What are dysfunctional family relationships?
Mothers, fathers, siblings—your closest family members can form a lifelong social support system. They can celebrate your highs and give you comfort when you’re at your lows. Even so, disagreements and misunderstandings are bound to happen. Minor conflicts between family members are normal, and they typically resolve on their own or with some constructive dialogue. But other conflicts can be much more significant. In cases where resentment and toxic patterns arise, family interactions can become lasting sources of frustration and tear relationships apart.
Difficult family relationships can take on many forms. You might have an overly critical dad who makes you feel anxious. Perhaps a sibling’s jealousy is a constant source of tension at family functions. Or maybe you believe a new in-law’s controlling behavior leads to unnecessary drama.
These turbulent family relationships can have long-lasting effects on your health and well-being. You might:
- Begin to blame yourself for these poor relationships.
- Experience fear and anxiety surrounding family or holiday events.
- Hesitate to reach out to other family members.
- Suffer from lack of emotional or financial support during hard times.
- Develop trouble sleeping or focusing due to the stress of these interactions.
Research even indicates that poor relationships with parents, siblings, or spouses can contribute to midlife depression symptoms. Exposure to domestic conflicts can also have a long-term impact on a child’s well-being as well. One longitudinal study found that domestic arguments and violence can increase a child’s risk of developing mental and physical health problems later in life.
To minimize these consequences, you can learn how to identify causes of family tension and take steps to create peaceful interactions. While you might eventually find that cutting ties is the best option for your health and happiness, there are approaches you can take that can help repair family bonds and improve your relationships with those closest to you.
Common causes of family conflict
Before you learn how to deal with difficult family members, it helps to examine why those relationships are rocky to begin with. Consider these common causes of family disputes and ways to navigate them:
Family members tend to have some degree of financial overlap. Siblings might bicker over an inheritance. Parents may have strong opinions on how their children handle money. Or adult children might feel the need to control their aging parents’ finances.
When it comes to large family events, such as weddings or holiday parties, financial disagreements can often come to a head. However, there are ways to navigate money-related problems within your family.
Put things in writing. If you expect a family member to pay you back for a personal loan, for example, make a written agreement between the two of you. This can help you avoid arguments or even legal disputes.
Set boundaries. If a family member is pressuring you to loan or give them money or wants to dictate your finances, it’s important to clarify the type of behavior you won’t tolerate. Be clear so your family member will know when they’ve crossed the line.
Know when to be transparent. You don’t have to share all of your financial details with anyone. But, in cases where your decisions may affect your family members, it’s best to be transparent. You might want to talk to your children about details of their inheritance to avoid a future conflict, for example, or let your siblings know why you can’t contribute to a shared expense.
Research from 2020 shows that about 19 percent of Americans are acting as unpaid family caregivers. The stresses and responsibilities of being a caregiver can weigh heavily on family relationships.
Studies indicate that tension between siblings tends to increase when a parent begins to need some level of caregiving. Perhaps you believe your sibling is in denial over your parent’s health and needs to be more proactive. Or maybe you and your sibling disagree on whether an assisted living facility is the right housing choice for your parent.
Conflicts over caregiving aren’t limited to sibling relationships. You might have arguments with your parents or spouse over how to raise your children.
When you and another family member are at odds over caregiving, try these tips:
Be open about what level of support you need as a caregiver. If you keep your feelings to yourself, resentment can grow and increase tensions.
Look for compromise and accept other people’s limitations. If your sibling can’t physically assist with caregiving, perhaps they can offer financial help. Remember to show your appreciation when your sibling takes on responsibilities.
If someone else is completely unable or unwilling to help with parental caregiving, try looking for support outside of your family.
New family members
As your family expands, so does the potential for new conflicts. In one study of estrangement between mothers and adult children, more than 70 percent of the mothers said other family members caused the rift. The mothers often pointed to the child’s partner or spouse as the problem.
These conflicts aren’t limited to mothers and children, of course. You and your brother-in-law might have a contentious relationship. Or perhaps your father-in-law always seems to expect too much from you. To better get along with your in-laws:
Expect differences. Different families have different expectations, boundaries, and ways of doing things. Do you see your daughter-in-law as an untactful or even rude family member? Maybe she comes from a family background that encourages blunt language or tolerates teasing.
