Broken relationships are perhaps one of the hardest obstacles to overcome after growing up in a dysfunctional family.
As a child you may have witnessed or experienced a long list of relationship struggles in your home ranging from yelling and fighting to infidelity to abuse and everything in between.
The way people relate to us as children is often how we will learn to relate to others as adults.
Have you ever heard the saying, “hurt people hurt people?” Well, it all starts in the childhood home. We learn from day one what is acceptable and appropriate by watching our primary caregivers.
Whether we, as parents, realize it or not we are teaching our children how to treat others and how to let others treat them.
In dysfunctional families there is often poor communication, physical punishments for children who break rules, and disagreements that result in yelling, fighting, or even violence.
Parents may spew hateful words at each other or their children. One parent may be controlling or manipulative.
There may be infidelity in a relationship. All of these things have a lasting impact on how the children in a dysfunctional family learn to relate to others.
For this reason, adults who grew up in a dysfunctional family often have a difficult time building strong and healthy relationships with others, whether that be family, friends, their partner, or even their children.
What we learned through example as young kids is what we instinctively fall back on as adults. Without intentional effort to change the way we relate to others, the cycle of dysfunction will likely continue in our families.
Healthy Relationships With Our Children
It’s a known fact that infants begin the bonding process the moment they are born (or even before). In a healthy family, this bonding happens between mother and child and, hopefully, father and child.
This bonding early on sets the foundation for every other function of our minds and bodies for the rest of our lives.
The lack of a healthy bond with a caregiver can have lasting and devastating effects on our emotional and even physical well-being.
Unfortunately, not every precious babe is born into a healthy, functioning family and many of those children will never experience the loving bond they need to develop the earliest social and emotional skills needed to grow into a healthy functioning adult.
Parents in a dysfunctional family often find it difficult to build healthy bonds and relationships with their children because they’ve never experienced it themselves.
Mental health struggles, addictions, and personality disorders can further complicate the relationships we have with our children (or with anyone, for that matter).
Do As I Say, Not As I Do Is A Lie
As a child I remember being told not to do things that my parents did all the time. But when I would question them, I’d get some response along the lines of, “do what I say, not what I do.”
I’d complain about how unfair it was and try to argue my way out of whatever I was supposed to be doing. I loathed when my parents would say this to me. After all, why was it ok for them but not for me?
Well, it turns out the answer is – it’s not. No matter how much we want our kids to do what we tell them to, if we aren’t modeling the behavior we want to see in them, it’s not going to happen.
The human brain just doesn’t work that way. Whether intentionally or not, we tend to pick up the habits of those around us.
I once heard someone say that we are a combination of the five people we spend the most time with – with all their strengths and all their weaknesses. It’s just human nature to act like the people we interact with most.
Aside from basic human instinct, a child truly cannot comprehend that your words and your actions are somehow different – or that they should be treated differently.
Small children want to be just like mom or dad (or whoever their primary caretakers are). They don’t understand that this behavior is acceptable or that one isn’t – if they see you doing it, it must be good. They have no concept of something being ok for one person and not another.
Now don’t get me wrong, I totally get it now that I’m a parent myself. I know I’m a flawed human and I make tons of mistakes every stinkin’ day.
So when I yell at my kids because they won’t stop yelling or when I get angry with them because they just popped off with some nasty comment that I know they heard straight from my mouth, it’s not because I’m trying to be a hypocrite.
It’s because I know that I screwed up and I’m hoping and praying that maybe, just maybe, my kids will be better than me.
The truth is, though, that they don’t have the slightest understanding of all those adult thought processes running through my mind.
They’re stuck in this weird space of trying to reconcile the disconnect between what I say and what I do. And they feel totally confused.
We Learned Through Example – And So Will Our Kids
If I want my kids to be different, I have to be different. And that’s really freaking hard!
But think back to your childhood. What are your memories of discipline in your family? Do you ever remember feeling like things just didn’t make sense to you?
I remember once when I was maybe about six, my little sister said some bad word and I, of course, went and told Dad.
But instead of disciplining my sister right away, he forced me to tell him exactly what word she said and then punished me for saying it.
As a teenager, I remember having so many discussions with my step dad about respect and following rules and listening.
I never understood why I was expected to show respect for my parents (or anyone else) when they didn’t return the favor. (Don’t get me wrong, my step dad was awesome, but he was old school in his parenting methods for sure).
I would get so mad when they wouldn’t listen to me, when they wouldn’t hear me out.
I once recall one of these conversations with him in which he was angry and yelling and just being generally bossy and stubborn.
I tried to tell him that the way he was speaking to me wasn’t going to do any good because I was feeling disrespected – because I wanted to be heard too.
Because I knew myself and I knew what kind of interactions would help me be more willing to listen and respond well.
But the response I got was, “Don’t try to tell me how to parent!”
I get it, I do. Parenting is hard y’all… especially when we never had a good example of how to do it well.
But until we’re willing to admit our own struggles and actually dig in and find a way to better ourselves, we’re never going to get anything better from our kids, either.
