Building Healthy Family Relationships
By Brigit Atkin
What is a family? They are people who share the same blood and who gather to bond and enjoy each other’s company; people who love, care for, and look out for each other; people who confide in one another; people who are close enough to build and strengthen each other and oftentimes, close enough to cause pain and frustration. In short, families can be wonderfully complicated.
What do you do when you are experiencing strained relationships with other family members? I’m not talking about abusive or toxic relationships—that’s a whole different subject. I’m referring to your relationships with good people who are flawed and imperfect because they are human—people who love you but don’t always act like it and who are just like you and me. One course of action when you are hurt or angry is to completely avoid those who have offended you, assuring yourself that they won’t have a chance to do it again. A completely different approach might be to lash out at a loved one, which rarely brings a favorable outcome.
After years of working with clients and after an entire lifetime of observation and personal experience, I’ve come up with the following life skills that might help mend damaged relationships and bruised egos:
- Set and maintain healthy boundaries. A person with clear parameters is one who is able to be open and helpful without enabling or encouraging abusive behavior. It’s not only okay to sometimes say no, it’s conducive to any healthy relationship to be clear about what one is willing and able to commit to. A person who has boundaries is one who has an easier time extending genuine love and support.
- Be kind and forgiving. Everyone is working through something, and many times, they don’t speak of it. Always, always consider that the other person may not be at his or her best and that their behavior might be reflected by the burdens they are carrying.
- Try to see things from their point of view. A change in perception brings about much wisdom, understanding, and empathy. Maybe they’re right about at least one thing. Own your part, and maybe they’ll own theirs as well.
- When in doubt, pause. Rather than lash out, take a step back and breathe. Maybe you need a time-out for days, weeks, or in extreme cases, even months. It’s okay to not always know what to do or say. We don’t always have the answers. An old country song says it best: “Life’s a dance you learn as you go.” We are all learning, and we always will be. Speaking from experience, it’s better not to have said anything at all than to have said something you can never take back.
- Write a letter. Are you really upset with someone, and it’s driving you crazy? Write them a letter. Get it all out. Let them have it. When you’re sure you’re done, put it in an envelope. Then, set it aside. Don’t mail it. Let it sit on a side table for a few days before you open the envelope and read it. You’ll likely be appalled. You’ll be glad you didn’t send it.
There are a couple of reasons for this exercise. First, releasing your toxic emotion is very healthy. It’s out of you and onto a sheet of paper. It’s a tangible thing that you can shred, burn, crumble, and toss. It’s no longer festering inside of you, and you’ll likely feel considerably better and lighter because of that. You’ve already solved half your problem. Second, because the toxicity is gone, you can use the letter as a blueprint to help solve the rift in your relationship. In other words, you can now verbalize what might need to be said to the other person without the hostility. Trust me, this can save a relationship! Remember, a person is far more important than the problem. (Again, I’m not talking about a relationship where there is abuse.)
- Find gratitude for this person, for this difficulty. It sounds impossible, but it’s very important that you find a reason to be thankful for the problem. There is always something to learn, and many times, those closest to us are the very ones to teach us what we need to know about ourselves. You may have to think hard about this one, and that’s okay. Take your time, but find a legitimate reason why you are truly grateful. I promise you will feel a huge shift when you do this.
Relationships are wonderful, painful, exciting, and boring. Hearts that spend time together in small quarters often get bumped, and those who bring us the most joy also cause us the most pain. As complicated and frustrating as close relationships sometimes are, can you imagine life without them? Prisons use separation and solitary confinement for a reason: It’s punishment. We were designed for connection and for deep, meaningful relationships. Families give us the perfect place to experience the joys and heartaches of this. Life will always have its ups and downs. Loved ones, with all their flaws, make the sweet sweeter. It’s a wonderfully complicated life, so enjoy and love your family members all you can.