Dealing with a Dysfunctional Family Member

Relationships are a gift, but they can also be a challenge. God has placed us within families (Psalm 68:6) and given us the gift of relationships because it is not good for us to be alone (Gen 2:18). Yet as broken people we fail one another.

Friends are the people we choose to place in our lives. These relationships we get to cultivate by choice, even if it’s circumstances that put us together. A friendship grows because we let it.

Family, on the other hand, are relationships into which we are born. Whether or not we choose to cultivate them into healthy relationships is where we have choice.

Dysfunctional family member

Every person in the world likely has someone in their family, extended or immediate, with whom they find it hard to get along. Maybe personalities clash—they rub you the wrong way or you rub them the wrong way. Maybe your values and worldviews are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Maybe there’s some unresolved trauma or hurt from before that never got resolved and therefore lingers in the air between you whenever you see each other. Maybe there’s some part of their life that you see as dysfunctional, be it substance abuse, the way they do relationships, or how they spend their money.

Whatever it is, we’ve all been there. Even Jesus came from a family with scandals and dysfunction (Matthew 1), and he had challenges with relatives (Mark 3:21). We all know what it’s like to find someone in our family dysfunctional.

Careful, it might be you

Now, before you look too hard at someone else in your family the problem, keep in mind that you might be the dysfunctional one to someone else in your family.

Recognize that we are all dysfunctional. In some way, yes, you too, exhibit dysfunctional behavior. Maybe it’s your controlling habits, your short temper, your conflict-avoidance, your anxieties, or the way you interact with your spouse. Perhaps your dysfunction is managed enough to be deemed acceptable by society and isn’t considered as problematic, though it remains a problem.

When you remember that you too carry dysfunctions that affect your life and your relationships, may it ground you in the reality that you and your ‘dysfunctional’ family member are equal in worthiness. They are not less than you. You are not more than them. You are both made in God’s image despite your brokenness.

Practice empathy

Embracing that self-awareness, when you experience a family member exhibiting dysfunctional behavior, pause and invite curiosity first instead of judgment. Why do they do that? What is the motivation lying beneath that behavior? In what ways have they been hurt? In what ways are they trying to cope? When we practice empathy and put ourselves in another’s shoes, it opens our eyes and expands our soul’s capacity for understanding and therefore kindness.

Empathy however, does not mean excusing. It means seeking to understand, especially when our first inclination is not to do so.

When you try to understand where another person is coming from, that in many ways, automatically removes you from the seat of judgment and places you alongside the person as a fellow human being doing their best to live and be well.

Don’t dismiss harm

Practicing empathy is not excusing dysfunctional behavior. We practice empathy, but we do not excuse dysfunctional behavior. Empathy is not an invitation to ignore or make small the impact of someone else’s behavior on you or others, especially if it is harmful. Jesus taught his disciples not to ignore bad behavior but to confront it and seek resolution (Matthew 18:15-21).

Set your boundaries

If a family member’s dysfunctional behavior is negatively affecting you, you cannot change or control them, but you can control yourself and your environment. You can set your boundaries. If engaging with a family member is toxic or harmful, loving yourself well (remember, Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself--you love yourself first to be able to love your neighbor (Mark 12:31)) may mean establishing boundaries between you and that person.

Jesus laid out the steps to speak to someone who has wronged you to work toward resolution and healing (Matthew 18:15-21). If that doesn’t happen, then setting boundaries and seeking other means of accountability (that may not include you) may be next. If they’re still not in a place to respond, holding your boundary and loving and praying for them from a distance is all you can do.

Take the steps

Setting boundaries requires you to:

  • Identify what it is you value and what you need
  • Naming and saying to that person what you need in terms of engagement with them and asking them to respect it
  • Caring well for yourself and protecting yourself as needed.

If they respect your boundaries, you can exist well in space and relationship with them. If they do not respect your boundaries, they are not safe people to be around. If their actions suggest you and your wellbeing and what you have asked of them does not matter enough for them to respect you, they are not safe people. Perhaps they are just not capable of meeting that boundary respectfully, still therefore, not a safe person.

For example, if a family member is prone to becoming inebriated and disruptive at family gatherings, and it happens to be your turn to host the next family gathering, your work is to name: I value peace and fun at family gatherings; drunkenness disrupts that.

I say to said relative: "I love you, I appreciate you; I’m hosting the next family get together. I would love for you to be there, but I need you not to drink, because when you drink you become loud and disruptive, and it takes the fun out of the whole thing and makes me and others very uncomfortable. So, I’d love for you to come, but if you do, I need you not to drink. Will you be able to do that?"

If they agree, awesome! Welcome to the family get-to-together. If they disagree, kindly reassert your love for them but let them know they cannot come in that case.

Whew. This might feel super confrontational and uncomfortable, because who wants to feel like ‘the bad guy’? But in truth, you are helping everyone be healthy. You’re being an adult human who knows their values and knows what they need and is not afraid to ask for it. You will likely make some people angry. No one likes getting called out on their nonsense. But when we know our values and set good boundaries for ourselves, we can flourish in relationship with one another. It doesn’t feel good to keep being subjected to someone’s dysfunctional behavior and its negative effects then waving it away with ‘Oh, but they’re family.’

Boundaries are specific

Boundaries are unique to you and your circumstances. It is up to you in your particular circumstance to decide what boundaries will look like and establish what measure of interaction you will maintain with someone who does not respect your boundaries. For some, it means removing yourself from the situation altogether and not having contact with that person. For others, it means being able to be around them but being careful in what you share, how you interact, and protecting your heart and your body so that you aren’t hurt by their repeated harmful behavior. For others still, it might mean loving them from a distance, letting them know you are here and love them but you cannot interact with them in their current state. But when they are ready to do something differently, you would love to connect again.

This is difficult because we are taught that family is everything. Family is so, so important. But not even family members have the right to be harmful or abusive toward you. And it can be hard to name certain behaviors from family as abusive when that is in fact what they are.

Communicate your boundaries

Boundaries need to be communicated. People can’t read minds. If we don’t communicate them, it can feel for the other person like you are freezing them out, ghosting, or disappearing, which feels terrible. When you communicate what is happening and what you are doing, your family member is then empowered to be able to either respect your boundaries and continue in a healthier manner in relationship with you, or not. In that case, when a person does not respect your boundaries, your work is to hold your boundaries. Hold them. This is hard. You get better as you go. But at first, it can be really hard. Remember, you are worth it.

About the author — Joella Ranaivoson

Joella is an artist using words in writing, songs, and acting to convey truths about being human. Storytelling is the joy. Everything feeds everything, so take it all in and let it feed your creativity.

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