Focus on their most positive traits. Your in-laws are part of your family because someone else in your family saw the good in them. If you’re having a hard time seeing past their flaws, try making a list of their strengths.
Find common interests. Although it’s not always easy, you can usually find shared interests if you look hard enough. Ask about your in-laws’ hobbies, passions, and past experiences until you find something that’s relatable.
Political and religious differences
Religious and political similarities can affect the strength of family bonds. For example, studies indicate that when mothers share the same religion as adult children, they tend to experience higher-quality relationships.
On the other hand, when family members don’t have the same views on religion or politics, it can trigger heated arguments. Maybe your sibling objects to group prayers before meals. Or perhaps you hear insults and snide remarks when you express your political views. Here’s how to deal with difficult family members who have opposing views:
Identify useful conversations. When a debate starts, ask yourself what you hope to get from the interaction. Do you expect to completely change your family member’s mind? Or are you trying to gain insight into their beliefs? Is it at all possible that either of you will budge on your position? Even if you’ll never agree about something, you can still move the conversation forward if you’re both willing to be open and respectful of each other’s views.
Avoid sweeping generalizations. Statements like, “Everyone on the left is evil” or “Everyone on the right is an idiot” can quickly escalate arguments and further entrench people.
Try to see the human element in the other person’s values. Many political beliefs are shaped by an underlying concern for society, such as economic or environmental stability. By recognizing that, the other person’s views may not seem as wildly different from your own.
Know when to exit heated arguments. When emotions run too hot, make a respectful but firm exit from the conversation. You can say something like, “I’m not sure if this is productive. Let’s leave it there.” Contain the urge to have the “last word.”
Be mindful of your jokes. Humor can often help diffuse a tense argument. However, avoid aggressive jokes that target the other person’s beliefs or values.
Unresolved family issues
Things that happened in the past can have a lasting effect on family relationships. Did you and your son have an explosive argument when he was a teenager? If the matter went unresolved, he might continue to be resentful or distrustful of you. Did your parents seem to favor you over your brothers? Jealousy could become an underlying source of tension for your siblings.
Unresolved issues can often crop up during milestone events or times of change within the family. For example, insecurities over parental favoritism might reappear as you and your siblings begin to act as caregivers to an aging parent.
If you’re the one holding onto an issue, speak up. Invite the other person to a private conversation, where you can bring up the issue and share your perspective. Be willing to forgive if the party apologizes for their part in the problem.
If a family member is holding resentment, be empathetic. Try to understand how they perceived events and how the past continues to affect them. If you caused some harm to them in the past, apologize and ask how you can repair the damage to the relationship. For example, if you lost your temper with your son in the past, explain how you plan to do better going forward.
If neither person is at fault, it can still help to acknowledge the past and the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Remember that no family is perfect, and past events influence present-day perceptions. Focus on what steps you can take in the present to resolve the conflict.
Tips on interacting with difficult family members
Despite your best efforts and intentions, sometimes you’ll find that you simply can’t get along with a family member. Perhaps someone continues to hold a grudge against you or refuses to change their behavior.
Your general plan might be to avoid difficult family members. However, that strategy can often be foiled by weddings, funerals, and other family gatherings. Here are some alternate options:
Manage your own stress
Prioritize de-stressing before and after you have to interact with a difficult family member. Effective stress management techniques can range from meditation to going for a walk to journaling your thoughts or chatting face-to-face with a close friend.
If you start to feel stressed by the difficult family member during the event itself, don’t hesitate to excuse yourself from the room and use some quick stress relief techniques to clear your head.
- Rely on your senses to ground yourself in the moment. Take in a deep breath of fresh air, find a friendly cat or dog to pet, or hum a tune to yourself. You can also use your imagination to picture something soothing, like your child’s face or a relaxing setting.
- If you tend to freeze when under stress, activities that involve physical movement are often most effective. Consider doing some stretches, swaying to background music, or jogging in place to burn off tension.
