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Managing Challenging Families

By Dr. Margaret Paul
May 09, 2016

Sometimes the most loving act, both for yourself and for others, is to disengage from an abusive family relationship. This can eventually lead to some healing.

Managing Challenging Families


We all know that families can be very challenging!

Angie grew up in a family where she was the caretaker. The oldest of four, Angie was the only member of her family capable of deep caring, empathy and compassion. As a result, she was always attempting to protect her brother and sisters from her father's physical and emotional abuse. Even her mother learned to turn to her for help and protection. Because everyone learned to rely on Angie, when things didn't turn out the way they wanted, Angie was the one they blamed.

Angie became an invisible child. Because of her acute sensitivity to others’ feelings and needs, her feelings and needs went unnoticed. Everyone in her family wanted to take from her, but no one wanted to give to her. Angie was not a happy child.

As an adult, Angie did much Inner Bonding work. She discovered that she had been ignoring her own feelings and needs while caretaking others. As she learned to take loving care of herself and let go of taking responsibility for everyone else's feelings and needs, her family became furious with her. How dare she take care of herself instead of them! The blame that Angie had always experienced from her family intensified. When families are threatened, they might unite in their attacks against one family member, and this is what happened for Angie. Nothing Angie said had any impact on her family's behavior toward her. They refused to support her in taking care of herself. They just wanted her back in the old system.

After inviting each of them to join her in her work with me and each of them refusing, Angie finally decided that, even though she loved her family, she needed to disengage from them. She realized that it was not loving to herself or anyone else to allow herself to be treated badly. She was unwilling to continue the old family system, and she realized that she had no control over how her family treated her. Angie broke off almost all communication with her family for three years.

Of course, this caused her parents and siblings to blame her even more. During the few times that Angie did communicate with her mother, the hostility was extreme. "What is the matter with you? Have you gone nuts? How can you abandon your family? You are being so selfish! Don't you care about us?" Angie knew that it was useless to try to explain. Her mother wasn't open and she didn't want to know the answers to these questions - she just wanted to have control over Angie.

It took three years before anyone in her family started to treat Angie with any sense of respect. It took three years before they accepted that they could no longer treat her badly if they wanted a relationship with her. Presently, Angie has a much better relationship with her family. While they may never have the deep caring and compassion for her that she has for them, they no longer expect her to take responsibility for their feelings and needs, and they no longer blame her for the problems that arise.

The question of disengaging from one's family, or from a particular member of the family, often comes up in my counseling work with individuals and couples. Many people have been taught that it is wrong to pull away from one's family - that families should remain intact at all costs. Many people have been taught that it is loving to sacrifice themselves for their family, and selfish to take care of themselves.

The problem with these beliefs is that it gives a person who is being blamed and disrespected by their family no way to really improve things. Many of the people I work with, who have problems with their families, know that they would never allow a stranger to treat them the way their family treats them. Yet they feel afraid if they think about speaking up for themselves, and guilty if they think about disengaging from an emotionally abusive family system.

When I work with a client in this situation, my first choice is to see if the family or a family member is available for some sessions with my client to see if healing is possible. But if the family members have no intent to learn, then the most loving act, both for oneself and for others, may be to disengage from an abusive relationship. It is not loving to ourselves, nor is it loving to others, to allow ourselves to be treated disrespectfully. Angie's whole family is much better off today than before she disengaged, even though they were furious at her for it. Through her Inner Bonding practice, Angie discovered that it is actually very loving, even to them, to expect that they treat her with caring and respect.  

Start learning how to love yourself, with Dr. Margaret's 30-Day at-home course, Love Yourself.


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