though my parents’ marriage did not produce a lifelong union, it did bear good fruit: the lives of their daughters.

Look for Christ within them

Piggybacking off of the fruits that our family of origin bears, I got this tremendous piece of advice from a priest and my therapist: Look at people with the eyes of Christ instead of relying on our own understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9). Oftentimes, when we judge other people, we attribute their faults to their personality instead of seeing the full picture or taking the extra time to figure out why that person did what they did. I am not excusing malicious behavior, but if there is anything I have learned when it comes to my interpersonal relationships, it is that people do a lot of things from a place of woundedness as opposed to a place of love.

One example is a certain relative during the holidays who always seems to be bitter and causes tension at every gathering. My natural, human reflex is to complain about this person, but I’ve found myself instead trying to ask, “If I was Christ, what would I say to this relative?” The focus then goes from, “This person is so bitter and negative and will die alone,” to, “Christ would tell this relative of mine that he loves her no matter what she has done.” Doing this helps me see that my judgment does nothing to help this person, myself, or the situation. The healthier alternative is to look at them with the patience and compassion of Christ.

Identify the wounds they’ve caused

If you thought this was going to be a warm, fuzzy article of looking only at the good, guess again — this next step is probably the most important in cultivating a holistic view of your family. If you have been deeply hurt by your parents, siblings, or other relatives, there is great freedom in listing out the ways that they failed to love you. This isn’t about blaming them or disregarding the good that they’ve done — it’s about making yourself aware of what your pain points are. People list out their symptoms and get diagnoses for bodily illnesses so that they can get the appropriate help. The same applies to trauma on a mental, emotional, and/or psychological level. For some, writing a letter to this person is how they process the trauma that has been caused. Other individuals may prefer to confront the other person to make them aware of the pain that they have caused. Regardless of how you choose to process the pain, once you name the wound, you inch closer towards healing.

Seek help

While identifying wounds is the most crucial step for having a holistic view of our families, seeking help is the most important step in healing. Healing is not a seamless process. I wish I could sit here and tell people that a healing journey solves everything! But oftentimes, it gets worse before it gets better.

One challenge that we’ll inevitably face is that the people who hurt us may never acknowledge the pain that they caused nor may they ever get help themselves. This means that the gap between the healed version of us and the relative who has never worked on their wounds will become wider and wider. One of the questions I repeatedly ask myself is, “How do I live with the fact that there are family members who will continue to wound me no matter how much healing I have done? How do I work on being able to forgive them over and over again?” This is where identifying boundaries comes in. Remember that forgiveness does not equal reconciliation. You can release someone from their debt without giving them full access to your heart, and you are not a bad person for wanting to keep people who have deeply wronged you at a distance.

Help can come in many forms: going to therapy, joining a support group (I am part of a Catholic ministry for adult children of divorce called Life-Giving Wounds), or confiding in those who have similar family trauma. Prayer is another resource you can lean on if you’re looking for a more meditative, spiritual practice. If you have a rocky relationship with your dad, the consecration to Saint Joseph is a great book that can reignite your hope in men. If you have a strained relationship with your mom, try praying to the Blessed Mother and asking her what perfect motherhood looks like. Our Heavenly parents are meant to fill in the gaps that our earthly parents create. The important thing to remember, in all of this, is that you are not alone.

Bringing it all together

As I get older and closer to thinking about marriage, I have realized that if I want to have a family better than the one that I came from, it starts with me. At first, I found this daunting, but this past year I have realized that if we become who we want to attract, the rest follows suit. If we want a partner who is slow to anger, forgiving, and patient, we have to work on those same virtues ourselves. In my current season of singleness, I have realized that I can start preparing for marriage and family life now by getting the help and working on the healing that my future family deserves.

Lastly, there are probably habits that our family members had that severely wounded us, so I picked up this term from a fellow child of divorce called “doing the 180.” If our parent was very seflish when it came to his time or money, we should be generous when giving our time or sharing our hard-earned money with others. If one parent was short-tempered and quick to judge, we can be the ones who talk calmly and give others the benefit of the doubt. If we felt like we had to earn love in order to be loved, we can be the ones to give love freely to others by writing them letters or being the first person to call out the good in a person that we encounter.

Our family of origin can be a place of woundedness that we may need lifelong healing from, but it does not mean we cannot create healthy families ourselves. The holiday season can be a trying time, but it is also a season that reignites one of my favorite virtues: hope. Every year, I grow more hopeful in my relationship with my current family and more hopeful in my dreams for my future family. I hold to the belief that God is intentional and will restore us, specifically, in the parts of our heart where we did not think healing was possible.

Creators:
Patricia Valderrama
Published:
January 9, 2024
November 6, 2023
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