Navigating difficult family relationships

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Mental Health

Family bonds often run the deepest, which is why it’s all the more painful when they break down. Here, with the help of a counsellor, we explore how to navigate difficult family relationships

Families: they’re not always easy. Separation, blended households, addictions, mental illness, money problems, betrayal, expectations, communication, or simply clashing personalities – there is an unlimited number of reasons why relationships might break down.

“Families bring us joy, and better health and wellbeing, but they can also be the source of distress,” says counsellor Pam Custers. “Navigating family life is a process of being able to create a healthy connection that can tolerate challenges, without destroying the intimate connections that families bring – those of love, respect, and support.”

As Pam explains, when family relationships are good, they can bring us a plethora of benefits, including improving our ability to cope with stress, boosting our self-esteem, and encouraging us to engage in healthy behaviours. Strong bonds uplift us, playing a huge role in our daily lives, even operating unconsciously under the surface.

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“We are literally wired to connect to our family,” Pam says. “This bonding process develops through both our relationships with our partner and children, with what is termed ‘the parental caregiver attachment’. We are able to see via brain scans that, when we are with our loved ones, our anxiety levels reduce and we start producing feel-good hormones. So when these close relationships are in a state of flux, we will be physically and mentally impacted.”

But in addition to what’s happening on a psychological level, there’s also a lot of social pressure that comes with family life. Films, TV shows, novels, and advertisements all play on ideals about family structures and relationships, let alone other cultural values that many of us have faced throughout our lives. With all this to contend with, the ‘right way’ to run a family can become a sticking point.

“Couples inevitably come from different family operating systems,” Pam says. “There can often be a clash in how they both wish ‘their’ family to operate. Finding a way to co-create a way that ‘their’ family will operate is part of the process of creating their own legacy for their children.

“A lack of communication can also get in the way of strong family relationships. Often we presume we understand or know what the other person is thinking – learning to listen carefully is something many people struggle with. We need to be able to discuss sensitive topics. Conflict is normal but, without good listening and understanding, we can become stuck.”

When conflict escalates, it can sometimes result in the total breakdown of communication. According family estrangement charity Stand Alone, 8% of people surveyed had cut contact with a family member, leading the organisation to predict that this translates to at least five million people in the UK, with one in five families affected.

Going ‘no contact’ is, for some, the healthiest decision. But that isn’t to say it’s easy, and Stand Alone provides help for those who are struggling with this. More broadly, you can also search for support groups in your local area and online – for everything from caring for elderly parents, to blended families, those touched by addiction, and more.

If things take a turn for the worse, considering all those expectations we have to contend with, it’s easy to see how the breakdown of a familial relationship can come with a degree of shame – as it appears everyone around you is getting it consistently right. But the truth is, that’s probably not the case.

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“We all go into family life with our own sense of how it should be,” says Pam. “And so we can become disillusioned when the idealised version of family life is not the reality. Relationships are messy, and we need to be able to ride the waves. Behind all those white picket fences, there are families who are also going through challenging times. Keeping expectations realistic takes the pressure off family dynamics.”

In the UK, ‘family’ has many different variations. According to gov.uk statistics, between 2014 and 2020, there were 2.4 million separated families in Great Britain, and when the ONS last ran an analysis in 2009, 9% of all children in England and Wales, 1.1 million, were living with a stepfamily. The reality is no two families are the same, and releasing the pressure to present a ‘perfect family’ could be an important step in letting go of relationships that are damaging.

What can’t be addressed with mutual compassion and a willingness to listen, could be aided with family counselling or group therapy. You may also want to spend some time reflecting on your relationship with the idea of family, and the role that then plays in how you make decisions going forward.

Truthfully, very few people’s situations match a perfect deck of ‘Happy Families’, but we’re complex human beings, not neat illustrations. We go through tough times. We learn, evolve, and – with the right support – flourish.


To learn more about navigating difficult relationships, or how family therapy could support you, visit counselling-directory.org.uk

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