When we choose to yell, belittle, shame, blame, coerce, manipulate, and play our power cards against our little loves, we are just perpetuating the same broken and flawed ways of handling challenges that have left us with a cargo ship full of our own baggage.
And I know that’s not what any of us wants to pass on to our children.
You Can Support Your Children And Still Have High Expectations
I’m not saying we have to be perfect. Heaven knows none of us are – I, for one, am about as far from perfect as anyone.
What I am saying is that there’s a way to balance our flaws with our strengths. There’s a way to turn even our failures into teaching moments.
It’s possible to build strong and healthy and happy relationships with our children even when we still get it wrong more than we care to admit.
The difference is in our willingness to acknowledge our humanness and let our kids see us make mistakes and make amends.
The difference is in stepping down off of our parenting pedestal and treating our kids like human beings, too, who have bad days and their own opinions and preferences and personalities that are unique and different from ours.
The difference is in realizing that they are just as deserving of grace, forgiveness, respect, and love as we are – even (especially) in their most challenging moments.
What they need is to know that you’re their safe place. They need you to love them unconditionally – and to remind them of it often. They need firm, yet gentle boundaries.
Instead of yelling in anger, hitting, grounding, or isolating, try putting yourself in their shoes. Help them learn how to recognize and name what they are feeling.
Teach them healthy outlets for their big emotions instead of inadvertently forcing them to stuff their emotions. Give them a safe place to work through their struggles instead of shutting them down and proving to them that there’s no one they can trust.
Instead of helping them build a wall around their own beautifully vulnerable heart, let them help you tear yours down.
Healthy Relationships With Our Partner
Romance, intimacy, dating, marriage – these relationships can be the source of great desire and yet great fear in the life of someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family.
We have this complex dichotomy of push and pull waging war within us. We want so badly to have our fairy tale romance, our perfect love story. But our reality is so far from the image we have in our minds that we can’t reconcile the two.
So instead we believe it’s not possible and we choose to give ourselves to relationships that resemble the ones we grew up with – abuse, neglect, shame, fear.
Or we do find our happily ever after, but we’re so jaded and broken that we can’t just enjoy it. We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop – never allowing ourselves to fully commit, to fully open up, to be totally and completely vulnerable for fear that, if we do, we’ll most certainly be hurt.
The rest of us choose to avoid the pain all together and simply live in isolation – never risking the heartbreak of love gone wrong.
So many of us desperately seek the affection that we missed as a child and freely accept anything that even slightly resembles love from others. We sacrifice our standards and morals in exchange for attention, even if it’s negative attention.
Because we’ve been made to believe that cheap thrills are the same as love and so we cling to it with everything we’ve got.
When you come from a broken or dysfunctional family, healthy romantic relationships are never what we hope for them to be. It takes years, sometimes a lifetime, to work through the struggles we face.
Yes, it’s possible to have your happily ever after, but it takes work. And it takes courage.
Keys To A Healthy Relationship
No relationship is perfect, we all know that. Even the healthiest marriages take effort. People disagree or have bad days or make mistakes. But there are some key differences between a healthy romantic relationship and a dysfunctional one.
Healthy relationships are not 50/50. They’re 100/100. You cannot be a part of a healthy relationship if you’re not willing to give it your all.
Healthy relationships don’t have the expectation that your partner will “fix” you or make you happy. It’s unreasonable and unfair to put that burden on anyone but yourself and God. The only person responsible for how you feel is you.
Along the same lines, healthy relationships don’t involve fixing your partner. Your partner doesn’t need fixing – they need love. The only person you can control or change is yourself. Love your partner instead of seeing them as a project.
Healthy relationships are built on trust. Jealousy, defensiveness, and suspicion don’t look good on anyone.
In a healthy, trusting relationship, you don’t need to keep tabs on each other or stalk the other’s social profiles or go through their phone when they aren’t looking because you don’t have any reason to doubt their faithfulness and integrity.
Healthy relationships allow for mistakes and offer forgiveness. We’re all human here which means none of us is perfect.
Being able to recognize that and give a little grace to our partners when they mess up is essential.
Not every relationship is healthy, though, and you should address the struggles you have with your partner. If possible, seek counseling, individually or as a couple.
Not having it all figured out from the beginning isn’t necessarily proof that the relationship will not or should not work.
If you and your partner are both willing and able to work through your difficulties (both individually and together) it’s possible to find your perfect love story even in an imperfect relationship.
However, If there is violence or abuse in your relationship or if both partners are not equally committed, it’s probably best to end it for the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved.
In order to build a healthy and lasting relationship, you need to love unconditionally, putting the other person before yourself. Show respect and humility.
Take the time to truly know and understand your partner on the deepest level. And the most important (and most difficult) thing of all is to open your heart and allow yourself to be vulnerable.
Getting help in your relationship is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of great strength and courage. Being able to admit your own part in your relationship challenges and working together with your partner to overcome those challenges will make you each better individuals and a better couple.
