Managing difficult family relationships is a common issue that arises for clients as a trauma therapist in Oakland, CA.
Spoiler: It's easier said than done.
When clients want practical advice for relationships with their families, I share three crucial steps: 1. Acceptance and managing expectations, 2. Grieving, 3. Setting boundaries. These steps don't happen in sequential order and one often needs to jump back and forth multiple times throughout their relationship.
1. Acceptance and managing expectations.
For a lot of people, a good deal of frustration arises when we act on the unconscious belief that if we only thoroughly explain our wants and needs and point out our loved one's bad behavior, they will change! No amount of changing yourself or explaining yourself will radically transform an entire relationship. Relationships are a two way street and in order for another person to change they have to agree that there is a problem and want to change. Be honest with yourself. Has that family member shown any evidence of a desire to shift the problem as you see it? I am not talking about expecting people to mind-read. You should communicate your needs in relationships (Step: Setting boundaries). However, if your wants, needs, boundaries, expectations have been communicated and continue to be disregarded, it is time to change your strategy to acceptance and start to manage you expectations.
How to Accept Your Parents for Who They Really Are
Acceptance and managing expectations in relationships can be disappointing. It is totally reasonable that you want the type of family relationship that feels safe, accepting, authentic, and nurturing. When we accept a person cannot give us the level if intimacy and respect we want and need, it is normal and healthy to experience grief. Grieving is a crucial step in acceptance. When we don't grieve, we are not fully letting go and letting people be where they are. This doesn't mean expecting that relationships wont evolve, but it is accepting that right now, this relationship is not where you want it to be and no amount of one-sided emotional labor will fix that.
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3. Setting boundaries.
Acceptance is not about accepting all behavior! This is where boundaries come in. Setting boundaries can feel scary. You may be met with anger or pushback when you set boundaries. Boundaries include not engaging in a conversation where there is yelling, saying no to discussing certain topics or answering certain questions, setting time limits on how long you will stay for a holiday event, saying no to a dinner a certain family member will attend. Get clear about what you need and then communicate that directly. It is best to not set boundaries during a reactive moment, so get clear first. Not all boundaries need to be communicated. Some boundaries can include not taking the bait of a passive aggressive comment and self-soothing instead.
Yes, some people will not respect certain boundaries. What do you do? If it is something like "don't make comments about my body," it can be a boundary reminder, stopping the conversation, walking away, or if any particular boundary crossing is too distressing, limiting or ending the relationship. However, it is important to remind yourself that there likely is not amount of explaining that will help the person see that the boundary is reasonable (back to acceptance and managing expectations and grieving steps).
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Stephanie Bain, LMFT
***Resources are not a substitute for therapy and are not intended for making diagnoses or providing treatment. Not all practices and tools are suitable for every person. Please discuss exercises, practices, and tools with your individual therapist or health care provider.