How I’m Breaking The Cycle Of Dysfunctional Relationships In My Family

One telltale sign of a dysfunctional family is being told to not share details about your family with others. There were plenty of secrets I was told to keep as a child, but now as an adult, I’ve decided to stop staying silent. And the more I talk about and face the dysfunctional family relationships I grew up with, the more I (and you) can learn from them. Here’s how I’m breaking the cycle of dysfunction and how you can too.

  1. I talk about my feelings. These days, I refuse to sweep my emotions under the rug to keep others comfortable. But growing up in a dysfunctional family, it’s common to have feelings and needs ignored, especially if others are fighting to get theirs noticed too. In healthy and functional relationships, it’s different. Getting what you want isn’t a competition. Instead, there’s a cooperative effort made to honor each other’s needs while respecting your own too. Now, I talk about my feelings openly, speaking up when something hurts me and asking for what I need.
  2. I limit time with people who drain me. Sharing blood doesn’t mean you need to share time together. I’ve learned that it’s okay to distance myself from certain family members. In fact, that distance can be the key to breaking the cycle of dysfunction: when you don’t have as many opportunities to engage in old patterns and arguments, you can sidestep most of them, talking or seeing each other only when it feels safe to do so. In some cases, I’ve even decided that no contact is better than occasional contact. Sometimes, a family member wants something different from your relationship than what you have to offer (or vice versa), and separating yourself is the only way to preserve your sanity.
  3. I don’t expect miracles. Here’s the thing: people can change, but that doesn’t mean they will. Growth is always possible, but there’s no reason to expect positive or loving behavior from someone who has hardly ever demonstrated it. If someone in your family has a reputation of lying, for example, it’s best to expect that they will continue being dishonest. A lot of unnecessary fighting and heartache comes from expecting someone to be something they never were. Save yourself the stress, and don’t expect people to become who you want them to be. Instead, see them for who they really are.
  4. I don’t blame myself. Family issues I grew up observing weren’t my fault. But sometimes, we might blame ourselves for others’ actions. Then, as an adult, we continue trying to save or fix others, including in romantic relationships. And when relationships sour or a family member (or partner) treats us poorly, we believe we deserved it all along. I know that I’m not at fault for what others do or think. And it’s not my responsibility to carry the weight of an entire relationship on my shoulders in order to sustain the relationship or defend the other person.
  5. I set clear boundaries. It can feel strange to turn the tables, explicitly telling family members who once held power over you that you won’t tolerate certain things anymore. But even if drawing a line and saying no feels uncomfortable, it’s essential to avoid getting sucked back into dysfunction. With some practice, I’ve gotten better at setting boundaries, clearly stating what I’m not okay with. Then, I explain what the consequence will be if the boundary is crossed. For example, if a phone conversation elicits unnecessary criticisms or bickering, the consequence will be to end the call. Even if I wasn’t taught how to set boundaries growing up, it’s a relationship skill I’ve started using with everyone, from my husband to workmates.
  6. I focus on chosen family. Dealing with dysfunctional family relationships doesn’t mean you can’t have good people in your life. When your biological family is unreliable, turn to your chosen family instead. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s the people you form friendships with or the partner you chose to create a new family with who can give you the type of love you craved all along. Try to choose secure people to be in your inner circle, rather than forming trauma bonds that only mimic the dysfunctional family relationships you’re familiar with.
  7. I take responsibility for myself. Growing up with a dysfunctional family often means not receiving consistent, warm parenting. And for a while, subconsciously, I hoped that someone else would fulfill the role of caretaker and protect me the way I needed as a kid. But now, I take responsibility for myself, reparenting myself and my inner child. I focus on self-care so that I can give myself the love I wanted but didn’t always get. And I invest time in personal growth so I can unlearn some of the toxic habits I picked up in my environment. No more blaming others for my problems; I know I have to take ownership of my own life and actions.
Relationship educator, writer, host of the Relationship Reminders podcast, and mental health advocate hailing from the US and currently based in Tokyo