Set and maintain boundaries
Strong, clear boundaries can protect you from toxic family interactions. Imagine you and your spouse are about to visit overbearing in-laws. Talk to your spouse and set a limit on how long the visit will last. You can also set boundaries on conversation topics. If you and your in-laws have had heated arguments over religion, it might be best to steer clear of the topic.
If someone attempts to cross your boundaries, keep your temper in check. Instead, be clear and direct about the consequence. For example, you could say something like: “If you keep bringing up that topic, I’ll be leaving early.”
Build your emotional intelligence (EQ)
By strengthening your emotional intelligence, you can improve your ability to understand, manage, and express emotions. This can have a positive effect not just on your family relationships but on your overall mental health.
To enhance your EQ, you need to focus on four key skills:
- Social awareness
- Relationship management
You can develop these skills by taking steps such as using mindfulness to assess your emotional state and nonverbal cues. Read Improving Family Relationships with Emotional Intelligence for more strategies.
Change your focus
Be willing to acknowledge your family member’s strengths as well as their flaws. Perhaps your sibling is confrontational and demanding, but at least they’re always willing to help finance family events. Or maybe your mother-in-law is overly critical of you but always supportive of your children.
Acknowledge that a difficult family member might be going through rough circumstances of their own. From personal insecurities to substance addiction or mental illness, certain underlying factors could be fueling your family member’s behavior.
Although these factors don’t excuse the behavior, by being more empathetic you might gain a better understanding of the person and why they act the way they do.
Use conflict resolution skills
Conflict resolution skills can come in handy anytime you’re dealing with family drama. These skills involve managing stress in the moment, being aware of both your own emotions and the other person’s, and prioritizing resolution over winning the argument.
You might notice that an aging parent is lashing out due to a feeling of declining independence. A deescalating step might be to ask them to do you a favor or give them a task that allows them to feel needed.
Limit expectations and practice acceptance
Make peace with the fact that some people have viewpoints or priorities that may never match your own. Your adult children, siblings, or parents will do what they feel is right for them, and you can’t control their behavior. Try to treasure the relationship for what it is, or focus on other relationships that bring you joy.
When to cut ties with family members
At what point is a dysfunctional family relationship no longer worth saving? That may depend on different factors.
What’s the potential for change? The other person must be willing to acknowledge the problem and work to change. Some people don’t want to change, and you can’t control their behavior. If you’re dealing with a narcissistic family member, their inflated self-image, lack of empathy, and manipulative ways can hinder any meaningful progress.
How severe is the conflict? In cases of abuse, it’s usually advisable to cut ties with the family member. Remember that abuse doesn’t necessarily have to be physical. People who subject you to verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse can also harm your sense of well-being. This could include a father-in-law who aims to humiliate you or siblings who use guilt-tripping to manipulate you.
Dealing with doubts
Cutting ties means ending contact with the difficult family member, which is not always easy. You might repeatedly question your decision or have a hard time accepting that the relationship is unsalvageable.
Keep a list of specific reasons why you’ve decided to end contact. Did the person cross your boundaries too many times? Did the stress of your interactions negatively affect other areas of your life? Write it all down, so you don’t forget.
How to deal with the grief of ending a relationship
Depending on how close you were to the family member, you may need to take time to grieve the loss of the relationship.
Rather than suppress your feelings, identify and acknowledge them. It’s normal to experience anything from anger to sadness to guilt following the end of a relationship. You should also expect grief to intensify on days that remind you of the family member, such as birthdays or holidays.
Talk to friends and other family members about the situation. Now is a good time to reach out for support. Tell the supportive people in your life what you need from them. You might even strengthen bonds with other family members.
Maintain your hobbies and health. Continue to engage in activities you love, and look after your physical healthy by exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and eating nutritious foods. Don’t use drugs or alcohol to cope with your negative feelings.
Over time, people’s behaviors and circumstances can change. So, know that cutting off ties doesn’t necessarily have to be permanent. If you see evidence that your family member is truly willing to make amends, there may be a chance of reconciliation.
Don’t rush reconciliation, though. You should both accept that the process may take time and requires concrete steps for improving the relationship. With a combination of patience and improved communication, you might be able to repair that broken bond and move forward with a healthier relationship.
Last updated or reviewed on August 15, 2023