Breaking Down The Walls We’ve Built
So how do we break down the walls we have built in our romantic relationships? I believe it’s much the same as the steps we take to build healthy, strong relationships with our children.
Offer respect, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion. For your partner and yourself. Be gentle on yourself but admit when you’re wrong and take steps to fix the wrongs you’ve committed.
Of course, all of these things are easy to say and incredibly difficult to accomplish. Our challenges are tied directly to our deeply rooted beliefs about ourselves and others.
In order to overcome those beliefs, break down our walls, and build a healthy relationship with our partners, we must figure out how to change our internal dialogue.
Get counseling, practice meditation, establish a solid self care routine – figure out what you need and do it.
Healthy Relationships With Others
Outside of relationships with our partner and our children, there are a variety of other people we must interact with in our day to day life. But beyond that, it’s healthy and encouraged to build and maintain deeper relationships with close friends and family.
But for those coming from a difficult background, those relationships can be wrought with difficulty. Family dynamics can be quite strained and friendships may be hard to build or to maintain when you struggle to trust or go outside of your comfort zone.
Forgiving Family Or Friends Who Have Hurt You Before
Our relationship with our extended family is likely to be the most strained and difficult to approach in a healthy manner.
If you’re in a place where you’ve acknowledged your family’s dysfunction but they haven’t, you are likely to receive ridicule and judgement for the positive changes you’re trying to make in your life.
Past hurts may be denied or you may even be called a liar. Your family may dismiss your concerns and your choices and they may even take offense to them, feeling attacked and defensive.
For these reasons, it can be incredibly difficult to maintain positive relationships with your parents, siblings, or other extended family.
But regardless of how they respond to you and your decision to choose a different path, it is imperative to your own wellbeing to come to a place of acceptance and forgiveness for any past wrongs done against you.
Forgiveness is less about the other person – it’s not about getting an apology or seeking revenge – but rather it’s about letting go of the negativity that weighs you down when you recall those past hurts.
That doesn’t mean you have to pretend nothing ever happened and it doesn’t mean you must continue to allow abuse or toxicity into your life.
Forgiveness simply means letting go of any pain that’s holding you back and keeping you from pursuing a life of joy and purpose.
Knowing When To Mend A Relationship And When To Let Go
Just because someone is biologically related to us does not obligate us to have them as a regular part of our lives. It takes discernment and wisdom to know when you should work to mend a family relationship and when it’s time to just let go.
As a general rule, it’s best to remove anyone from your life that causes you harm, whether physically or emotionally, or who keeps you from making positive changes in your life.
Those who truly love you will cheer you on and encourage you to be the best you can be. If a person is constantly tearing you down, making you feel less than, causing you pain, and doubting your every move, it’s probably time to cut ties and move on.
You don’t need toxic people in your life no matter who they are.
Creating Healthy Boundaries
Establishing standards for what you will or won’t allow in your life is hard when you’ve grown up feeling like you’re not worth much. But you have immense value and you deserve to be treated like it.
It’s ok to set boundaries to protect your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing as well as that of your partner or children.
If you have old friends or family who are not ready to celebrate your decision to live a positive and healthy life, you need to be ready to put boundaries in place with those people.
Don’t allow anyone to manipulate you into feeling or acting a certain way. Have a plan in place to avoid any triggering situations that could lead to a backslide or relapse in your recovery (whether that recovery be from an addiction or recovery from emotional challenges).
If need be, don’t be alone with certain people, don’t go to parties with your family if you know it will cause you hardship. It’s ok to put up barriers that will protect yourself and your family from further damage from those who have hurt you in the past.
Building Strong Friendships Moving Forward
Building new friendships with people who build you up and encourage you in positive choices is essential to creating the changed life you want.
Surround yourself with the type of people you want to be more like. Make friends with those you respect and look up to. Model their behavior and learn from their habits.
Building new friendships is hard for those who come from broken and dysfunctional families, but it’s not impossible.
It is possible to open your heart to others again and learn to trust and to truly be yourself. Your people are out there, but it takes courage and faith to step out of your comfort zone to find them.
Go to new places, try new things, push yourself to get a little uncomfortable in order to find your people.
Some of the best ways to make new friends include joining a church or a club, finding a class for your favorite hobby, joining a gym, or even joining some online communities.
Changing how you relate to others when you never had a good example yourself is probably one of the hardest things adults from dysfunctional families have to overcome.
Essentially we have to completely rewire how we think about ourselves and others and do the most terrifying thing we’ve ever done in our lives: let other people into the most vulnerable parts of who we are.
This is not an easy road and it’s very possible that it will take the rest of your life to overcome this challenge. But the good news is that even while we still struggle, we can change the story for future generations.
We can choose to make different choices for our partners, our kids, and our friends – even when it hurts – so that they don’t have to go on carrying the same burdens we have.
We can teach a different, more positive way of relating to others even if we haven’t perfected it ourselves. And in the process, we’ll probably learn and grow too.